Ranger4 DevOps Blog

Your DevOps Brain: Ways of Thinking, Ways of Working

Posted by Helen Beal on Wed, May 15, 2019 @ 12:05 PM

One of the DevOps myths I frequently have to address is that DevOps is all about automation and tools. Whilst they are an essential element to attain the DevOps goal of optimising the flow from idea to value realisation in order to deliver better value outcomes faster and more safely, early on in the evolution of DevOps, Damon Edwards and John Willis came up with the CALMS acronym to help explain the lenses of DevOps concern and the C taught us that Culture is also an essential element. This thinking is supported by this Gartner article that shows in their research that 50% of people asked say that people issues (as opposed to process, technology and information issues) present by far the biggest inhibitor to the adoption of DevOps principles and practices - and also my own observations with my clients who tell me culture is the most difficult challenge they face today.

And they've been saying that from the start; when we launched Ranger4's DevOps business around seven years ago we thought we were building a business around software and tools. That's what we'd done before and as technologists that was our logical choice. We were surprised when over and over again our clients asked us how they could change culture. We were used to talking about bits and bytes; that 'soft' stuff, emotions and feelings, was for the water cooler, or in British lingo, down the pub, right? But we set off down the road to help and quickly figured out that as part of our discovery and analysis work we could quantify culture and we could identify cultural artifacts. It became apparent that culture is essentially behaviour and this was key - because we realised it was possible to influence behaviour in a way that often felt baffling when we thought about changing culture - this nebulous, multifaceted thing that was hard to grab hold of.

Helping organisations adopt DevOps principles means we have to support their change agents and leaders in helping a mass of humans train their brains to comprehend and practice new ways of working - essential moving from a project centric world to one that embraces product, autonomy, value stream or chain thinking and cross-functional, incremental approaches.

The more work we did, the more that we realised that changing behaviour was at the core and key to this was understanding what drives our behaviour: our brains. Over the past few years I have discovered that neuroscience provides masses of guidance to assist in organisational, evolutionary change - and because it's science, it's data-driven and we can trust it.

A few facts about the brain then, this amazing organ we all have:

  • Weighs 3lbs (2% of body weight)
  • Gets 20% of the blood and oxygen available in our body
  • 60% of the dry weight is fat (that's a LOT)
  • 100,000 miles of blood vessels
  • 2% dehydration affects cognitive skills
  • Every minute one litre of blood flows through the brain
  • Humans have the largest brains proportional to body weight
  • Contains 86 billion neurons

TIP: If you want to know more about the different parts of the brain, this interactive 3D model from the Wellcome Trust is AMAZE

And some about neurons:

  • They communicate with each other using electrical and chemical signals
  • Neurons link via axons producing a neural circuit
  • Different circuits perform different tasks
  • A neuron can transmit 1,000 nerve impulses per second
  • There are 10,000 specific types of neurons in the brain
  • Brain information travels at 268 mph

Learning and Unlearning

Without exception, our clients are all trying to transition to agile from waterfall at the core of the technology and business challenge. They all recognise that they are being digitally disrupted and if they want to survive, ideally thrive, they need to be able to perform better in terms of both throughput and stability. But if all the people in an organisation, whether 200 or 20,000, have been trained to work in a project oriented manner, funding works that way, systems have become tightly-coupled monoliths as they themselves have evolved, organisational structure is siloed, change advisory boards and release management teams exist, swathes of the organisation are outsourced, technical debt has run rife, it's hard for people to change their behaviours. They effectively have to unlearn what they have been taught and believed in for years, maybe decades.

Barry O'Reilly, in his recent book, 'Unlearn', defines unlearning as:

“The process of letting go of, moving away from, and reframing once-useful mind-sets and acquired behaviours that were effective in the past, but now limit our success. It’s not forgetting or discarding knowledge or experience; it’s the conscious act of letting go of outdated information and actively gathering and taking in new information to inform effective decision making and action.”

But previously we have also learned about mindsets from Carol Dweck: simply, you're either a learner (growth mindset) or not (fixed mindset). But neuroplasticity teaches us this isn't necessarily true. So even though some people may feel their brains limit their potential and prevent them from learning, science tells us that learning can change our brains in terms of function, connectivity and structure and research has shown that simply knowing about brain plasticity can improve people's ability to learn. Consider these examples:

London taxi drivers have a larger hippocampus (this also contains the entorhinal cortex; the neural circuit for spatial awareness - our inbuilt GPS if you like) than London bus drivers because this region of the brain is specialised in acquiring and using complex spatial information in order to navigate efficiently. Taxi drivers have to navigate around London whereas bus drivers follow a limited set of routes.

FUN FACT: The word 'hippocampus' comes from the Greek word for 'seahorse' - check out the 3D brain above and you'll see why.

Learning a second language is possible through functional changes in the brain: the left inferior parietal lobule is larger in bilingual brains than in monolingual brains.

Grey matter (cortex) volume is highest in professional musicians, intermediate in amateur musicians, and lowest in non-musicians in several brain areas involved in playing music: motor regions, anterior superior parietal areas and inferior temporal areas.

