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Team Cohesion in DevOps Collaboration By @Datical | @DevOpsSummit [#DevOps]

DevOps culture aim to address change at the organizational level, which of course is the ultimate goal

Team Cohesion Is the Beginning of DevOps Collaboration

I read an interesting article this morning discussing some tips for effecting cultural change at the team level, written by Bertrand Besnard on DevOps.com (see article here).  It was interesting because most of the articles I read on DevOps culture aim to address change at the organizational level, which of course is the ultimate goal.  But Bertrand's take on culture has a more homegrown feel to it, more of a bottom's up approach towards transforming culture, that, as I think about it, should also be included in the general discussion.

Essentially, Bertrand's implied logic is that by first creating a culture of trust and collaboration at the team level the team can then champion cultural transformation on a broader scale.  This triggered my memory about some studies I've seen on the adoption of DevOps, where some of the questions asked how the movement started within the organization.  If I remember correctly, there was a good split between implementations initiated by management (top down) and those that started as a homegrown movement from one team or other internal champion (bottom up).  The difference came in the speed of transformation, wherein the additional resources and organizational commitment demonstrated through a management-led implementation effected change and led to results sooner.  But both approaches netted similar results in terms of benefits to the organization and the business.

To that end, here are four suggestions for improving intra-team culture and building better cohesion:

Create cohesion
Bertrand provides a lot of tips around getting the team together more often, whether that's going out for a beer to welcome a new team member, a monthly happy hour, or participating in an amateur sports league together.  Those are all well and good, and will contribute towards team cohesion, but in my experience these efforts are a long term strategy at best.  Think about it - these people already spend 8-10 hours a day together - do they really need to spend even more time together to build cohesion?  Also, people are generally less willing to engage in these types of after-work activities when they have families who are competing for their personal time at home.

So what would my suggestion be?  After many years as an Army officer and having built, coached, and trained many teams, my answer is shared misery.  I've never seen anything more successful at building team cohesion than dropping the team off in the middle of nowhere and telling them to work together to figure out how to get back home.  We ran exercises like this about once a quarter, wherein it seemed the planners of each successive event were constantly trying to outdo the last one, incrementally increasing the punishment we endured.  My brigade commander actually patterned the events he hosted after a technique that Genghis Khan supposedly liked to employ to indoctrinate new leaders, which he affectionately labeled the "Mungadai."  The story goes that ol' Genghis would drop a new leader off in the woods with only a rice ball (apparently with fishy bits inside) and the clothes on his back and tell him if he wanted to lead in Genghis' army he had to find his way back, knowing that the most direct route would take at least several days.

Shared misery works.  I'm not sure exactly why.  But as I thought about it during all of those excruciating training exercises, I came up with two reasons.  First, shared misery strips individuals of everything they thought to be important in their lives before the misery started, and provides extreme focus on the act of surviving - when others are in the same situation, people tend to naturally cooperate with each other to ensure the survival of all.  Second, it builds trust between team members, as in trying to escape the misery together they necessarily have to rely on each other, whether that's simply trying to get a fire started in the drizzling rain or traversing a chasm together.

Shared misery at this level is probably not going to pass muster with your typical IT team, but there are ways you can share some misery together.  Organize a team camping trip over a couple of days, or go and play paintball together.  At Datical we put together a team that trained and executed the Tough Mudder event together - one of those crazy obstacle course races.  It was only a few hours of misery, but the misery was pretty extreme - good team-building event.

Create incentive
Incentives are about encouraging the "right" behaviors.  Find a way to reward individuals and the team for the behaviors you want to see, and figure out ways to, not punish, but provide some kind of negative reinforcement for those behaviors you don't want to encourage.  Bertrand recommends making people, with their informed consent of course, contribute a trivial amount of change to a jar when one makes a mistake - say, breaking a build or not naming a file correctly.  Then, periodically, you use the money in the jar to go do something fun.  In the Army we weren't this creative - we just did a lot of pushups.  We called it "beating your face," as in, "Well, that was a knuckleheaded thing to say - beat your face."

Develop people
This is one I really believe in.  People have a way of responding when their leaders take a personal interest in them, and tend to show gushing appreciation for leaders who sincerely make an effort to improve them - whether that's helping an individual get better with a technical skill, or periodic counseling on career trajectory, etc.  There are basically two ways to develop people - informally and formally.  The formal approach is all business, and usually organizational policy - it typically takes shape via a monthly or quarterly counseling wherein you initially collaborate to establish some personal goals for the period, and then periodically come back to assess progress towards those goals and provide constructive feedback on how to improve.  The informal approach isn't documented or tracked, and relies heavily on commitment from the leader to interact with team members every day, creating teaching moments for the individual and team whenever possible.  It's basically what a good coach does with her players each practice.  I like the informal approach much better, as I've always gotten better results with it, even though it requires much more time to do well.

Demonstrate values
This means practicing what you preach.  A leader has to understand that team members are constantly watching him or her, to see if actions live up to words.  When there is alignment between a leader's stated values and his or her actual actions, the team will fall in line.  When there is no alignment, resentment grows in the team as team members begin testing the limits of what they can get away with.  It only seems natural to them in this scenario, because in their eyes the leader is getting away with it.  This also leads to CYA behavior and internal politics, which over time becomes a cancer within the team and organization.  So, practice what you preach.

More Stories By Rex Morrow

Rex is the Marketing Director at Datical, a venture-backed software company whose solution, Datical DB, manages and simplifies database schema change management in support of high velocity application releases. Prior to Datical, Rex co-founded Texas Venture Labs, a startup accelerator at the University of Texas, and received his MBA from the McCombs School of Business. Before graduate school, Rex served as a Captain in the U.S. Army, and was awarded two bronze stars during combat deployments in Iraq.

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