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InfoQ Homepage Articles Sooner, Safer, Happier: a Q&A with Jon Smart from DevOps Enterprise Summit Las Vegas 2020

Sooner, Safer, Happier: a Q&A with Jon Smart from DevOps Enterprise Summit Las Vegas 2020

Key Takeaways

  • Leadership behaviour is the key lever for better organisational outcomes
  • Culture is the biggest challenge to adopting new ways of working, for four behavioural reasons:
    • Resistance to change
    • Lack of leadership participation
    • Culture at odds with agile values
    • Inadequate management support and sponsorship
  • There are observed patterns and antipatterns that can be leveraged for emergent work, even though every case is different
  • Transitioning from a 'command and control' culture to a Teal organisational model requires intent, servant leaders and takes years

At DevOps Enterprise Summit Las Vegas, Jonathan Smart gave a keynote talk titled ‘Leading for Better Value Sooner Safer Happier’. Smart is the only person that has spoken at every DevOps Enterprise Summit London conference and each in Las Vegas since 2017, previously from his role as head of ways of working at Barclays.

His talk opened with a reference to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and noted that half of the workers involved surveyed reported that they feared reprisals for reporting unsafe situations. A reference to the Columbia space shuttle disaster followed, noting quotes following the inquiry that "organisational culture had as much to do with this accident as foam did" and that "the causes of the institutional failure responsible for Challenger have still not been fixed".

Smart’s talk centred around the premise that leadership behaviour is the key lever for better organisational outcomes. He explained how the world of work has changed from the age of oil and mass production, where work was repetitive and knowable to the age of digital where work is unique, unknowable and requires collaboration.

Highlighting that the pace of change is accelerating, Smart referred to a survey from MIT Sloan Management Review where workers were asked what the difference is between traditional and digital working environments: the top answer, from twenty-three percent of respondents, was the key difference was the speed or rate of change is higher in a digital environment. The next most popular answers were culture and mindset (creativity, learning and risk taking) and flexible working (collaboration and transparency).

Smart also referred to the 14th State of Agile Report, which discovered that culture is the biggest challenge to adopting new ways of working, for four behavioural reasons: resistance to change, lack of leadership participation, culture at odds with agile values and inadequate management support and sponsorship.

He went on to introduce several patterns and antipatterns, noting the impossibility of establishing best practice in emergent work where every case is different, but that patterns can provide tailwind to change efforts, and antipatterns headwind. These patterns and antipatterns are addressed in detail in Smart’s answers that follow.

One of the antipatterns is psychological unsafety, as exemplified by the Deepwater Horizon and Columbia stories in the introduction. Smart highlighted that the House Committee’s investigation into the 737 MAX aircraft revealed that thirty-nine percent of employees perceived undue pressure and that twenty-nine percent were concerned about the consequences of reporting the undue pressure. The investigators reported "a culture of concealment" and "a disturbing picture of cultural issues".

He referenced Google’s ‘Project Aristotle’ as evidence that the pattern of psychological safety has a measurable impact on positive organisational performance. Referencing Amy Edmondson’s book, ‘The Fearless Organization’, he reiterated her three steps to creating psychological safety: setting the stage, inviting participation and responding well.

As an example of intelligent failure, Smart used the deliberate destruction of a SpaceX Falcon rocket in order to test the safety of the launch escape process for the crewed Dragon capsule. He highlighted the importance of limited blast or impact radius approaches and the positive reinforcement of behaviours that exhibit intelligent failure through staff awards that celebrate improvement.

Quoting a tweet from Emily Campbell, "What if we called them supporting lines instead of reporting lines?" Imagine replacing lines like "these are my direct reports" with "these are the people I directly support?", Smart highlighted how this talks to the need to be a servant-leader, helping an organisation coalesce around a vision, guiding people on a journey and encouraging experimentation. He highlighted the improvement and coaching kata as an essential tool for driving improvement in daily work.

Smart included video testimonials in his talk about personal experiences with poor and good working practices from Sophie Davies-Patrick, Richard James, Michael Winslow and Ellie Taylor. He concluded by saying that leadership is how you leave people feeling.

Following Smart’s talk, InfoQ asked Smart some questions:

InfoQ: You referred to Frederic Laloux’s book ‘Reinventing Organizations’ in your talk. What are your observations on Holacracy and its adoption as an agile organisational methodology? Are there any barriers to entry in your view, particularly in the UK market?

Smart: In the talk, the quote from Frederic Laloux is that "the conscientiousness of an org cannot exceed the conscientiousness of its leader." Laloux wrote about Teal organisations which exhibit self-management (high autonomy, a network), wholeness (bring your whole self to work) and evolutionary purpose (sense and respond).

For an organisation to go from a behavioural norm where one or more of command and control, hierarchy, ‘do as I say, not as I do’, a culture of fear, micro-management or HiPPO (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion) decision making are prevalent (a benevolent dictatorship) to a Teal organisation, is a tall order. It needs intent, it needs servant leaders (rather than commanders) and it will take years. People hire in the image of themselves and if incentives are set up to reward pathological cultural traits (for example, bad news, i.e. learning, is buried), it is highly unlikely that there will be any change. Hence the Laloux quote.

