How Would You Rate Your Organization?

larry apke, devops, cultural shift, agile doctor, software development

While browsing the 2014 State of DevOps Report, the authors referred to a study by a Professor Westrum of Eastern Michigan University called A Typology of Organizational Cultures. In this article, Westrum studied the flow of safety information within hospitals, how that flow could be classified into an organizational typology and what effect that typology had on organizational safety. His conclusion was that:

“Because information flow is both influential and also indicative of other aspects of culture, it can be used to predict how organizations or parts of them will behave when signs of trouble arise. From case studies and some systematic research it appears that information culture is indeed associated with error reporting and with performance, including safety.”

The table below summarizes Westrums types:




Power Oriented

Rule Oriented

Performance Oriented

Low cooperation

Modest cooperation

High cooperation

Messengers shot

Messengers neglected

Messengers trained

Responsibilities shirked

Narrow responsibilities

Risks are shared

Bridging discouraged

Bridging tolerated

Bridging encouraged

Failure leads to scapegoating

Failure leads to justice

Failure leads to inquiry

Novelty crushed

Novelty leads to problems

Novelty implemented

In the DevOps Report, they tracked the ability to be successful with DevOps to the three organizational types Westrum mentions: Pathological, Bureaucratic and Generative.

They found, unsurprisingly I might add, that the ability to successfully transition to a DevOps culture was tied to the organizational culture, with the most success seen by Generative organizations.

 “DevOps” is now the new buzzword, but the 2014 State of DevOps Report (and Westrum’s typology) reinforce that DevOps is clearly a cultural shift and that large organizations, which tend to be pathological as a rule (with some of the more noble ones merely bureaucratic) will only implement “DevOps” in name only or as a repackaging of the existing operational silo.

While the authors of the DevOps Report tied Westrum’s typology to DevOps implementation, the relationship between culture and a larger organizational adoption of Agile are crystal (pun intended) clear. I would go so far to say that in my extensive experience with organizational transitions to Agile that until the issues of culture are addressed by upper management (by a C-Level Executive – perhaps a CAO) then even attempting to make an Agile transition is not only destined to fail, but more than likely, fail in spectacular fashion.

At issue is not whether you can get some short term gains at the team level, but that without cultural support, whatever gains made will be unsustainable.

In my experience there are a few things likely to happen:

  • First, you will optimize the team at the expense of the system. There is little benefit to creating code faster if it cannot be deployed (hence the new DevOps push).
  • Second, you will optimize team speed at the expense of quality. In Pathological and Bureaucratic organizations the shift to quality is unlikely to be embraced so creating features faster only increases technical debt faster.
  • Third, as the novelty of the Agile implementation fades (think Hawthorne effect), what you are left with is a group of individuals who are increasingly disgruntled by the consistent failure of the larger organization and upper management to remove even the most fundamental impediments. What’s the point of showing people a better way to create software and then not allowing those people to actually do it? It is at best incompetent and at worst borderline criminal.

I suspect that a great deal of the backlash Agile has received of late is directly tied to Pathological and Bureaucratic late adopters flailing at a transition to Agile.

My advice? Ask yourself, or, better yet, ask your employees to honestly rate your organization with regards to Westrum’s typology

If you are identified as Pathological or Bureaucratic, address your culture issues first before embarking on Agile transformation.

Agile coaches can help if they are allowed to work directly with upper management to help them to change the culture, but having them work directly with teams (without addressing culture) is like sowing seeds on a footpath.

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