This series of posts is adapted from the DevOps Enterprise Forum guidance paper Winning Together: A Playbook for Aligning Technology & Business by Dominica DeGrandis, Ana E. Torres, Elisabeth Hendrickson, Levi Geinert, and Jeffrey Fredrick.
Jointly Frame and Prioritize Your Transformation Opportunities
Once you’ve set the stage for partnership, it’s important to maintain the trust that’s been built thus far and to jointly assess what makes sense to transform. Don’t walk into the conversation with a polished plan. While you, as the technology leader, may have ideas on what action to take first, so does the business leader you’re trying to influence. Here’s how you can effectively agree on what to tackle first:
- Step 1 Look at your data. What is the data telling you about your product space? Do you have a delivery issue? Quality issue? Customer adoption issue?
- Step 2 Jointly brainstorm the problem opportunities you each see in your ability to deliver better technology or product faster. Having trouble coming up with a joint list? Consider taking the full product team, which should include the Product Manager, through a value stream mapping (VSM) session. Value stream mapping is a highly effective mapping technique that will help you identify true bottlenecks and waste in your end-to-end delivery processes.
- Step 3 Discuss each opportunity with a focus on who is impacted by it and what value is derived by solving the problem. Make sure the value identified is agreed upon by both you and your partner. Again, this is an opportunity for you to see the value from each other’s perspectives. If you’ve completed a value stream map, you’ll be able to quickly see what impact a solution could have for your teams.
- Step 4 Look at the enterprise and product team level Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) (or strategic priorities) for your area of responsibility and align your transformation opportunities to those business level outcomes. Think of OKRs as three to five goals with measurable results of value. Since business leaders are measured, and thus motivated, by achieving those OKRs, a key to success is to ensure that whatever changes you do pursue are attributable to positive impacts on those outcomes.
- Step 5 Evaluate transformation opportunities for difficulty (How hard is it to solve?) and urgency for change (How painful is it?) such that you can identify quick wins and longer term bets you may want to place to transform your product team delivery.
- Step 6 With the context defined around the problem opportunities in the previous five steps, you should now be well-positioned to align on what to do first. Consider how you can both win with the ultimate agreement.
Co-Author Your Desired Definition of Awesome
Now that you’ve successfully decided together the what to transform, how do you set goals and measurable targets for the specific change you want to make?
At this point, you’re focusing primarily on establishing a vision, or a good set of business outcomes, not defining all the work the teams have to do. Make sure you collaborate intentionally with your business colleague to paint a clear picture of where you want to be once you make the desired change. As Simon Sinek says, “There is a difference between giving directions and giving direction . . . Great leaders do not get involved in the details of what route is taken, they focus on ensuring everyone is clear of the destination.”
Equally as important is that in driving a transformational change, you will need buy-in from the teams doing the work. Don’t define “how” they get there; instead, empower them by explaining where they’re going, what success looks like, and then provide them the learning resources and time to innovate and come up with the route to take. Here are a few approaches you might consider:
Collaborate on writing a fake press release or a customer letter that describes the world as it is once the value of the transformation goal has been achieved. Address things like: What does the world feel like? How do the teams feel? What does the customer say? Then get feedback from the teams doing the transformation work to gain buy-in. As Marty Cagan writes in Inspired, “if you can’t get your team excited, maybe it’s not worth doing.” He also goes on to say that this technique not only creates a feeling but also creates “empathy for the customer’s current pain and more clearly emphasizes to the team how their efforts can help the lives of these customers.”
Set a clear goal and related metrics to depict clearly what you want to accomplish and how you will measure that you have accomplished it. The goal should be motivational and focused on outcomes not tasks. Be sure to identify metrics that you can capture data for and that allows the teams to see how their work is actually moving the expected dials defined in the metrics. Seeing improvement data can also be motivating to teams, where beating the numbers becomes a challenge for the team.
Write a short, simple description for the “awesome” target state, and set it as a north star. Consider including the teams closest to the work as you brainstorm ideas of “awesome”. Make sure not to put any boundaries on the ideas. Things that seem the most laughable may just end up being where you land as a target state. Simplicity can be powerful and all that your teams may need to get started.
At Ross Clanton described during his DevOps Enterprise Summit-Virtual Las Vegas 2020 presentation, at American Airlines a simple statement of, “When a developer submits a pull request their code is in production within 1 hour and every step of the process is automated” led to the AA.com team ditching their release calendar and related processes and creating a world where you deploy when ready. Plus, giving AA.com team members (including the business Product Owners) time back on weekends definitely contributed to work satisfaction and increased morale on the team. More details on how they achieved these outcomes in the next section.
Focus on the Next Best Step Over the Big Bang
Having defined your awesome state you, your business partner, or both of you might want to go for it all at once. While the lure of awesome might tempt you into a big-bang approach, we recommend against it. One risk of a big-bang approach is that you scare off your business partner. To keep the Business engaged and wanting more, don’t think of transformation as a big bang. Change can feel daunting, monolithic, and easy to de-prioritize when it feels hard.
Instead, think about helping your business colleague see the future in a safer way—through a series of small, non-risky steps that build on each other and allow you to continuously improve and achieve your vision and desired awesome target state.
Whether you’re focused on delivering new features faster and having code agility, improving resiliency, reducing technical debt, or changing the culture to one of balanced empowerment and accountability, you can’t do it all at once. What small increments of change can, together, produce a huge win for your team’s delivery? While taking small steps might not feel inspiring, in practice getting rapid, concrete improvement creates a positive feedback loop where success feeds success.
One powerful method that has been used at American Airlines to achieve big technology wins is the Improvement Kata. Mike Rother defines an Improvement Kata as a repeatable four-step scientific thinking process that allows you to navigate solutions to difficult problems. He says:
Scientific thinking means knowing that any idea should be tested. It means learning to compare what you think (theory) with what actually happens (evidence), and adjusting based on what you discover from the difference. It’s a way of thinking that makes us better at reaching difficult goals through unpredictable territory.
When you use an Improvement Kata, it is important to question everything as you go through the following four steps:
- Define a vision or awesome end state as your north star.
- Understand the current state.
- Define your next best step and interim outcome.
- Experiment, evaluate, and, as you go, learn what the next steps should be.
As Jason Hobbs, Transformation Catalyst at American Airlines, shared with us, the AA.com team (including the business leaders and product owners) established the previously mentioned north star.At the time, the lead time for change was about three weeks and required processes, handoffs, and coordination of release activities. This north star appeared inconceivable, and team members even scoffed at the idea, thinking it would never happen.
However, the team set out on a journey to clear one impediment at a time, continuously improving the experience until, a year later, they were able to reach the ultimate outcome of deploying when ready with no human intervention.
The experiments they executed and learned from included ones that addressed process barriers, integrated QA silos, test automation needs, and many other constraints that burdened their release frequency and time to deploy. The continuous learning and benefits of all their experimentation paid off both personally and professionally for the team. They saved the company money and got their weekends and evenings back to spend with their families.
Indeed decomposing a difficult challenge into single-bite sizes and agreeing to learn from each step along the way takes a different mindset. It truly pays off not to pre-define all the work and instead keep your north star goal ever-present.