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August 8, 2018

Transformational Leadership and DevOps

By IT Revolution

The following is an excerpt from a presentation by Dr. Steve Mayner from Scaled Agile, titled “Transformational Leadership and DevOps.

You can watch the video of the presentation, which was originally delivered at the 2017 DevOps Enterprise Summit in San Francisco.

We’re going to talk a little bit about organizational change, but before I do that, I’d like you to ask yourself two quick questions:

  1. Have you ever experienced significant organizational change at some time in your career? (And I bet the answer for everyone reading this would be a ‘yes,’ so, let’s go one level deeper.)

2. Have you ever been through an organizational change that you would consider to be a failure?

When I’ve given a presentation on Transformational Leadership multiple times in different venues around the world, I always start with those same two questions, and I always get the same results. 100% of the time, the answer to both questions is a resounding ‘Yes.’

Here’s what it tells us

Organizational change is hard and it’s prone to failure. Like many of you, I’ve experienced it myself in my own career, and especially as I moved into this role of coaching and consulting Agile and DevOps Transformations. I saw this pattern over and over again.

In fact, it was those very experiences that motivated me to pursue my doctorate. I wanted to understand through my research why is change so hard? What causes these failures, and more important, what recommendations can I give to my clients that would help them beat those odds and have their change efforts succeed?

My research work began as all doctorates do, with a survey of the existing literature. I focused on organizational change and right away I came across Dr. John Kotter.

Dr. Kotter in his book, Leading Change, made a statement, and that statement was that in his experience as both a professor and as a consultant, that 70% of the organizational change initiatives he had seen and witnessed had failed. Now, what followed was a bunch of additional research by other scholars in the field, and the numbers maybe have been different. Some had 70%, some had other numbers, but regardless of the specific percentage, they all agreed that organizational change initiatives fail more often they succeed.

The study that really caught my attention was a survey of all the different studies on the topic to see if certain kinds of change are more or less successful than the others. The worst success rates were found in the initiatives involving culture change— 19% success.

If you think about it, look at any Agile or DevOps state of the art survey and what’s typically the number one challenge that respondents say is the biggest impediment to successfully implementing Agile or DevOps?


Culture every time. We put these two things together and that doesn’t look too good, does it?

The implications of this pattern of continual failure and organizational change, it has a lot more implications that just our Agile and DevOps transformations not succeeding because why are we going this route in the first place? It’s because there’s significant business change that we need in order for our organizations to remain successful. We see what happens when that change is less than what we intended.

We see it in organizations that have historically been leaders in their markets. Companies like Kodak and Blockbuster who are no longer in business because of their inability to adapt to rapidly shifting market dynamics. Companies like Toys-R-Us now in bankruptcy and other well-known names like Sears and JC Penney and Bed Bath & Beyond that may not be far behind.

The truth is our organizations today exist in some of the most dynamic times in human history. The pace of technological change, globalization, new entrants that are completely disrupting entire markets almost overnight.

You can bet that that pace of change is going to accelerate. It’s not going to slow down. Even though change is hard and it’s prone to failure, at the same time it’s clear that change, we must, and that organizational agility and the ability to adapt and change is a core competency for our companies in the 21st century.

Here’s what I did

I set out to learn why is organizational change so hard and why is the failure rate so high? As I surveyed the existing research on that question, I found many reasons. Things like poor communication, poor planning, poor timing, and sometimes it was just flat out the wrong change.

One reason was sited over and over again, more than any other, and it has to do with how we as humans respond to change. Think about that. Think about when I ask you all to stand up and I had you go back to that point in time when you experienced organization change that failed. Many of you probably, like me, it immediately brings back and evokes an emotional response.

What happens is many times when a change is first announced there is some excitement. “Hey, there’s something new,” and there’s buzz, but as challenges start to come, often times it wasn’t always what we thought it was going to be and people start to get confused. Then as time goes on and those things aren’t resolved, the confusion turns to frustration. Sometimes people find that they’re not able to succeed as easily in the new way of working as they were in the old, before the change, and that can lead to anxiety. “Am I going to make it through this? Am I going to have a job? Will I be able to provide for my family?”

These thoughts, unresolved, lead to fear. ‘I don’t know if I’m going to make it.’

Now, we’re at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We’re in full survival mode. In fact, what happens is that fear often turns into resistance. Sometimes, it’s not even conscious. It’s instinctive. In fact, if you look in the research, you’ll find that resistance to change is the most cited reason for organizational change failure.

