Covert Ops

When freedom to build meets the prison of processes

My favorite stories are of underdogs overcoming enormous odds to emerge victorious. Think Luke Skywalker going from farm boy on a desert planet to defeating the dreaded Empire or Frodo Baggins from mild-mannered hobbit to defeating the dark lord Sauron.

Underdogs are the backbone of the hero’s journey. We cheer on the underdogs in feel good articles in the newspaper. The crowds rally around the challenger that survives near disaster to cross the finish line. When it comes to underdogs in the corporate world though, it’s a dog eat dog world.

The storyline in most companies would more align to the show Survivor than the hero’s journey. Everyone is positioning to stay on the island. Of course, not every company is like this, but there is no denying that even in great company cultures, politics always exists.

In larger organizations, size and scale create a fervent bed for politics. It is more important to protect your team and budget rather than let another team enter your turf. This is the “one pie” view of the world, where resources are limited, and you have to grab your slice before someone else takes it. This is what budget season often feels like.

Another category of movies that I love is the escape film. My favorite of the genre is the 1963 film The Great Escape. It was based on the true story of Allied officers that broke out of a maximum security, “escape proof” German prison during World War II.

I find escape films interesting because they delve into the psychological balance between control and freedom. How much oppression are we willing to accept? At what point does the human spirit rise to break loose of confinement and seek the glory of freedom?

We probably would not put our day to day work lives in such a frame. It is work after all, we all make comprises, and do we really think we are being denied our freedoms? But there are many stories in the Enterprise IT world that sometimes feel like a great escape.

Take this story shared by John Cutler about a product team that did things a bit different:

This was a team that went under the radar, that eschewed the typical approach, and was able to get things done. Though they covered their tracks, it could have blown up in their faces and been a disaster for everyone’s career. Instead they escaped and received a hero’s welcome.

You might think this recalls the idea of skunkworks and the story of Kelly Johnson. However, in most organizations, skunkworks projects are authorized and financed. They are part of the system, the only thing different is more flexibility and agency to choose team members and decide product direction.

What is different here is an obvious defying of the “rules”. It feels more like shadow IT, but still not the same. This is not some hidden SaaS purchase, secret development project or surreptitious data modeling in the public cloud. What this team was doing was sanctioned by business and IT and “tracked” in Jira.

Instead what we are seeing is “Covert Ops”. It is a total focus on the results and the best path to achieving those results. What is not important are the rituals, methods and rules that define the “how” of getting stuff done in the organization. This is a full on rejection of the strict and unbending ways of working to insert a new organ that breeds innovation and agility and a freedom to try.

Speaking of agility, the story John shares sounds a lot like the promise of Agile. It was just people coming together without contracts or bargaining or overly perspective work tracking mechanisms. The team runs experiments, gains feedback, learns along the way, builds quickly and iteratively till they launch organization wide. Then jaws drop.

When enterprise grade SaaS and PaaS platforms became readily available, Shadow IT took off. Most IT leaders tried to play whack-a-mole to stamp out these intrusions to their turf. However, the smart IT leaders recognized two things. First, there was a rift and lack of trust between IT and business. Second, they were not moving fast enough to service the needs of the business.

Shadow IT became a non-issue in organizations with enlightened IT leaders. IT and business actively collaborated. IT built fast track processes to manage time sensitive needs. They created sandboxes to quickly test apps and platforms that let teams move forward yet gave IT enough time to vet security risks and support constraints. They adjusted for the needs of the business so that IT and the business could move faster.

Covert Ops is doing the same thing in helping teams to get products completed faster. It goes against the grain however when leadership is buying “all the Agile”, putting in things like SAFe, hiring Agile and Scrum coaches, and getting staff certified on DevOps. It is less about how we work together effectively and more about the process of doing work.

Steve Jobs once said something on the question of hiring and managing people:

“It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”

Many of the enterprises I work with do a good job hiring smart and capable people. The problem is when you tell those people what to do, how to do it, and put obstacles in the way of getting work accomplished. Then these people leave and the cycle repeats.

High performing people are not looking for bigger paychecks as their primary motivation, they are seeking fulfillment in their work. Especially on engineering teams, real satisfaction is in shipping code and giving users awesome technology. They want the freedom to build, but are shackled in a prison of processes.

Here is a suggestion, let your product teams figure out for themselves how they will get the work done. Measure success not on how they get it done or on adherence to process and Jira tickets, but on driving results and the innovations they discover along the way.

In the book Maverick, Ricardo Semler shared his story of how he radically changed the work culture of his Brazilian manufacturing company by empowering his staff. On the subject of policies and rules, he said:

“The desire for rules and the need for innovation are, I believe, incompatible…Rules freeze companies inside a glacier; innovation lets them ride sleighs over it”

If you watched the clip of The Great Escape I shared before, the team was working to free themselves from prison. They had to hide the dirt from their tunneling, and someone had an ingenious idea. Did he ask for permission? No, he tried out the idea, saw that it worked, and brought it to the team to implement. They did not need rules and processes to drive innovation, it happens when you give people and teams the agency to try things.

What are ways that you have enabled teams the freedom to work outside of the rules and processes? How did that change team morale and results?

Episode #2 — Dawie Olivier of Westpac on the Levers of Developer Productivity

Revisiting some of our past episodes before we start on our next series of podcast episodes, so this week presenting our chat with Dawie Olivier on engineering productivity!

Check out past podcast episodes on Apple PodcastsGoogle Podcast, or wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts. Please like and subscribe 😁