When a leader joins an organisation, in my experience, it takes years for a new culture to take hold and be sticky. If a leader leaves and is replaced with a commander, it is easy for people to slip back into the old habits and norms within months, like an elastic band snapping back into its previous shape. In one organisation, which historically had a culture of fear, the feedback was that it was better to do nothing, than do something, as you were less likely to get into trouble.

Going from a traditional organisation to more of a Teal organisation requires leaders to actively nurture culture, to recognise and reward the desired behaviours, to create the right incentives, to create psychological safety, to invite participation, to communicate and to create social proof in context.

The leader needs a belief that autonomy and empowerment, with a clear mission, will lead to better outcomes over command and control and micro-management. The time it takes to improve, the pace of improving depends on the culture of an organisation and whether it is generating a headwind or a tailwind for change.

The pace of change cannot be forced. People have a limited velocity to unlearn and relearn. It can be nurtured and encouraged, it can be given a tailwind. The focus should be on the desired outcomes, not on agile or a methodology or Teal or Holacracy. For example, the outcomes might be Better Value Sooner Safer Happier (#BVSSH). That is, quality, value, flow, safety and happiness, outcomes which balance each other.  

Then, Think Big, Start Small, Learn Fast. Organisations are complex adaptive systems, there is a need to act and get fast feedback. The outcomes are the measures of success. "How agile are we?" or "How Teal are we?" might, or might not, equate to better outcomes in context. Every context is unique; there is no one size fits all approach. Amplify the experiments that work and dampen the ones that don’t.

InfoQ: You spoke about deterministic and emergent mindsets, similar to fixed and growth mindsets. Do you have a view on how knowledge of neuroplasticity can help move mindsets from deterministic to emergent?

Smart: A deterministic mindset is a belief that the future is knowable, in the context of unique change. The focus is on a predetermined solution (at the point of knowing the least), a project plan and a go live at the end. It is a ‘Think Big, Start Big, Learn Slow’ approach.

An emergent mindset is a belief that the future is not knowable, that the pace of change is such that we cannot possibly predict the future; that for unique change, people don’t know what they want and people don’t know how they are going to implement it, until it’s been done and then you realise how it could’ve been done better or people realise what they don’t want. The focus is on the outcome, rather than a fixed plan, maintaining optionality for as long as possible, optimising for experimentation and speed to learning, in order to maximise the outcome and the time to the outcome, with the least effort and output.

With a charitable intent, there are some people who have had an entire career of approaching change in a big up front everything manner, where the solution is planned at the point of knowing the least, and the focus is on achieving the plan, rather than on the outcome. There is no knowledge of the art of the possible, there is no frame of reference, the seed has not been planted that there might be better ways of approaching change. Asking people to suggest improvements within an existing frame of reference, can lead to further sub optimising a suboptimal approach; e.g. "We need more testing", “We need to spend longer on requirements”, or “we need to spend more time on feasibility studies before we (big bang) build something”. None of these optimise for speed to learning, to de-risk, to monetise early, to be able to pivot.  

As mentioned above, people have a limited velocity to unlearn and relearn. Some people are more open minded and willing to embrace the art of the possible. Some people have firmly entrenched beliefs and will need to see considerable ‘social proof’ in their context before being open to changing beliefs and forming new neural pathways. In either case, it should come from within, with invitation. The words ‘convince’ or ‘resistance’ should not enter the vocabulary. Start with the natural innovators and generate proof in context. Communication, such as storytelling, is very important, as is recognising and rewarding desired behaviours. The early majority will follow once they know the water is warm. Whilst innovators love being the odd ones out, laggards do not like it, preferring to be in the comfortable masses. Combine this with measurable outcomes (such as #BVSSH) which shows with hard data how taking an emergent approach leads to better outcomes and, eventually the majority of laggards will join the masses in optimising the approach to the work, to the type of work.  

InfoQ: What are common poor behavioural patterns you see in leaders and what tools can other leaders employ to influence the behaviour to change to a target state?

Smart: Three antipatterns in particular include:

  • Do as I Say, Not as I Do: managers or commanders (rather than leaders) do not role model desired behaviour. Change is for you, not for me.
  • Psychologically Unsafe. There is a culture of fear. People are afraid to speak up and bad news is buried. Often cost and schedule take precedence over safety, sometimes with tragic consequences. People will not innovate, for fear of retribution. There is no experimentation and there is learned helplessness
  • Deterministic Mindset. As covered above.

Other leaders can exhibit corresponding patterns and show the way through achieving better outcomes (#BVSSH).