With that information in hand I expanded my search

I wanted to see if I could find any remedies, any way to anticipate and avoid these patterns that I could share with the companies that I coach. I looked at different change models, I looked through various studies that had been done in different behavioral sciences, but I kept seeing this one topic come up over and over again.

It had to do with the behaviors of leaders during organizational change. It was in this research that I initially learned about one of the most interesting leadership theories called transformational leadership. That seemed to be consistently connected to organizational change research. In fact, I discovered that more peer reviewed research has been conducted on transformational leadership than all the other leadership theories combined. That got my attention.

What is transformational leadership?

It’s a set of behaviors that was first posited by a man by the name of James Burns.

Burns was an autobiographer for John F. Kennedy. He was also a combat journalist in World War II. In this book, he used these observations of these great leaders of his time along with some other writings in the study of leadership. From that, he wrote his findings in his book. Let me give you a quick overview of what transformational leadership is all about.

I put this in four quadrants to help us get our heads around what these behaviors are.

Let’s start in the lower left-hand quadrant.

The first quadrant is the vision quadrant. This is the ability of the leader to cast a clear, compelling, and inspiring vision that creates organization alignment and it motivates all of us to all be aimed toward that same noble goal. It encourages us. A lot of these patterns were also expressed in other theories like charismatic leadership. If we think about Burns and John F. Kennedy, that we’re going to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, that aligned an entire country around a very single and crystal clear goal.

The second quadrant is the authenticity quadrant. This is the ability of the leader to be a role model, to set an example, to be a lifelong learner. To emulate this pattern of always growing and leading with integrity and charismatic leadership as well as authentic leadership talks about some of these same traits.

The third quadrant is this idea of growth. The transformational leader is committed to making sure that everybody in the organization is growing. That everybody has individual goals, places they want to take their careers, and the transformational leaders care about that. They have genuine care and concern. Not the fake check in the box care, because we all have that radar on. We know when it’s real or not. Transformational leaders really want to make sure that people are achieving their very best.

The fourth quadrant is the creativity quadrant. If you’ll notice, for instance, in ‘Growth’ you’ll see servant leadership, empathetic leadership, etc.. A lot of these things have been discussed already, but one thing that Burns really tapped into that others weren’t talking about at the time was this idea that even though we can create these really good vibes amongst the people in the organization, at the end of the day, we still have to perform. We still have to deliver business results. To do so, that means we have to be innovative, we have to be creative, we have to be competitive. What Burns said is the best way to do that is for the leader to get out of the way. To create an environment where people can challenge the status quo. Where they can innovate. The best way to do that is to decentralize the decision making authority. Empower others.

We’ve seen other bodies or research extend beyond what Burns proposed in this quadrant. Adaptive leadership is a more contemporary discussion of what happens when this change is in a whole new area of unknowns. We’ve never gone here before and what does that demand of 21st-century leadership?

If you look at the bottom two, are really about the leader leading themselves.

  • Am I leading with vision? Am I inspiring others? Am I leading with integrity and authenticity?

The top two are really about the leader and how they interact with others.

  • Do I have genuine care and concern for the people in our organization? Am I helping them grown? Am I unleashing them to achieve their full potential? Am I giving them the opportunity to innovate?

Last but not least, the transformation leader understands the journey is never done. They’re always learning. They’re always growing. They’re always developing themselves as well as the people in the organization.

What I learned

I discovered in my research on transformational leadership is just how strongly it’s been correlated in many studies with successful organizational change, largely due to the way employees respond to the change when their leaders are exhibiting these behaviors.

In fact, multiple studies have concluded that how leaders lead has a greater influence on successful organizational change than any specific change methodology. The most exciting thing I learned from all of this research is that these leader behaviors can be learned. We’re not born with them. We can absolutely choose to be this kind of leader. Learn and adopt these behaviors.

During this time I also met Gene Kim

He was so supportive. All the time I was going through this process, every time we talked he was curious. “What are you learning, what are you learning?” Then last year he invited me to share in one of the breakout sessions at the DevOps Enterprise Summit of everything I’d learned so far. He mentioned the study that we did. We took the survey instrument on transformational leadership and asked all of the past and previous speakers to take that survey.

We got a statistically significant result and that’s right out of the report. By far, that group of leaders that were successfully leadership transformation in their organizations all self-identified with these transformational leadership behaviors.

Of course, Gene also mentioned that they were so excited about that he and everybody at DORA, actually added it to this year’s state of DevOps report. Some of the findings are absolutely amazing. What I found was amazing is while my study was correlational, they were able to find that these behaviors are actually predictive.

