ValueFlow Thinking

Paying Down Heroic Debt– Principles & Shared Learnings from DevOps Enterprise Summit (DOES16, San Francisco)

We love – and need – our rockstars and our heroes; they give us their fearless energy, creativity and style. They can help change society and influence culture. They entertain, inform and inspire us to take up and shape our craft. Every workplace has a rockstar or three; those individuals that embody the phrase ‘if you want something done, ask a busy person’ (Benjamin Franklin).

We say that heroics are not desirable because those people become bottlenecks, single points of failure, burn themselves out. Allowing this is ‘Inhumane IT’, yet plenty of organisational cultures allow it, or deny its existence. We need these unique, heroic qualities, yet paradoxically, we should not rely on them.

Consider the rockstar metaphor for moment though; the rockstar isn’t actually successful without the many, many talented individuals, systems and technologies – the value streams – that bring their creative spark to us. One of the strong, consistent principles that successful, DevOps-leveraged organisations use is Product Teams. One presenter at DOES16 going so far as to say ‘we don’t have a PMO’, and another; that everyone in the Product Team carries a pager and does support. There is no Dev and no Ops.

Product Teams have other interesting embedded principles. One is that trust for decision-making and control is given rather than imposed; an example of Leader-Leader behaviour (ref David Marquet, Turn the Ship Around. Youtube I think the key word there is ‘trust’. A second is that of collaboration, a core and espoused tenet within DevOps teams.

Heroic debt, like technical debt, must be paid down. Take a minute to look at the ‘The 5 Thieves’ (Dominica DeGrandis, DOES16, shown with permission. Youtube; you might recognize them and their impact, and how they are feeding the culture of heroic debt, including burnout, and importantly, the cost of delay in delivering value. Who are your heroes and what value streams need attention to mitigate risk?
The Five Thieves
I loved the approach to the rockstar from Adrian Cockcroft (DOES16): Elevate or promote the hero. Why? Providing them with authority and some architectural oversight enables them to retain control yet mitigates the risk.

But what is the ‘why’ of the heroic behaviour? Why does too much work flow via the rockstar/hero? Why are they the bottleneck, and why does the organization accept it as the norm, or deny it exists?

Right there is a combination of technical debt, time thieves, and cultural denial; each one requiring deep analysis and commitment to mitigate.

To me personally, culture is the most interesting; what sort of culture perpetuates heroic debt and more importantly, what is the cultural target state?

Two (of many) standouts at DOES16 were Capital One and Starbucks. Capital One (and others) set the foundations of digital capability as per this slide (@TopoPal, DOES16, with permission. Youtube

Agile and DevOps Transformation

The target state mitigates technical debt and I assert, also heroic debt. There was a strong, common theme at DOES16 on the foundational technology layer. As Mark Imbriaco (Human Scale System, DOES16. Youtube said, ‘the technology is the easy part’.

With the Starbucks story (Courtney Kissler, DOES16. SlideShare, the presentation title sums it up: Inspire and Nurture the Human Spirit; One Feature at a Time. The combination of new technology leadership that provides commitment and space, their mission and values, and the ability to action the countermeasures is the perfect storm. For example, to actually Allocate 100% Capacity to One Initiative is a critical success factor for the Time Thieves.

Easy to say, but ‘get the right people on the bus’, trust them, and build experiments that prove value. Start small, but start.

As for the rockstars and heroes that we love, we need to save them from destruction, and not accept them as our key to our success.

Mark Whiting
Executive Advisor

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