NFL Shows That DevOps Tools Cannot Save a Company in Turmoil
Why DevOps tools are not a panacea – lessons from the NFL, Mark Cuban, and the Dallas Mavericks.
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I'm a fan of the NFL and American football in general. Over the years, it has fascinated me how some teams are competitive year in and year out while other teams are perennially bad. I see parallels in companies attempting a successful digital transformation. Too often they see expensive DevOps tools as like a star signing who can save them on his own and transform the team.
Quite some time ago the NFL made some changes to the league to shrink the gap that separates high performing teams from poor performing ones. One of these changes was the introduction of a salary cap that each team can spend on player's salaries. Every team essentially has the same budget from which to pay their players.
All Things Equal?
Without question, the salary cap (and other measures adopted by the NFL) have shrunk the gap between the best teams in the league and the worst teams. The difference is quite small, even smaller than a casual fan or observer of the sport will fully appreciate. That said, consistent patterns of excellence and inferiority remain year over year. It ceases to amaze me how in life, as in the NFL, that when all things are made "equal", inequality is the inevitable outcome. Well-run organizations that have an owner who encourages a culture of excellence are perennially good teams. Teams with ineffective owners and therefore dysfunctional cultures are perennially disappointing.
As we approach the NFL draft this month, and indeed as I have reviewed drafts from the past, the dysfunctional teams tend to think that they can acquire a player to change and overturn their dysfunctional culture. It doesn't work. NFL history is replete with good players being drafted into horrible teams and attaining below average careers or become forgotten. Even successful teams draft poor players from time to time. However, perennially good teams seem to experience less disruption from the draft than do their subpar counterparts. Whatever the technical or fateful reasons are for this pattern, in my opinion, a player drafted as a savior will not save you from dysfunction on his own.
Change Comes From Above
Why? In his book, A Passion for Leadership: Lessons on Change and Reform from Fifty Years of Public Service, Robert M. Gates states, “if a leader wants to inspire excellence, she must model it herself.”1 Reform comes from the top, not from middle management or subordinates. Subordinates will align with, conform to, and become participants in the culture that the leader creates. If a team owner is spontaneous and undisciplined, his or her team will also be undisciplined and suffer the consequences of inconsistent policy and inept processes.
How does this remind me of DevOps? Many corporate leaders may be thinking that a tool or set of DevOps tools will take them to DevOps nirvana, however, just as perennially subpar NFL teams hope that one good player will change their fortunes, so many companies look for a tool that will save them from themselves.
Why DevOps Tools Do Not Lead Reform
Tools do not lead reform, and this also counts for DevOps tools! Throughout my career, I have seen countless examples where six-figure software packages go unused at large corporations. The reasons for this vary and here are a few:
The list goes on and on. “People, not systems, implement an agenda for change.”2 Companies who have not embraced DevOps or who have unsuccessfully adopted it either have a dysfunctional culture or they are so big that bureaucratic processes inhibit the efforts of Continuous Delivery (CD) contributors.
Effective change requires effective leadership. Without executive leadership's willingness to change, mid-level IT professionals are limited, if not frustrated, in their efforts. It should go without saying that this frustration can lead to high employee turnover because it is human nature for everyone to feel like their time and effort is valued — that they have a purpose. Add to this quality-of-life concerns where so many organizations in today's 24/7 uptime technological world have employees suffering from HESS (Holidays, Evenings, Saturdays, Sundays) syndrome.
I have spoken with many executives that are not entirely empathetic towards HESS because they are paying the salaries of these resources at a fixed amount regardless of the number of off-hours employees put in. In my opinion, these executives are missing, among many other benefits, the benefits reaped from motivated people who love doing what they do.
“People at every level in every organization need to know their work is considered important by the higher-ups. At every level, a leader should strive to make his employees proud to be where they are and doing what they do. It doesn’t matter whether you are president of the United States, CEO of a huge company, or a supervisor far down in the organization.”3
When Mark Cuban first took over the Dallas Mavericks, he sat down with each player and asked him what he could do as an owner to make them a better player. He was expecting to receive a lot of expensive feedback and instead was given a list of simple and inexpensive things that seem too trivial to affect real change. These things ranged from having healthy food available after practices so that players can be more productive with their time in meeting community obligations, to having better towels in the locker room.
The list Mark compiled was inexpensive and quick to implement, but it had the effect of making the players feel valued and valuable. Mark Cuban’s willingness to listen and enact change, changed the Mavericks’ culture and the players and coaches, in turn, changed the team’s fortunes for the better.
The Role Tools Play in Reform
Without question, organizations need to purchase automation tools that can perform Application Release Automation (ARA). IT automation, in general, will go a long way towards making IT personnel more efficient, effective, and innovative in their work. Enterprise-class automation will reduce HESS workload and provide more time for employees to work on project backlogs and be more responsive to important initiatives.
IT professionals are creative types. I have found that when free to innovate, IT professionals will freely and willingly work extra hours on their own if they're able to work on projects or tasks that are valuable. Think about that. If you want or need your employees to give up weekends evenings or holidays, it can be a hard ask. But imagine if they willingly give this up without being asked just because they like the work they're doing. Mark Cuban discovered this with the Dallas Mavericks. People who feel valued and are important to an organization pursue excellence — they want to put in the extra time and effort to become world class.
Automation and orchestration tools are an important part of successfully implementing Continuous Delivery and achieving DevOps success. However, as I mentioned at the beginning of this article, buying DevOps tools alone is like a sports team buying that superstar athlete hoping that that he or she alone will solve your problems. Tools alone will not cut it. Organizational leadership needs to see that ARA and CD are part of a cultural reform — a change from mediocrity to excellence.
1 Gates, Robert M (2016-01-19). A Passion for Leadership: Lessons on Change and Reform from Fifty Years of Public Service (Kindle Locations 1983-1984). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
2 Gates, Robert M (2016-01-19). A Passion for Leadership: Lessons on Change and Reform from Fifty Years of Public Service (Kindle Location 1495). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
3 Gates, Robert M (2016-01-19). A Passion for Leadership: Lessons on Change and Reform from Fifty Years of Public Service (Kindle Locations 1502-1505). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
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