The Westrum model has been shown to predict software delivery performance. It also helps us get a quantifiable handle on the intangible concept of culture. 

With concrete focus points, it is a fantastic way to start improving your culture. This episode covers the Westrum Model.

Sources

https://cloud.google.com/solutions/devops/devops-culture-westrum-organizational-culture

https://inthecloud.withgoogle.com/state-of-devops-18/dl-cd.html

https://qualitysafety.bmj.com/content/13/suppl_2/ii22

https://www.amazon.com/Accelerate-Software-Performing-Technology-Organizations/dp/1942788339

 

Transcript

Culture - We know it is the foundation upon which we build high performing teams. Yet, it is a difficult topic to address. We struggle to quantify culture, and what does good culture mean?

How can we approach improving our culture without resorting to jamborees and dancing around the bonfires? Team building can feel very disconnected from our everyday lives.

The Westrum Typology of Organizational cultures is a model that helps us quantify our culture with focus on information flow in the organization. It has even been shown to drive software delivery performance. The Westrum model gives us an actionable approach to good culture. I’m Johan Abildskov, join me in the dojo to learn.

In any conversation about transformations, whether digital, agile or DevOps, you can be certain that before much time has passed, someone clever will state “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. This quote is from Peter Drucker and implies that no matter how much effort we put into getting the strategy perfect, execution will fail if we do not also improve the culture. Culture is to organizations what personality is to people. We can make all the new years resolutions, fancy diets and exercise plans, but if we do not change our habits, our patterns, or personality, even the best-laid plans will fail. While a human lapse in strategy might involve eating an extra cupcake and result in weight gain we had not planned for, an organizational lapse in culture might be accidentally scolding someone for bringing bad news to light, which results in an organization where problems and challenges are hidden.

So it is important that we focus on establishing a healthy culture on top of which we can execute our clever strategies. Our culture is the behaviour that defines how we react as an organization.

 

Ron Westrum is an American sociologist, that has done research on the influence of culture to for instance patient outcomes in the health sector. He has built a model of organizational culture based on information flow through the organization. Being in the good end of this scale has been shown by the DevOps Research and Assessment team to be predictive of software delivery performance and organizational performance.

 

There are three categories of organizations in the Westrum model, Pathological or power oriented. Bureacratic or rule oriented and generative or performance oriented. 

 

In pathological organizations, information is wielded as a weapon, used to fortify ones position, or withheld as leverage to be injected at the right moment to sabotage others, or cover ones own mistakes. Cooperation is discouraged as that can bring instability into the power balance, and the only accountability that is present is scapegoating and the blame game. Obviously this is a toxic environment, and the least performing organization type.

 

In the bureaucratic organizations the overarching theme is that it doesn’t matter if we did something wrong or in a bad way, as long as we do it by the book. Responsibilities are accepted, but the priority is not sensemaking, the priority is that no one can claim we did something wrong. Bad news are typically ignored, by the logic that the process is right, and the process is working. 

 

Generative organizations focus on outcome or performance. It doesn’t matter who gets credit as long as the organization wins. Failures are treated as learning opportunities and might even be sought after in order to increase organizational learning. This increases transparency and allows local solutions to be exploited globally.

 

So from bad to good the three organizational types are Pathological, Bureaucratic and Generative.

 

So far I haven’t said anything about the specific characteristics or properties of these types. Nor given you any hints as to how you can measure or improve your culture. The Westrum model is measured on six different properties. The way it is done is through ask the members on a scale from 1-7 how much the agree with each of the Westrum properties. We can average and use that to plot into the Westrum model. I have built a free tool you can use for this. You can find a link in the show notes at dojo.fm. 

First, Westrum talks about cooperation on the team and across teams. We create cross-functional teams from each of the areas that take part in our software delivery, making sure that goals and incentives are aligned. 

 

Second, we train the messengers that bring bad news. We should celebrate bad news, as they represent a huge learning opportunity, and takes a lot of vulnerability on behalf of the messenger. We can use techniques such as blameless post-mortems to create organizational learning from incidents. 

 

Third, We share the risk across stakeholders, we also hold developers accountable for availability, and Ops for the speed with which features can be delivered. We set up the technological scaffolding that can enable this, such as providing development teams with metrics and insights from production environments.

 

Fourth, we encourage bridging. Or to use the original DevOps phrase, we break down silos. Common silos are business, Information Security, Quality Assurance, Development and Operations. Reach out beyond the boundaries and find shared goals and motivations. Figure out how you can make each other successful. The good news is that the most effective solution is to talk together. The bad news is that we as an industry tend to be very bad at sitting down and talking to each other. Management has a huge influence on this characteristic, as misaligned goals and incentives will destroy initiatives in this area.

 

Fifth is our ability to learn from failures. Modern distributed systems are typically so complex that it is unreasonable not to think of your services as always being degraded in some way or another. This is in stark contrast to the very risk-averse enterprise organization with zero tolerance for failures. When we learn from our failures, we might even inject them in our environments to maximize our learning. It doesn’t matter how technologically savvy we are, if our competition is able to out-learn us.

 

Sixth and last is how we approach novelties when they are presented to us. If we are able to build a culture where employees are able to experiment, in a safe way, we will be able to innovate and improve continuously. This means that we have to challenge the misconception that developer efficiency comes from high utilization, and that we need to have a high level of control. If we can build autonomous teams that can experiment with their process, we will end up in a good place.

 

I have gotten real respect for the Westrum model as it takes something as intangible as culture and makes it concrete and measurable. If we measure this once in a while and address the categories where we are not doing so well, or where we are relapsing to unhealthy behaviour, we end up with something as rare as an actionable concrete strategy for improving our culture.  That is powerful.

 

So in summary, there are six categories of the Westrum model. High Cooperation, Training the messengers, sharing the risks, encouraging bridging, learning from failures and implementing novelty. 

It can be easily measured, has been shown to drive software delivery performance, and has concrete focus areas that can guide you towards a better culture. 

 

So what is holding you back?

 

This has been the DevOpsDojo on how to measure your culture with Westrum Typology of Organizational Culture. You can follow me on twitter @randomsort. If you have any questions, feedback or just want to reach out and suggest a topic, do not hesitate. You can find show notes with transcripts, links and more at dojo.fm. Support the show by leaving a review, sharing this episode with a friend or colleague or subscribing to the DevOpsDojo on your favourite podcast platform. Thank you for listening, keep learning.

 

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