Management, Leadership, Continuous Improvement, and DevOps

There is a management aphorism that “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” That gets attributed to Peter Drucker, though it is not actually what he said. What he said was “If you can’t measure it, you can’t IMPROVE it”. That’s an important difference as we talk about bringing DevOps and its related practices and disciplines to enterprises.

If you think about it, measuring with an intent to improve something is a much more challenging statement. Management of something is usually about keeping it within known parameters – maintaining a certain status quo. That is not to imply that Management is not valuable – it is absolutely crucial in maintaining a level of rigor to what is going on. But Improvement deliberately pressures the status quo to redefine the status quo at a new point. In fact, redefining a status quo to a better state sounds an awful lot like what we talk about in the DevOps movement.

Improvement always sounds very cool, but there is also an icky truth about Improvement – it is a relative thing. There are no easy answers for questions like:

  • ‘What point are we improving to?’
  • ‘How do we know when we have improved enough for a while in one area?’
  • ‘What is the acceptable rate of progress toward the improved state?’
  • and so on…

Those must be answered carefully and the answers must be related to each other. Answering those questions requires something different from Management. It requires Leadership to provide a vision. That brings us to another famous Drucker quote: “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”

That quote is a sharp observation, but it does not really judge one as ‘better’ than the other. Leadership is exciting and tends to be much more inspirational at the human level. It therefore usually gets more attention in transitional efforts. However, without the balance of Management, Leadership may not be a sustainable thing in a business situation.

In terms of DevOps and the discipline of Continuous Improvement, the balance of these two things can be articulated with relative clarity. Leadership provides the answers for the hard questions. Management provides the rigor and discipline to maintain steady progress toward the new status quo defined by those answers. Put more simply, Leadership sets forth the goals and Management makes sure we get to those goals.

There is a certain bias in DevOps where we value Leadership – the desire to set and pursue improvement of our daily tech grind. Maybe that is because DevOps is an emergent area that requires a certain fortitude and focus on the doing the right things to get it started. And Leadership is certainly good for that. However, I also work with organizations where the well-intended, but unfocused, efforts of leadership-minded people lead to chaos. And those DevOps ‘transformations’ tend to flounder and even make things worse for the people involved. Which is not very DevOps at all.

I have seen enough of these that I have been spending time lately trying to organize my thoughts on the balance point. In the meantime, a piece of advice when you want to pursue a great idea / innovation – figure out how you want to answer the hard questions so you can make them stick in your organization and truly reap the benefit of that idea. Then, you can get on to the next one, and the next one, and the next one – to achieve the steady improvement of your status quo that is near the heart of DevOps culture.

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