Transformational Leadership in the Times of DevOps

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With enterprises embracing the DevOps approach to software development, the culture of collaboration is sweeping across organizations. As the focus is equally on operational and business efficiency, it is leadership commitment that can help to break down traditional workspace boundaries, entrenched processes and resistance to change.

To quote from the State of DevOps Report 2018, “Transformational leadership enables the necessary practices that correlate with high performance, and it also supports effective communication and collaboration between team members in pursuit of organizational goals.”

In the context of an enterprise, what kind of leadership will enable a culture of continuous improvement? What is the behavior pattern of a leader who helps to foster the Build-Measure-Learn loop in an organization where teams continually build solutions –be it products or services, measure data-based results and learn from user feedback?
It is no longer enough for anyone with a set of leadership traits, key professional skills or even management prowess to pull off the Lean cycle of Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) to take technology, people and processes closer to the customer and provide value. We are now talking about a leadership style that integrates user experience (UX) with DevOps throughout the project lifecycle (Discovery-Alpha-Beta-Live), and not just at the initiation stage.

Leadership Styles That Influence Change

What we come across most commonly is the transactional style of leadership where organizations reward performance and penalize shirkers. With start-ups mushrooming in the DevOps and Agile space, we also see the situational style of leadership where management is flexible and adapts to the changing needs of both employees and the organization.

What if a leader is intransigent? Such leaders fit into situations, rather than adapt to them and practise the contingency style of leadership, be it task-oriented or people-oriented, with positional power as a tool. In utter contrast to these styles is the servant leader style where “serving” customers, employees or community shapes into a form of ethical leadership that empowers subordinates which in turn helps the organization to grow.

While all of the above leaders can drive change, it is interesting to note that 16% of the 31,664 employees surveyed across 63 organizations, by IQ Leadership, a US-based leadership training and research company, never understand the rationale behind the change effort of their organization. The study called “Resistance to Change in Organizations” found that 24% rarely understand the organization’s strategy. This is because leaders often fail to communicate the justification for change clearly.

A successful transformational style of leadership will ensure the ideal mix of communication and collaboration, clubbed with compassion and creativity in a culture of sharing and yes, automation…all of which are essential for any large organizational overhaul, typically UX-driven DevOps. In a sense, ushering in an Agile/DevOps culture is about giving the digital transformation of an enterprise, a human touch. Which means a transformational leader is just another face of a servant leader: While servant leaders focus on followers’ development and performance, transformational leaders get followers to focus on the organization and its objectives.

Breaking Silos beyond DevOps

Only a leader with courage can break silos and put together fresh cross-organizational teams to overcome digital skill gaps, stay atop user experience and pursue a shared goal with people connect. While DevOps practices are built on automation, autonomy, and improvement (through measurement and collaboration), its essence lies in breaking boundaries –not just between development and operations, but between IT and business and business and customers.

No wonder we come across new terms every day… DevSecOps, AIDevOps, DesOps – so much so that the 2019 State of DevOps Report noted in a lighter vein: “if we keep putting every responsibility people should do in the name, we’ll run out of room for the hashtag, #DevSecITSMTestAutomationMonitoringObservabilityPeopleFinanceMarketingQAOps”
That said, merely putting the development, operations, security and other teams together will not necessarily help reach business goals. Development by nature pursues change, while Ops focusses on stability, and Sec acts only towards the end of the delivery lifecycle.

This is where integration comes in and only an able leader can plan and oversee a cross-functional team collaborate a truly agile process: iterative, incremental and continuous.

For, though DevOps values autonomy, without accountability, it would be totally self-defeating. It is important to ensure people care for outcomes –and even if it does mean “fail faster” there is value in encouraging risk-taking and decision-making.

UX in Continuous Delivery Pipeline

If continuous delivery has to be meaningful, it is imperative to include user experience activities like Voice of Customer programs, user interface (UI) feedback, feature flags visible to certain user persona, usability testing of incremental delivery of features and monitoring and analytics. These UX efforts provide valuable direction for success from those who matter most: customers.

A good transformational leader plays a critical role in facilitating collaboration across different departments to act on the insights gained in the above UX activities. In a continuous and iterative approach, any bad decision, feature or design that surfaces may be quickly rolled back with an effective pivot strategy. Pivoting helps to integrate system requirements better with product development and prevent bad user experience.

While a lot is said and done in terms of tackling culture to effect change, the fact is only a great UX can reduce risks and deliver ROI metrics to gauge the success of a DevOps changeover. ROI in terms of revenues, customer satisfaction, customer loyalty (retention), reduced support costs, and increase in development efficiency (waste reduction) is a key indicator of DevOps success. So it makes complete sense to integrate UX into DevOps.

A great transformational leader will design project management in such a manner that the UX team participates at every stage of product development, production, and deployment. A collaborative effort from leadership, development, operations, security, QA and design will also encourage innovation and customer-centricity in product and service design. Indeed, a design goal for a project, with continuous tracking of UX-linked items in the product backlog will go a long way in making DevOps a success.

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