You could predict high performing teams based on the presence of these behaviors. You could also predict that if you had a low performing team, you would see a low presence of these behaviors. That has tremendous implications for those of us in organizations who are considering or in the process of transitioning to or embracing Agile and DevOps practices.

Not only are we seeing this pattern in research

But we’re seeing it amongst some of the most recognized and written and well-known authors and speakers in the industry. In his book, Turn the Ship Around, David Marquet talks about how he learned that his job as a leader had shifted from taking control and attracting followers to giving control and growing leaders. Those are the top two quadrants of the transformational leadership model.

Then folks like Simon Sinek in Start with Why and Leaders Eat Last. There’s a quote in his book where he talks about it’s the role of the leader to create that environment for innovation. Creativity quadrant.

Then Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of Lean In. She talked at one point of the importance of leaders having authenticity, and authenticity is so much more important than perfection. That’s the lower right-hand quadrant.

This all sounds great— but here’s the reality

It doesn’t mean it’s easy. Change is hard. People often respond poorly to change.

Sometimes we might think it’s easier to cast off those who are really struggling with the new way of working and bringing a different set of people that will embrace the change, but I’m going to tell you that’s not the answer. I’m currently reading Eric Ries’ new book, The Startup Way, and he establishes that right in the very front.

We know that not everyone will choose to take this journey with us, but we should do everything that we can to lead with empathy and reinforce the value that every individual brings to the organization.

One of the most resistant groups that we find is middle management

We’ve all heard that. It’s not surprising if we really think about it. They have the most responsibility and accountability if the change goes bad, but often had the least authority to choose or direct a change. They’re also frequently the least confident in their ability to successfully manage the change because transitioning to Agile and DevOps often impacts their jobs the most.

“What am I going to do? Direct teams?”

— Actually, no. Our teams are self-directed now.

“Okay. So I can define the work, right?”

—No, actually the teams do that too.

“Okay, well maybe I prioritize the work?”

—No, actually we’ve got product owners and product managers that do that.

You see the pattern.

Here’s what we have to do

Leaders, if you are in a position of leading change, it is incumbent on you to make sure that these people know that they are valued. We need them. They have experience. They have knowledge of our systems. They have relationships, they have networks inside and outside the company. Sometimes they know where the skeletons are buried, but that’s good because that information is critical to keep us from running off the cliff.

Remember, this is important because after all experience never gets old and you never know who has it within them to truly make your transitional and transformational efforts successful.

Now I’d like to share a story

From my own experience in transformational leadership, and how it played out in a company that I worked for previously. I hope this is encouraging you to explore these leader behaviors and how they connect with organizational change further.

Now, Prior to coming to Scaled Agile where I work now, I worked for a company called SRA. We were a federal IT services company doing business with our government. Around 2013, our market was in an absolutely node dive. We had a burning platform. It had to do with the shrinking addressable market.

We had sequestration hit us. We were pulling out of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, so the military budgets were shrinking. The dollars were drawing up and what that created was this time of hyper-competition.

What was saw happening in our industry was a lot of other companies were doing massive layoffs and they had the strategy of hunkering down and surviving. However, we had a CEO by the name of Dr. Bill Ballhaus. Someone that I truly believe is and was at this time a transformational leader.

Bill had a different approach.

He said, “Look. Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to protect the base. We’re going to be wickedly efficient. We’re going to perform better the competition and we’re going to take market share. We are not going to hunker down. We’re not just going to survive, we’re going to thrive.”

Now, there’s a bold vision.

As we looked at how we were going to do this, one of the first things that Bill did was to assess, do we have the right leadership, mindset, and behaviors to lead through this change successfully, and the answer he, and the conclusion he came to was no. We don’t.

We had to prepare our leadership to lead their teams to where we needed to go and to do that our leaders needed a common language, a common understanding of the environment, and what it was going to take to succeed. That what we did and however we did it, had to be grounded in our core values of honesty and service regardless of what the changes were that we implemented. We needed to train everyone in these leader behaviors and we had to create critical mass. We had to be aligned with our core strategies.

Bill also made it clear that this wasn’t just an executive initiative. We had to get our middle managers to provide it with the knowledge and the equipping of what it was going to take to bring knowledge workers into this conversation because they would ultimately drive the success or failure of the changes that we were going to put in place.

We had to instill at all levels, what did it mean to be a leader, to have the right mindsets, the right behaviors. Especially in a time like we were facing when things were complex and difficult.

