I generally dislike war and military metaphors for team and making activities. Admittedly IT has a lot to learn from the military in terms of teams and scale, but in the wrong hands these metaphors seem to encourage unproductive conflict and counter-collaborative behaviours. This strikes me as odd because although prepared for conflict, the military spend much of their time avoiding or minimising it. However, I do need to call upon a slightly violent metaphor to describe the relationship between constraints encountered when building a continuous delivery capability in an organisation.
The process of change reminds me of the nineties arcade game Whacky Gators, where a number of cheeky gators poke their heads out of caves, and you biff them with a large hammer, hands, or other appendage depending on personal preference. You never know which gator will appear, or when, and more than one might show up at once.
When encouraging continuous delivery (and by extension DevOps) those gators might be named: Culture, Tools, Organisation, Process, and Architecture.
These five are interdependent constraints, each affecting the other. However, while inside Whacky Gators is a fairly simple randomiser determining which gator will surface, behind the scenes our organisations look more like a hideous HR Giger meets Heath Robinson mash up. We can’t readily inspect them to determine what to change.
My theory is that when one constraint is eased it will reveal a new constraint in a different area. This is a tenet of most agile and learning methods – surface a significant issue, deal with it, see what surfaces next. Often a method, and our expertise, focuses on just a couple of areas, we’re well versed at solving problems with technical solutions, or just improving our own team’s capability in isolation.
A good continuous delivery capability involves the whole engineering organisation (a great one involves the entire organisation). This means it is crucial to consider all five constraints, and when there is a problem be ready to shift focus and look for the solution in one of the other areas. In fact, this simple shifting may lead to the root of a problem. Do reams of process indicate a risk adverse culture? The solution may not be more process, but a different attitude. Are those tools covering up or compensating for some thorny, unspoken issue no one dared to face? When trying to improve delivery capability there may be a temptation to replace an old tool with an improved version, maybe the need for that tool (and associated overheads) can disappear with an ounce of process and a healthy dollop of collaboration?
Returning to our Whacky Gators metaphor, the big question is how are you playing? Do you simply wait for that same familiar gator to return? The one you’re most comfortable dealing with? Do you hover where you are comfortable while other opportunities pass by or, are you nimble, and brave enough to tackle each constraint as it appears?
While I was looking up Whacky Gators, I couldn’t resist a peak in the machine service manual, there I found this uncanny quote on success, as applicable in the game, as it is in change:
“The player does not score extra points by hitting harder; a light touch will activate the circuits and will lead to higher scores.”