Skip to content

June 2, 2020

DevOps Holdouts: Strategies and Tactics

By IT Revolution

Challenges around starting, driving, and building transformational change are, at the core, people challenges. Individuals are unique in their circumstances and their approaches to the world. This creates a challenge in discovering the “right” approach to re-engaging a disenfranchised employee. There is no single tactic that works for every individual or every time; therefore, an interchangeable, experimental, iterative framework is the best approach.

A flexible framework for approaching holdouts assists in rapid experimentation toward a solution. A lightweight framework will allow for tight feedback loops and easy experimenting with different approaches. Each iteration through the framework flow provides valuable data and insight into the best approach to finding an equitable solution. The Improvement Kata and PDSA1 (plan-do-study-act) loops set achievable short-term goals.


Let’s look at some of the common manifestations of “holding out” that can be displayed by individual contributors in the organization.

  • Cynicism: The individual contributor has been through prior unsuccessful transformations and will just “wait this one out too.”
  • Demotivated/Disenfranchised/Disillusioned: Unwilling or unable to take on new changes, they withdraw from engaging with the team, displaying apathy or absenteeism.
  • Poor Performer Hiding in the Crowd: These individual contributors prefer to sustain the situation and obfuscate their performance.
  • Spectator: This individual contributor may display Schadenfreude, that is they sit back and take pleasure in the misfortune of others; in this case, they may sit back and watch what they believe will be a failed transformation.
  • Active/Passive Sabotage: “If I slow-roll this, maybe it will just go away and I can get back to what I want to do.” These individuals oppose any attempt to evolve.
  • Entrenchment: High degree of ontological arrogance and unwillingness to change, won’t believe data or dismiss it.
  • Disruption: The individual contributor disrupts the progress/productivity of others, such as showing up late to meetings or blowing them off; is unwilling or unable to ask for help, will churn in the corner by themselves for weeks before reaching out.
  • Aggressive Behavior: Usually verbal, but not always, the individual contributor uses intimidation tactics to maintain the status quo, including rudeness, bullying, harassment, arrogance, insults, etc.
  • Emotional Outbursts: Technical disagreements can become overly emotional, resulting in outbursts.
  • Productivity Swings: The individual contributor may exhibit inconsistent, inefficient performance, with productivity dipping in certain periods.
  • Excuses: The individual contributor uses constant excuses for lack of progress; lies about non-existent progress.
  • Lone Wolf: The individual contributor is unwilling to collaborate and work with the team; goes it alone.
  • “That’s Not My Job”: Some individuals may be unwilling to expand their job responsibilities and adapt to the new process, often reverting to “that’s not my job” or “that’s not in my job description.”
  • Married to a Tool: These individuals are “stuck” with a tool or process that essentially defines them and their role in the organization. Their fear is often that if the tool/process changes or goes away, so will they. A common example is when an individual contributor has either been in charge of choosing the tool in question, managing it, or even developed the in-house solution which isn’t scaling/working/etc. and wants to sink more work into it.
  • Control Issues: An individual contributor may be unwilling to let go/automate/self-service due to the perception that this will impact their standing and influence in the organization.
  • Political Maneuverer: The contributor sees their power center as tied to the current process/tools/etc.

Root Cause Analysis

Before trying tactics and approaches to re-engage an employee, we must first understand the forces that are contributing to the behavior of the individual contributor. Gaining a clear understanding of what is driving the behavior, combined with the individual’s archetype and some proven tactics, results in a well-informed and effective approach. The actions of the individual contributor are often coping mechanisms for dealing with the anxiety around change or transformation. First, we use three categories to gain additional insight into the causes of the symptoms they’re displaying.


Fears are the most powerful and important factor to examine and consider. The majority of decisions we make in our lives are either directly driven by or influenced by fear. You must understand the individual contributor at a personal level and have the contextual experience with her or him to understand what they fear. Addressing and mitigating both rational and irrational fears are incredible forcing factors toward transformational alignment.


How is the individual incentivized by the organization? Extrinsic incentives are reward based and often less impactful than intrinsic rewards. The organizational culture provides powerful intrinsic incentives, and it is crucial to understand how those incentives affect behavior. For example, is this individual rewarded by “diving catches or fire-fighting”? How will this individual be recognized after moving to DevOps? Changing these incentives can help to influence behavior and re-engagement in the transformation.


What drives the individual? Do they seek advancement or peer recognition? Is it a spectrum with one being weighed more heavily than the others? Incentives and recognition of achievement should be modeled on the drivers that are most important to this individual. When incentives empower drivers, powerful change can result.