The patterns include:

  • Leaders Go First: The origins of the word lead are ‘to guide on a journey’. This means going on the journey too. Be a role model. Exhibit courage and vulnerability.
  • Psychological Safety: In order to deliver Better Value Sooner Safer Happier, people need to be able to experiment (as organisations and change are emergent). Experiments should result in intelligent, low cost, quick, learning (which might be failure to move closer to the desired outcome). The faster the failure, the faster the pivot to positive outcomes. Failure can only happen if people feel psychologically safe to be able to experiment and to fail. Learning through failing needs to be shared for others to reflect on it in their context, rather than ‘bad news being buried’. There is an argument that there is no such thing as a failed experiment, only learning.
  • Emergent Mindset with Servant Leadership: As covered above. The approach to the work, matches the type of work and the environment. Leaders ensure that there is high alignment (a clear outcome hypothesis), that there is customer proximity and then get out of the way. Leaders serve their followers by helping to remove impediments that are in the way. This increases engagement, satisfaction and improves outcomes.

These antipatterns and patterns, along with many more, are explored in more detail in my book, ‘Sooner Safer Happier’, due to be published in November 2020.

InfoQ: How can organisations define and target the kinds of behaviours that they want to see in their workplace?

Smart: Values and principles should be articulated, repetitively communicated, with recognition and reward when they are exhibited. Principles guide millions of decisions every day. They are behavioural guardrails and they are agnostic of context. To slightly misquote Dan North, Principles + Context = Practices.

I’ve found this to be a successful approach, including linking recognition, such as awards, to the principles. As per the previous question, the principles need to be role modelled, otherwise they are incongruent with actual behaviour, which is clear to see. The book, ‘Sooner Safer Happier’, contains an intentionally long list of principles as inspiration for anyone wanting some suggestions or somewhere to start.

InfoQ: Whilst following, like collaboration, is voluntary, what tactics or strategies can individuals and teams employ to encourage followers to come on a DevOps journey?

Smart: I view it as being more about better outcomes (such as Better Value Sooner Safer Happier), rather than it being about coming on a DevOps/agile/digital journey. The outcomes are the end. Higher quality, more value, sooner, increased safety and happier colleagues, customers, citizens and climate are outcomes that most organisations are seeking to improve on. Agile, lean, DevOps are possible means to the end, not the end in themselves. Doing agile or DevOps, in some cases, does not move the needle on the outcomes due to other impediments in the end to end system of work, including cultural impediments.

So, the question is: how is change encouraged? The leadership team is team number one. There needs to be prioritisation and support from leaders, as grass roots hits a grass ceiling. With support and incentivisation, it is then a case of inviting over inflicting. Invite the natural innovators, those who have been trying to adopt better ways of working despite the organisation not because of the organisation, to date. Create a ‘rebel alliance’, with a positive intent. There needs to be a safe to fail environment. There is learning anxiety. People go through fear when learning something new. Safety and support is needed.

It is important to measure outcomes (#BVSSH), so that there is a feedback loop. There is a need to know if the experiments are working and which ones to amplify. Then, generate ‘social proof’ in context and give people recognition. Change is a social activity. Once people are being praised for demonstrable progress, fast followers will want in. It is 85% about culture and people, 10% process and 5% tooling. A good culture can address a poor process, but a poor culture will not. It will be messy and there will be two steps forwards, one back, and repeat.

Most importantly, focus on the outcomes, the end, not the means to the end, which will vary according to unique context.

InfoQ: You mentioned Carlota Perez, who later herself conducted a Fireside Chat as part of the event. Should people feel optimistic or pessimistic about the short and medium term future, do you think, based on your own and Perez’s research and observations?

Smart: It depends on your perspective, mindset, belief system and area of work. Organisations who are failing to embrace the Age of Digital, are effectively going backwards compared to traditional and non-traditional competitors. Organisations who once dominated in the Age of Oil and Mass Production, no longer have the highest market valuations, that accolade is going to Information Technology firms, some of whom didn’t exist fifteen years ago. We have passed the tipping point in the Age of Digital; there is a new means of production. There are new customer expectations. In order to survive and thrive, there is a need to embrace better ways of working, suited to the new means of production.

If you are on the right side of change, there is reason to be optimistic. With forty to sixty year repeating technology-led revolutions, we are at the start of a new growth period, a new normal, further accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic making lives more ‘digitally native’.

The Age of Digital is fostering ways of working which are more empowering which makes the world of work more rewarding and more humane. There is increasingly the acceptance of bringing your whole self to work. And, rather than managers versus workers, it is more about self managing, multi-disciplinary teams, close to the customer, learning, experimenting, pivoting, in order to sustainably and safely optimise for value and time to value. Which is more rewarding for all and results in the delivery of Better Value Sooner Safer Happier.

About the Interviewee

Jon Smart helps organisations deliver the outcomes "Better Value Sooner, Safer, Happier" through an emphasis on flow and the application of principles over practices and tools. He has more than 25 years of experience helping teams and organisations exhibit agility in the context of change. Smart is the founder of the Enterprise Agility Leaders Network, is on the  Programming Committee for the DevOps Enterprise Summit, and is an occasional guest speaker at London Business School.


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