8 habits of successful DevOps team leaders

8 habits of successful DevOps team leaders

What do great leaders do differently as organizations scale DevOps? Use these best practices to set everyone up for success

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DevOps represents a massive change in how value is delivered to customers and how people work. In order for DevOps to scale, leaders must change too. Traditional command-and-control leadership simply won’t work in the move-fast-and-iterate environment of DevOps and agile.

“DevOps is a movement and a set of principles and practices to be adopted by an entire organization. One of the patterns is to form small, autonomous, and multi-functional teams or squads arranged around products,” notes Helen Beal, DevOpsologist, Ranger4 and product owner for the DevOps Institute. “In the team, everyone is equal. The question then becomes: What does leadership look like in and around those teams?”

With DevOps, the gap between leader and team is shrinking: Expect a “flattening of hierarchies.” 

While activities like hiring, firing, development, pay, and performance still need to be performed by someone, the gap between leaders and employees is shrinking, says Beal, and the traditional separation of roles no longer makes sense.

“I see a flattening of hierarchies,” says Beal. “If organizations continue to pursue DevOps, the need for complex hierarchies with levels of separation between the ‘doers’ of the work and those with much higher-paying ‘strategic’ or ‘authoritative’ roles shrinks to the point of disappearance.”

For leaders in traditional organizations, it’s not always easy or obvious how to make this shift. We asked DevOps experts to share the qualities and best practices of leaders in organizations that have been successful with DevOps.

[ Culture change is the hardest part of digital transformation. Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]

If your organization is transitioning to a DevOps approach, here are eight ways you can best support your team.

1. Transition to servant leadership

“The State of DevOps Report in 2017 discovered a correlation between transformational leadership and organizational performance – teams do better when their leaders act as servant-coaches, not as managers. This type of leader sets the vision for the team but provides them with the autonomy to discover the improvements they need to make and to decide how to do their work. They challenge and inspire teams while also providing support, particularly around the removal of impediments and by understanding and empathizing on a personal level with all team members.

“In terms of leaders’ tactics, the key themes here are around visibility, transparency, and trust.”

“In terms of leaders’ tactics, the key themes here are around visibility, transparency, and trust. By making work visible, they can see, understand, and influence flow and cycle times and make incremental improvements accordingly. This means ensuring visibility into the end-to-end lifecycle of the teams’ products and the ongoing measurement of the time it takes to have an idea and deliver the value of that idea to a customer." – Helen Beal

2. Start small and find the balance

Middle managers, in particular, may push back on the DevOps ways of working: Try taking small steps.

“Middle managers are usually so stuck trying to manage their calendars they can’t always see the forest through the trees when it comes to change. They’ll likely accept something, but only if it has proven results and buy-in from at least one co-worker of yours."

"The biggest thing is balance. You have to balance your wants and desires with your manager’s and that of the business as well. Friends help here, and so does time management. Start small; you don’t eat an entire meal in one bite.” – Chris Short, principal technical marketing manager, cloud platforms, Red Hat, and publisher of the DevOps’ish newsletter.

[ Read also: DevOps vs. middle managers: 5 tips to knock out resistance. ]

3. Create mental security

“Mistakes are inevitable, and teams should learn from them, teach others about those mistakes, and document them so the organization doesn’t make the same mistake twice (or more). A great DevOps leader encourages teams to learn from mistakes instead of punishing or shaming them for it.

“This then creates a space for inclusiveness and learning/experimentation instead of fear. Also contributing to mental security is encouraging teams to find a work/life balance to benefit themselves and other parts of the organization that they interact with.” – Logan Daigle, director, DevOps strategy and delivery, CollabNet VersionOne

[ What tools help support scrum, kanban, and other agile methods? Read also: Top 7 open source project management tools for agile teams. ]

4. Close capability gaps

“A DevOps leader’s first job is to make the business objectives of an agile transformation clear to both technical team members and external stakeholders. With that clarity guiding the team’s work, the leader can then turn their attention to the individual capabilities and needs of each team member. Where capability gaps exist on a team, the DevOps leader must prioritize closing these gaps. Is the team able to operate in an ambiguous and rapidly changing business environment? Are team members collaborative and cooperative? Can the team operate in a disciplined and metric-driven manner?

“Closing capability gaps may require hiring new team members who have this experience or developing proficiencies within existing team members. When the right team is executing against the right goals, the DevOps leader can then turn their attention toward continuous team improvement over time.” – Matt Poepsel, SVP of product, The Predictive Index

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Carla Rudder is a writer and content manager on The Enterprisers Project.

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