Tactics and Frameworks

There are several different tactics that can be used to help re-align the individual contributor with the proposed transformation. Below, we’ve outline several of these tactics and the archetype(s) that they may be most suited for. However, remember that no two individuals are exactly alike. What works with one individual may not work with another. The key is to experiment, and try, try again. Here are some tactics to try:

Empowerment and Ownership:

Motivate the individual through their desire to lead and manage, to direct the progress. This individual wants to see their baby grow. Helping to give the employee ownership over a piece of the transformation can help achieve this. Use this tactic when the individual has exhibited strong behavior around the desire to be the decision-maker.


Provide guidance and next steps for success in common objectives. This can include multiple course corrections until alignment is met. Unlike mentoring, where you seek to help the person achieve their goal, coaching is helping the person achieve our goal. Use this tactic when the person is newer to the process and workforce. The individual must be an open and willing participant in this approach or it will not work.

Skill Building/Training/Plant Intuition

In some cases, the “holdout” has not had the opportunity to learn and experience the value of the transformation. This is a simple case of lack of exposure and can be resolved through several means. Leveraging your knowledge of the employee’s personality and provide training through the means that are best consumable to him or her. Use this tactic when the person is a high performer, eager, and ready. It is often the case that the person just hasn’t had time to learn, so ensure that providing this learning opportunity is a priority for the employee and your team.3

Appeal to Authority

Implement best practices vetted by subject matter experts. Information can sometimes be more readily absorbed and consumed when it comes from someone other than the one in charge. Using a third party to convey the value and importance of the DevOps transformation can be a powerful tool if used correctly and at the right time. Use this tactic when the person tends to not trust the information being published from the sitting authority. This can be because of a track record of incomplete or not well thought out directives from leaders in his or her past.

Direct Compensation

Motivating the individual contributor will best be defined by your understanding of the individual. Compensating the employee to try to encourage behaviors that are aligned with the transformation can be monetary or experiential or a little of both.

Let’s Try It/Small Chunks

Small objectives and bite-able chunks can allow stepping stones to progress to the overall objective. Sometimes taking change one small step at a time makes the overall transformation more digestible.

Shared Responsibility/Accountability

Provide assurance that the team will stand by to defend any of its members and will work through the challenges together. This helps to ensure that a scapegoat culture is never created and can ease the anxieties and fears of some “holdouts.”

Change the Environment

Physical, emotional, team, organizational, and more, uprooting the current environment might be a healthy disruption to align. Lateral moves as a mitigation tactic can also be helpful. This allows people to experience/experiment with another role or take some of the bottleneck out of the process, at least temporarily.

Shared Vision and Long-Term Strategy

The “why,” the bigger picture. This is an important tactic for any large-scale transformation initiative, across all team members and archetypes. Be sure to share the broader context for why the DevOps transformation is so critical, what the goals are, and how the pieces will come together to achieve these goals.


Identifying the needs of the employee and organization through an iterative approach to change is just the beginning. As you embark on your own transformation and are faced with “holdouts” on your team, remember that mindset change must come from within. As leaders, we can seed the change but growth requires care and feeding to truly blossom. By showing clear results and transparent benefits to your team, you can increase motivation, and a strong focus on open and honest communication will build the framework for systemic and positive change.

Adapted from the DevOps Enterprise Forum Guidance Paper Individual Contributors by Pauly Comtois, Chris Hill, Scott Nasello, Avigail Ofer, and Anders Wallgren.

Download the full DevOps Enterprise Forum Guidance Paper Individual Contributors. 

- About The Authors
Avatar photo

IT Revolution

Trusted by technology leaders worldwide. Since publishing The Phoenix Project in 2013, and launching DevOps Enterprise Summit in 2014, we’ve been assembling guidance from industry experts and top practitioners.

Follow IT Revolution on Social Media

No comments found

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Jump to Section

    More Like This

    Frankenstein vs. the Gingerbread Man
    By Leah Brown

    In a previous post, we mentioned how the new book by Mark Schwartz, Adaptive…

    The Three Team Interaction Modes
    By IT Revolution

    In many large organizations, and even in some small ones, poorly defined team interactions…

    The Making Of The Phoenix Project
    By Gene Kim

    Ten years on, let's take a look back at how The Phoenix Project was…

    Ethics, Digital Transformation, and Frankenstein vs the Gingerbread Man
    By Leah Brown

    "If there’s an elephant in the room, it must be chased out quickly or…