Agility Comes from Knowledge

One of the members at Agile Austin is fond of saying that ‘the only true source of Agility is knowledge’.  I think that is very true in a lot of situations.  The more you know and understand, the more adaptable you can be.  It might be  a geek-spun buzzword version of the old aphorism that “knowledge is power”, but that doesn’t mean that it is in any way bad.  Indeed, old aphorisms, rephrased or not, stand the test of time because they speak to human nature.  For all of our technology, we’re still pretty much the same.

So, where does this cultural comment hit DevOps?  Many places, really, but today I am going to pick on the fact that Agile and DevOps require participants to know and understand more than what would have been present in their traditional job role.  It is no longer OK to just be the best coder or sysadmin or architect.  You have to maintain a much higher level of generalization to be effective in your specialized job role.

This can hurt people’s heads a bit.  Particularly in larger organizations where the message has been to specialize and be the best [technical role] that you can be.  The irony is that larger organizations tend to have large and complex application systems.  So, they have traditionally compensated by having teams of people who specialize in fitting things together across the specialties.  While this certainly works, there is often a lot of time spent on rework and polish to get the pieces to all fit together.  That also implies time, which directly impacts the responsiveness (agility) of the development organization to the business.

Now those organizations are faced with needing to retool their very culture (and the management structures entwined within it) to place some amount of value on generalization for their people.  That means deliberately encouraging staff to learn more and more about the “big picture” from all aspects – not just technical.  That means deliberately DIS-couraging isolationism in specific disciplines.  It also means deliberately blowing up organizational fiefdoms before they take hold.  And it means rewarding behaviors that focus on achieving the larger goals of the organization while rooting out incentives on very parochial behaviors

The funny thing is that this is not new.  When I was first a manager, I worked for a company obsessed with this sort of thing.  We were very high on the notion of ‘lifetime learning’ and organizational development in general.  It was a way that the company encouraged/taught/focused people to aggressively adapt to the changes that came with fast growth.  That company returned more to its investors than any other tech startup I have seen in a long time.  We never worried about solving problems -we all understood a lot about the business and had a common understanding of how it worked.  It was easy and fast to get people working on a problem because we did not have to waste time bringing people ‘up to speed’.  We knew how it fit together and understood the value of proactively pushing it into newbies’ heads.  They wouldn’t be newbies for long, after all.

This month’s book club selection  at Agile Austin is focusing on Peter Senge’s keystone work in this area – “The Fifth Discipline”.  I have not read it in a while, but it is damn good to hear people focusing on this stuff again.  I really liked a lot of the concepts in that book; probably because they are relatively timeless as it relates to human nature / behavior.


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