Corporate Politics and DevOps


So you might think that evoking the word “politics” might mean there’s going to be a rant coming. There will be nothing of the sort. Politics is not necessarily a belligerent act in the corporate world, though it’s often perceived that way. And while sometimes there are people who engage in a bit of belligerent politics to improve their own situation instead of the organization that they serve, those guys are pretty easy to spot and are usually well known as assholes anyway.

We’re not here to talk about the assholes today. We’re here to talk about good, competent people who struggle with consensus sometimes for very understandable reasons.

Let me throw a couple of words out there with some handy definitions to help frame the rest of this conversation.

DevOps: I’m totally going to steal from Wikipedia on this one, though I owe it to all of you to do a better job with it myself in a future blog post.

DevOps (a portmanteau of development and operations) is a software development method that stresses communication, collaboration and integration between software developers and information technology (IT) professionals.DevOps is a response to the interdependence of software development and IT operations. It aims to help an organization rapidly produce software products and services.

Politics: In the corporate sense, I’m going to say this:

Corporate politics is non-transparent decision making based on a difference in agendas between interested parties.

If you look at those two definitions, you might see how corporate politics can cause friction in a DevOps culture. DevOps favors transparency, alignment on values and agendas, and decisions made openly and collaboratively.

People who have been around the block a few times can usually smell politics. But how do we react? Uh oh, this manager is blocking me from succeeding, and he’s looking out for himself. Shields up! Do you dig in, engage in maneuvering to get around one another, and start building rivalries? It’s completely understandable; this is, after all, how things got done in 20th century business.

Often when this happens, it’s simply a difference in agenda. Or perhaps the same agenda, but different perspectives of how to achieve the same goal. The answer to both problems is the same: get it out in the open. Seek understanding. Get the interested parties to the table, have a face to face conversation that is blameless and inquisitive.  What is your agenda? Why do you believe this is the right course of action? How does this help the organization to succeed at its mission? Hopefully, this is low-hanging fruit, and a simple conversation can reveal important knowledge that wasn’t previously known to all parties.

But it might reveal the difference in agenda is due to a difference in vision, which is a fundamental failing in leadership. Subordinate leaders need to have an understanding of their role in the overall success of the organization. They need to optimize the whole. If they are merely focused on their little fiefdom of the organization, and not on how that helps the whole organization to succeed, a change in perspective is really needed.

Gene Kim may have said it best in The Three Ways of a DevOps culture.

The First Way emphasizes the performance of the entire system, as opposed to the performance of a specific silo of work or department — this as can be as large a division (e.g., Development or IT Operations) or as small as an individual contributor (e.g., a developer, system administrator).

If two leaders in an organization have gridlocked, have talked it out at the table, and still can’t agree on the collaborative way forward, is this not a failing in The First Way?

The first priority must be for all leaders to be aligned on the goal. Until then, there’s just a bunch of hand waving and concessions without really building the foundation for powerful and ongoing collaboration towards shared success.

Then, and only then, can a conversation about the gridlock be had meaningfully with with the objective being to determine which path most effectively moves the organization closer to the goal.

These conversations should be had openly, without secret knowledge being used to leverage power for localized victories. Major stakeholders from all functions should be able to participate. Managers can’t make these decisions alone, in a vacuum, without also engaging other stakeholders in the conversation.

And above all, respect must be maintained and nurtured. There must be an inherent trust that the people around you all want the organization to succeed, and are doing what they think is best to assure that success. Celebrate your hard-won collaborations with some time to blow off steam together. Enjoy a beer together, or go out to lunch. Don’t frame your relationships solely around resolving conflicts.

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