The DevOps engineer's handbook The DevOps engineer's handbook

Workplace cultures in simple terms

DevOps bases much of its cultural recommendations on the research of Professor Ron Westrum. Westrum found there were usually 3 different workplace culture types. Each encourages certain behaviors, sees information flow in various ways (or not at all), and impacts company goals differently.

The 3 culture types are:

  • Pathological
  • Bureaucratic
  • Generative

Westrum’s findings explain that of the 3, a Generative culture is the only one helpful in building strong teams, efficient communication channels, and the trust needed for organizations to become high performers. It’s also the one most aligned with DevOps’ philosophies and workflows.

In contrast, Pathological and Bureaucratic cultures are either counteractive to your goals or, at worst, poisonous to team dynamics.

Let’s look at each culture type in more detail. How many aspects do you recognize in your own workplace?

Pathological workplace culture (and why it’s bad for DevOps)

Pathological workplaces are where egos run unchecked, and power dynamics are a battleground.

Pathological culture sees:

  • Little-to-no cooperation
  • Messengers ‘shot’
  • Responsibilities avoided
  • Rare cooperation between teams
  • Failure scapegoated
  • Novelty ignored

Pathological work cultures happen when big personalities rule at the expense of the team’s goals. It could be a leader who decides it’s ‘their way or the highway’ or a few prominent people who dominate decision-making.

In either case, the focus becomes ‘winning’ every discussion due to personal goals rather than team success. Staff in pathological cultures are more likely to hoard important knowledge as they feel it’ll give them more power or make them more valuable.

Pathological workplaces negatively affect all but a few that work in them. If you’re not one of the loud voices, your opinion and expertise get ignored, no matter how important or valid. Bad ideas will always win if they’re loud enough, and many team members stop speaking up because, well, what’s the point?

When problems arise, pathological workplaces also tend to decide that someone must be to blame. Failure leads to witch hunts, scapegoats, and, eventually, punishment. Staff stop raising problems for fear of pointed fingers, and the organization suffers in the long run.

Bureaucratic workplace culture (and why it’s bad for DevOps)

Bureaucratic workplaces are where tight control becomes more important than results.

Bureaucratic culture sees:

  • Some cooperation
  • Messengers ignored
  • Fewer responsibilities
  • Cooperation between teams if essential
  • Failures end in ‘justice’
  • Novelty cause problems

Bureaucratic workplaces operate on the idea that the strict following of rules leads to fewer problems, an idea usually formed due to past failures. In, theory, it makes sense and even works as long as processes remain simple and rarely change.

Unfortunately, software development moves fast and strict rules prevent quick reaction and recovery. Be it heavily-policed release windows or approvals buried under layers of red tape, even sensible changes move only at a glacial pace.

When change does happen, it’s likely to happen all at once. For example, organizations will save updates and deploy in batches as it’s thought less risky to have only one instance of downtime. We’ve already written about why the opposite is true - see our section on Continuous Delivery to understand why.

Bureaucratic workplaces also discourage those pesky ideas that seek to improve things somewhat. Good ideas become risky variables that strike fear in the hearts of dutiful managers. Staff rarely risk stepping outside their zones and cooperate only if necessary or allowed, creating silos with competing priorities.

Like a pathological culture, failure also brings a desire to find the culprit. But where pathological workplaces point fingers for survival, bureaucratic culture does so in the name of justice. After all, a problem must mean that someone didn’t follow the rules closely enough, and maybe even more rules will help prevent it happening again.

Generative workplace culture (and why it’s great for DevOps)

Generative workplaces focus on improving team performance by empowering staff and improving communication.

Generative culture sees:

  • High cooperation
  • Messengers welcomed
  • Shared risks and responsibilities
  • Cooperation between teams encouraged
  • Failure leading to inquiry and improvement
  • Novelty welcomed

In a generative culture, everyone is responsible for achieving the organization’s goals. Sharing responsibility means information is more likely to move freely between those that need it, which reduces silos and the bottlenecks they cause. Everyone on the team fully understands their role in the overall machine, including visibility and input into what happens with their work, even after passing it on.

With limits clearly set and understood, staff in generative workplaces tend to have more agency than in other culture types. People can make quick decisions and take risks within those limits, and know when to call an expert or manager into decision-making. Even if a taken risk results in failure, it’s unpunished because failure is an acceptable outcome.

Why is failure acceptable? Because failure is good, actually! It’s an opportunity to learn more about your systems and processes, and it’s the best possible way to find areas for improvement. All workplace cultures experience failure but by embracing it, generative workplaces allow everyone to learn and grow from it.

The role of a manager is very different in generative culture. Rather than directing or policing the rules, the manager empowers and problem-solves for their team. For example, if someone needs help with a problem or a team needs a new tool to improve workflows, their manager will do everything possible to make it happen. Generative managers also trust that their teams want to do good work and allow clear and honest feedback to flow in both directions.

What’s next?

Generative culture pairs perfectly with DevOps’ processes and tooling, making it the best fit for software development.

But how do you topple the bad topologies and move towards a generative workplace culture? Read Tips for shifting to a generative culture for some ideas to get started.

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