One Ring

Following on from Origins, One Ring is the next in the series of articles to describe DevOps philosophies using well known stories and focussing on the importance of shared goals and organisational alignment. This is taken from Lord of the Rings: Warning – plot spoilers ahead. Seriously though, if you have not read or watched Lord of the Rings, go have a word with yourself!

Destruction

Long ago, twenty rings existed and were distributed between the Elves, Dwarves, Men and the Dark Lord Sauron. Sauron poured all his evil will into his ring with a view to ruling Middle Earth. An alliance of Elves and Humans resisted and defeated Sauron, the king of Gondor however did not take the opportunity to destroy the ring in Mount Doom, he kept it.

The ring eventually falls into the hands of the creature Gollum and then to Bilbo Baggins, a Hobbit. The ring gains power over time and Sauron starts to amass an evil army that will overcome all of Middle Earth.

The story unfolds with Hobbits, Elves, Men and Dwarves establishing a ‘Fellowship of the Ring’ which proceeds to return to Mount Doom to destroy the ring and therefore destroy Sauron’s power. The journey is fraught with danger, giant spiders, moving rock mountains, orcs, talking trees, ring wraiths, separation of the fellowship, armies and the undead.

At the end of the trilogy, the Hobbit Frodo, destroys the ring in the fires of Mount Doom and Sauron and his armies are destroyed. The Fellowship returns home and everyone lives happily every after.

Goals

Shared goals are extremely important and many of the conversations I have had with people demonstrate that a lack of clear vision, mission, objectives and measures, local shared goals and empowerment to deliver these goals as a team, significantly impact a team’s performance.

In Lord of the Rings, the Fellowship had:

  • Vision: To save Middle-Earth
  • Mission: To stop the Dark Lord Sauron from overcoming Middle Earth
  • Objective: Destroy the Ring in the fire of Mount Doom
  • Measure: Destroy 100% of the ring in the fire of Mount Doom before Sauron’s armies destroy Middle Earth

The Fellowship were united in the mission and were empowered to deliver and adapt as they saw fit. Speaking at a conference, the leader of a special forces group told the audience that they are given a mission to perform but how they execute the mission was up to the unit – during the mission many variables come into play and the unit will respond and adapt as they see fit. In business it’s often the case that we are not entirely sure what the mission is and are then told every step of the way how to get to a mission we don’t all fully understand. I spoke once with a Commander of a military vessel and he talked to be about ‘Navigational Leadership’ where you know what the objective is but a good leader will take into account the sea, weather, threats, civilian activity, etc. and adjust the course as they see fit to achieve the mission. Jeff Sutherland in his book ‘Scrum‘ states that we all need a ‘transcendent purpose’ and that we will either “adapt or die” – These all point to having clear shared goals and team empowerment. It kind of boils down to Vision and Trust.

"Great Teams are cross-functional, autonomous, and empowered, with a transcendent purpose." Jeff Sutherland, Scrum

Spotify have shared their Engineering Culture in 2 parts (Part 1 and Part 2). This really shows how you can have multiples teams all focussed on the shared goal but with the autonomy needed to reach high performance without causing any part of the process to become sub-optimal. This autonomy helps improve motivation which supports the Agile principle to build teams around motivated individuals. The key here is the balance between alignment of goals and empowerment of the team:

  • High alignment but low empowerment; dependant teams.
  • Low alignment and low empowerment; lost individuals.
  • Low alignment and high empowerment; chaos
  • High alignment and high empowerment; self-organising teams

Reis, in his book Lean Start up really helps with emphasising the need for a vision and how to develop and pivot strategies. Under the mantle of Vision, Steer, Accelerate and the Build, Measure, Learn feedback loops, he helps us understand how organisations can establish direction and shared goals with the customer, mastery and agility in mind. This builds on the first principle of Agile which is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.

"All innovation begins with vision. It’s what happens next that is critical." Eric Reis, Lean Startup

In the book, How Google Works, Schmidt mentions that traditional decision making was made hierarchically as knowledge, networking and computing power were scare and only those at the top of an organisation had access to education, wider networks and computing power. However, in today’s culture, knowledge is more readily accessible, we have global networking and significant access to computing power – as a result, organisations can empower people across the organisation to make decisions (in alignment to the shared goal).

Finally in the Toyota Product System, using Lean, a main principle is to stop and fix problems to stop defects progressing through the manufacturing line and this is done by letting the people closest to the problem solve the problem. This dictates that all employees have clear alignment to the goal with empowerment to stop and fix the problems at source. Again, in the Phoenix Project, there is an extract which explains how the Andon Cord works in Toyota, i.e. any employee can pull the cord which slows/stops the entire production line to prevent defects from moving down the line.