FUN FACT: Squirrels' brains grow in the autumn as they build extensive maps of where they have hidden all their nuts for the winter.

This makes me wonder if developers have different shaped brains to, say, architects or finance professionals.

So ok, now we know that the brain is literally built for learning, let's explore more how it actually does it. In the frontal cortex we have the frontal lobe where working memory resides. Consider this string of characters:


Now consider these:


They are the same characters, just in different sets - but the second set are much more memorable right? This is because the working memory is actually only capable of holding about three chunks of information at once -  but (especially if you are British) you already know that "BBC" is the British Broadcasting Corporation, that "RAF" is the "Royal Air Force" - they are essentially a single piece of information each.

However, when we practice, activity shifts from working memory to regions more involved with automatic unconscious processing (away from the front of the brain). Practice helps consolidate freshly-learnt mental processes until we can do them almost without thinking, so reducing the burden on working memory. This is why part of what we learn in DevOps is the improvement kata. Cognitive load theory assumes that knowledge is stored in longterm memory in the form of schemas: a schema organises elements of information according to how they will be used. Skilled performance is developed through combining complex schemas - we effectively automate the brain (ever driven home and not remembered the actual drive home?). Whilst this automaticity is incredible, it also explains some of the challenge around unlearning these patterns deeply embedded in our brains.

Why is this important in the context of changing ways of thinking and working? Well for starters, we can only expect people to process a few new concepts at once. And there are things that disturb the working memory and therefore the learning process.

One of the key ones is fear. Deep in our brain is the amygdala - often referred to as the 'lizard brain' as it's the first piece that evolved way back when. It's where our fight or flight response is triggered and what tells our bodies to produce adrenalin and cortisol (the stress hormone). But we aren't under threat at work, are we? Well yes, the same system responds to social threat and if we, as many of us do, work in an environment where blame is endemic and mistakes and failures are punished we will often experience fear.

We could be afraid of the change we are being presented with - many organisations we work with announce and launch large scale 'transformation' programmes which promise to revolutionise they way they operate. But as Britt Andreatta says in her book, Wired to Resist:

“Several structures in our brain are actually designed to protect us from the potentially harmful effects of change. Humans are wired to resist change and we are working against our biology at every turn. It’s well documented that every year 50 to 70 percent of all change initiatives fail.”

Fear causes subcortical activity in the amygdala which in turn activates the working memory network in the frontal lobe (where conscious attention happens) which makes it harder to learn as the anxiety is a distraction. Fear creates an avoidance response: a response that prevents an unpleasant experience, avoiding something from occurring. Fear makes it harder to learn, harder to change. Part of what we have to do is create a safe place: a place where failure is a learning opportunity and we have psychological safety as well as systemic mechanisms (continuous integration/delivery, automated deployments, proactive monitoring, limited blast radius and antifragility capabilities) that protect us from the worst, most catastrophic, types of failure.

On the plus side, it's also possible for the brain to exhibit an approach response: behaviour that brings an individual closer to a reward. Once again this is driven in the amygdala and also involves a hormone, this time dopamine - the "happy hormone". Anticipation creates an uptake of neuromodulators from deep within the brain that influence the way our frontal cortex is operating so that our brain can become more focused on the source of the excitement and improves memory of the experience. Topics that engage curiosity have been shown to stimulate activities in the brain’s reward regions and satisfying curiosity can be its own reward: it feels GOOD (thank you dopamine). Shared attention can have the same effect - social learning is a whole field to consider in itself.

So we know rewards are good, so how do we work out the right ones to motivate the people we work with? Neuroleader, David Rock’s research shows that our limbic (lizard) brain is at work not just with respect to physical threat and reward but also with regard to social threat and reward and that we exhibit the same fear and approach responses in the work context. He postulates that we each have different responses in different situations and uses the SCARF model to help understand ourselves and those around us. The premise is that we are primarily driven by one of the following motivational angles:

  • Status – the relative importance to others
  • Certainty – the ability to predict future
  • Autonomy – the sense of control over events
  • Relatedness – the sense of safety with others
  • Fairness – the perception of fair exchanges

So we need to consider what the humans we are working with need, how they are motivated and how we can help them adopt new ways of working and thinking. While we are doing this work we may also want to consider mirror neurons. Mirror neurons activate when we see someone doing something (like smiling or going to talk to someone) and are related to empathic, social and imitative behaviour. They are a fundamental tool for learning. And a key way of influencing people.

Rolling all of this up into something that you can use to help make change happen in your organisation: if you are driving new ways of working, like DevOps, in your organisation, we suggest you:

  • Be conscious (mindful) of these concepts
  • Discover what engages your colleagues through learning about their interests, their existing understanding and observing their response to different approaches
  • Look beyond behaviour to the brain
  • Create psychological safety to improve learning
  • Model the behaviour you want to see: you are a mirror
Would you be interested in participating in some neuroscientific research on what DevOps change looks like? Let us know in the comments section below.

Topics: Neuroscience