Strategic Leadership in DevOps

Has your enterprise lately embraced the DevOps strategy, and now you’ve found yourself in a leadership position but don’t know how best to lead your team to greater heights by implementing the most powerful and dynamic leadership style?

If you’ve answered YES, keep reading…

As the culture of collaboration continues to sweep across organizations, more and more enterprises are opting for DevOps. It focuses primarily on operational and business efficiency, driven by a leadership commitment to breaking down traditional workplace boundaries, resistance to change, and redundant, entrenched processes.

As that happens, more people find themselves leading DevOps initiatives, with the expectation to help re-engineer deep-rooted cultures, spearhead the breaking of boundaries that existed in organizations, and much more.

I imagine that you’ve been wondering:

  • How do you affect strategic leadership in DevOps?
  • What does strategic leadership entail in DevOps?
  • How to keep your team focused and continuously improving in performance and speed?

If you’ve had these or similar questions, then you picked the right article. You’ll learn what prominent leaders in DevOps do differently and how they manage to keep their teams efficient and their organizations in top gear all year round.

Let’s begin!

First Things First: Servant Leadership is Powerful, and it Matters

You know that a strategic leader understands that teams function at their best when they perceive their leaders as servant coaches instead of managers. While such a leader sets the team vision (as you might already be doing), they also provide the members with the autonomy to discover the improvements they have to make to determine how to work and achieve their goals.

In case you’re wondering, the fundamental themes here revolve around transparency, visibility, and, most importantly, trust.

When work is made more visible, everyone sees, understands, and somehow willingly influences flow and cycle times; it’s such an environment that fosters incremental improvements and creativity. Now, keep in mind that servant leadership is not just about that; you still have to deal with bureaucracy, handle conflicts, reduce toil, improve resistance to change, and lead a cultural transformation.

But how? I will give you two reasons:

  • Teams feel valued because their input is taken into consideration

I’m sure you are familiar with cases where team members may say ‘that’s not my job‘ when asked to address something. It is a mindset problem among employees or team members within organizations using traditional top-down leadership styles. Some leaders cannot help themselves being “Jack of all trades” and never reach out to their SMEs for decision making, leaving the team in a state of constant frustration. And as you would guess, such an attitude is very costly for organizations all around the world. It mostly happens because team members don’t feel their input, knowledge, experience, and time matter to determine the company direction. I would be bold and say that a particular leadership style is a significant cause of communication issues, team conflicts, and low morale.

Servant leadership helps foster a mindset shift that makes everyone want to solve problems because they ‘own’ the plans and the process. Every team member feels responsible for making decisions and solving problems as and when they arise. As a leader, you shall use opportunities for open feedback, increase employee engagement and build high-performing teams. Your leadership would play an essential role in keeping things pragmatic and joyous for your team.

In servant leadership, team engagement takes priority. It helps teams organize themselves as autonomous and reduce their leader’s dependencies to make decisions or give work directions. It means the possibilities for work to stall or go wrong would hardly be concerned if the leader is unavailable.

  • Insecurity and demotivation never stall critical processes

In a typical traditional management environment, many employees lack the courage to openly share their opinions with their leaders. It also has far fewer genuine employees, as you’d find in a servant leader-led setting. As you might already know, such backward environments cultivate a general feeling of ever trying to protect one’s position, recognition, or job. Employees in such organizations are unlikely to be transparent with their leaders about their expectations; the primary reason is the fear of being penalized or not getting due recognition. Unfortunately, it creates a void in the team and leadership and promotes what I would like to call the State of Abandonment.

Conversely, a progressive environment under servant-leadership has an organizational culture that promotes genuineness among the employees and leadership. Everyone feels safe telling the truth and worries less about a potential negative impact because their leader is empathetic and unbiased. You’d agree with me that, among other things, people would be more creative and motivated in such a setting.

The first rule of handling a DevOps team right, therefore, involves becoming a servant leader. If you look at things closely, you’ll realize that the typical servant leadership values correspond with the Agile philosophy of empowerment, collaboration, interaction, leadership distribution, interaction, and self-managed teams. 

It creates a mandate for every leader to prioritize a servant leadership style to enhance performance. If you adopt servant leadership, you effectively:

  • Nurture your team members by developing in them the mindset and capacity to become servant leaders.
  • Nurture a habit and spirit of continuous collaboration and continuous mutual commitment to excellence for the betterment of the organization.
  • Invigorate everyone to do their best for the betterment of everyone without being coerced or reminded constantly.
Besides that, being a strategic leader in DevOps requires establishing yourself as the head in a complex and highly fluctuating environment and teaching your employees to be the same.

Uncertainties, challenges, and changes are inevitable factors that we all have to appreciate in business. As a strategic leader looking to create the perfect base mindset in your team, you have to demonstrate and inspire mental clarity in the face of complexity. You will need to be able (and be perceived) to discern how and when the conditions are changing.

You must have heard about learning agility, a skill that is in high demand today in the realm of strategic leadership. 

If you haven’t, here’s a summary to update you:

Learning agility is the ability to find yourself in an unfamiliar problem without knowing what to do and finding a way out. An American author, Alvin Toffler, famously wrote, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn” in Future Shock, a book that he authored in 1970. This futuristic excerpt explains and contextualizes the concept of learning agility pretty well. 

As a leader, you can sense seemingly unrelated ideas and pieces of information and craft remarkable solutions from them. It would help if you also decided on the spot confidently even when you don’t have complete or compelling data. That means absorbing insight from your experiences, learning, and implementing it to solve unfamiliar problems. Some leaders would also focus on reducing toil across the teams, which is OK as long as they understand and account for parallel aspects of change.

Learning agility is essential as a strategic leadership skill because it unlocks your adaptation proficiency, which involves knowing what to do when you practically don’t know what to do. Firstly, having the ability to expunge information like that begins with continual awareness and reflection of different factors, including the company, customer, marketplace, employee needs, and yourself. 

This reflection puts you in a better position to identify when necessary to make a change, innovation, or evolution. You essentially become better placed to discern the complexities from a much broader stance and navigate the chances analytically. Practicing this critical skill in an Agile team is crucial because it motivates the rest of the team members to be proactive and flexible in the face of complexity and changing demands.

Final Thoughts

A strategic leader in DevOps focuses on instilling learning agility skills among their team in many ways but most notably celebrates the common mistakes as learning opportunities. As a leader:

  • Don’t promote a pedantic atmosphere – DevOps needs organic growth, and small wins matter. You certainly want to avoid thought leaders acting belligerently.
  • Have a clear set of objectives. Start small with precise practices, and believe in short-term gains.
  • Expect failure, do it early and often.
  • Promote experimentation. It will lead to excellence and coherency.

Openness to being wrong is an essential dimension of learning agility. Traditional leadership-based organizations often consider mistakes a taboo, which naturally leads to defensiveness among employees. It’s challenging to complete tasks with perfection the first time, but agile learners are excited about risk and new challenges, making them likely to make mistakes and learn fast how to do things right next time.

In this case, a strategic leader doesn’t smooth out the rough edges of existing agile learners but creates an environment that allows more learners to shine. That’s a place where risk is embraced and defensiveness is rendered unnecessary.

ARTICLE WRITTEN BY OUR ADVISOR

ANSHUL LALIT

HEAD OF DEVELOPMENT TECHNOLOGY & TRANSFORMATION | KONGSBERG DIGITAL

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