One of my favourite books (apart from the Phoenix Project) is Good to Great by Jim Collins. He says that there are many good companies out there but not many great ones. Using research he concludes that you need great leaders, the right people on the right seats on bus, confrontation of the facts, a focus on the things they excel at, finally that disciplined people, disciplined thought and disciplined action results in greatness. When Amazon was loosing money, Jeff Bezos called in Jim Collins to help transform Amazon into a great company (The Everything Store, Stone). The principles of great leadership, discipline and empowerment really made a difference at Amazon.

Some of the key takeaways from Good to Great include:

  1. Recognize that planning is priceless, but plans are useless.
  2. Disciplined action without disciplined people is impossible to sustain, and disciplined action without disciplined thought is a recipe for disaster.
  3. Allow team members freedom and responsibility within the framework of a highly developed system. The transition begins not by trying to discipline the wrong people into the right behaviours, but by getting self disciplined people on the bus in the first place. The right people then need disciplined thought to confront the brutal facts while retaining resolute faith that you will create a path to greatness. Disciplined action is then required to realize the improvement.
  4. The purpose of bureaucracy is to compensate for incompetence and lack of discipline – a problem that largely goes away if you have the right people in the first place. Avoid bureaucracy and hierarchy and instead create a culture of discipline.
"Great vision without great people is irrelevant." Jim Collins, Good to Great

Creating a clear organisational vision, strategy that can pivot, smart objectives with actionable metrics and a culture of alignment and empowerment are essential to develop a high performing, agile organisation that will achieve its goals.

Empowerment

In my own experience, we have taken the overall vision, mission and objectives of the enterprise and aligned these to a set of measures and key performance indicators at a team level. For example, we have structured our ojectives something like this:

Objective 1: Achieve Operational Excellence. This is supported by the following measures:

  • Performance against service levels
  • Availability metrics
  • Request fulfilment performance
  • Customer satisfaction

Objective 2: Improve Competitiveness by;

  • Financial performance
  • Lead time for new features
  • Team morale
  • Incidents raised

Objective 3: Advance Technology supported by;

  • Changes delivered per month
  • Story points
  • User volumes

The Product teams have tailored measures which are either defined by contracts or by taking the previous year’s performance and setting new challenging base and stretch targets. The whole organisation is then aligned to the goals of the company, departmental and personal goals.

Then at a Product Level each Product has a pipeline which is supported by a release plan and these releases have goals which are then broken down into smaller ‘valuable’ chunks in the Sprints (time boxes) as Sprint Goals. So from the top of the organisation down to a sprint the goals are aligned.

Each team then produces an A3 scorecard (unashamedly borrowed from the Toyota Production System) which represents the performance of the team over the last 3 months, status against objectives for the year and the team’s upcoming priority pipeline items. This is reviewed and consolidated upwards but also shared and discussed at the sprint reviews and retrospectives. This results in learning and improvement ideas which are added to the backlog as internal projects (See four types of work from the Phoenix Project). Internal projects are then ‘Done’ in the same manner as all other work.

This has contributed to the overall improvement in product quality, where the team deliver the right thing in the right order and, where possible, deliver value early and often with better customer satisfaction and higher team morale.

Again, this may not be right for your organisation but hopefully there are some helpful pointers here. Ultimately, establishing shared goals with empowered teams are critical to implementing, pivoting and accelerating your organisation’s strategy.

And with that you can destroy the ring and save the world!

Next Time: Freedom.

Raj Fowler

I am a natural, enthusiastic and authentic leader who understands the impact of IT as a differentiator for business performance and how organisational culture directly influences IT and business performance. With a strong appreciation of the changing technology environment, I have spearheaded a transformation of organisational ‘ways of working’ through adoption of the philosophies and principles that underpin DevOps, Agile and Lean. As a result, I have a track record of delivering operational excellence whilst improving IT agility, security and responsiveness enabled through close business relationships, technology-led thinking and inspirational leadership. 3 years ago we delivered about 50 to 100 changes per annum across about 80 business systems, all of which we managed using our standard plan, build and operate practices. Change was difficult and the transition from project to service was painful. I lived the opening chapters of the Phoenix Project on a regular basis. I now manage over 100 business systems and we categorised 7 of these as Products which include ServiceNow, Salesforce, Cognos, SuccessFactors, SharePoint. SAP and Bespoke Applications where we have established Product Teams. These are teams that build and support Product using DevOps philosophies. As a result, we delivered over 2500 changes last year whilst at the same time improving the service by 30%, improving customer satisfaction and employee morale. Using the "you build it, you support it" (Amazon) mentality, change is no longer a big event but a normal everyday occurrence and the usual spikes of incidents are no longer there, in fact with each change we deploy, the incident volumes reduce! Teams are not only delivering new features but are cleaning up their code and removing technical debt with every release. As a result, we have made a significant impact to the efficiency of our internal functions which in turn helps the competitiveness and profitability of the enterprise.

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