Here’s what we did

First, we did this one day experience called leading with honesty and service. It was a session to re-ground us in our core values, our history, the changing market, what it was going to take to survive and then to thrive as Bill had articulated. What was amazing, over this one year period, over 1,000 leaders were trained and Bill lead every single session himself. Everybody heard straight from the top, this is where we’re going to go and this is how we’re going to get there.

Next, we took the senior leaders through leadership training. They felt it was important to set the right tone, the right message, it’s important for us to change our leadership first, and that created an environment where other leaders were open to, “Hey, maybe I need to change as well.”

Then we built a transformational leadership program, and I’ll describe that a little bit more, but we took 150 of our next level leaders through this one year process ending with an adaptive challenge as sort of the final project.

We also built a program specifically for our program and project managers. They’re the frontline managers that were providing direct supervision to the teams that were responsible for over 90% of the company’s revenue.

Finally, leadership is not just about your formal title. We need leaders at every level, all the way down at the team level, even if it’s informal leadership. We also trained our teams. We put a one-day training, traveling roadshow. We went to where the project teams were and we delivered this experience of what it meant to be and lead on a high performing team.

Here’s what that Transformational Leadership program looked like

It was a synthesis of best thoughts and ideas from organizational development, from transformational leadership, from adaptive leadership, and we put it all into this sequence of steps.

  • First, everybody took a 360 assessment. We’re biased. We don’t have a good clear picture of our own strengths and weaknesses, so we needed to get that baseline where each person was starting from. We gave each individual feedback based on the results of the survey.
  • We then formed everybody into small teams. Small teams are awesome. We know that. We went through the process with your small team.
  • We then did four in-residents workshops. Four times a year. Basically, once a quarter. Each session was focused on one of the four areas of transformational leadership.It wasn’t just a lecture. It was very experiential. We used the best of adult learning and brain science from folks like Sharon Beauman, so you got to interact with these principles and really exercise them as an individual leader.
  • Everybody had one on one mentors that we could have private conversations with, to be very transparent and get some honest feedback. That was really important.
  • We gave them the reading list. We talked about that continuous individual plan do-check-adjust cycle that transformational leaders have to have, and so we gave them some good resources to turn to.
  • Virtual check-ins. Each small group had a coach and so we do call ins just to see how everybody’s doing in exercising the things between the immersion days that they wanted to work on.
  • Then at the very end, everybody picked ad adaptive challenge. Adaptive challenges were where people saw either a great opportunity or a big barrier to this vision that we had as a company, and they would select that adaptive challenge, they would form their team. Could be their existing team or a virtual team. They would tackle that challenge, but they would tackle it using these new leader behaviors that we have been focusing on the last year.

Some of the results were absolutely amazing

I spent my last year in the company working on a workforce optimization team whose purpose was to turn the curve of our attrition rate and be very proactive in finding people that next assignment when their projects were coming to end rather than just sending them to the job board. It was amazing the feedback. People said, “I’ve been working for this company for 20 years and it’s the first time I felt that somebody actually cares whether I stay here or not.”

The company experienced some hard results too

In the first year, what we saw was the numbers that had been going steadily downward. They leveled out a little bit. We started bending the curve. By the second year, it was pretty amazing.

All the key metrics that we were monitoring, all the things that we set in the vision and the target of how what were the leading indicators. Eric Ries, innovation accounting, what are the leading indicators we’re going to see that are going to tell us whether or not we’re doing the right thing and we’re achieving the results that we’re after. We absolutely saw that.

In fact, if you looked at our numbers compared to the rest of the market, we looked like the little engine that could. We were going up when everybody else is still going down and they’re like, “How are you guys doing that?”

To put the bow on the story, it got some attention. In 2015, we actually merged with one of our competitors and formed what is now known as CSRA, which was recently recognized as the number one provider of federal IT services in the market. Not bad.

What have we learned?

Final thoughts and words of advice.

  1. Change is hard and it’s likely to fail without the right kind of effective leaders,
  2. Leading with the right leader behaviors.
  3. We absolutely need leaders who can make a difference, and how we lead is a choice. It’s not predestined for us. Regardless of what our life experience has been, how we’ve gotten to where we’re at, we can choose to lead differently.
  4. High performing leader behaviors unlock the absolutely best in all of us and that’s what we need to succeed in our markets,
  5. Finally, these leader behaviors can be learned.

Here are just some things. If you’re wanting to go on this journey yourself, regardless of what your company is doing, you can get 360 feedback. You can get a mentor. You can get a coach. You can begin this journey yourself right away.

- About The Authors
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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.

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