JAX DevOps goody bag part 1

DevOps and neuroscience: Trying to influence culture as part of a DevOps evolution

Helen Beal
© Shutterstock / Lightspring  

As we are enjoying ourselves at JAX DevOps 2019 in London, we have prepared a special goody bag for you with featured content from our amazing speakers. In this article, our ‘DevOpsologist’ Helen Beal goes over the neuroscience of DevOps.

Those in the DevOps-know are familiar with the acronym CALMS and that the C represents Culture.

That’s all well and good, but DevOps was born in the technology industry, a place where the people are more in the habit of talking about bits and bytes than feelings and emotions.

Also, in my observation as a DevOpsologist (yes, I made that up myself! It means I’m a studier of DevOps), culture is the biggest challenge in a DevOps evolution. Perhaps because it’s the bit we’re least practiced at.

Defining culture

We often think of this as the soft stuff, and it’s true that culture itself is a nebulous thing; difficult to define. One definition, from is: “the values and behaviors that contribute to the unique social and psychological environment of an organization.” I also love this representation of the cultural iceberg from Torben Rick that talks to what’s visible (i.e. artifacts) and what’s not in a typical organization – although it doesn’t call out behavior, it calls out feelings.

Lloyd Taylor, the VP Cloud Infrastructure at Autodesk once said: “You can’t directly change culture. But you can change behavior, and behavior becomes culture.” What is it, exactly, that we are trying to change?

The foundation of the target cultural state is trust. Hand in hand with trust goes visibility, transparency, openness and being data (rather than opinion) driven – data is evidence and proof builds trust. Plus, it’s science – and technologists like science because that’s their thing.

And this is where the neuro branch of science comes in handy. Our brains are what direct our behavior so it’s useful to understand what’s going on in there – and how to influence it. When we are asking for change we are asking humans to think and work in a different way from what they currently know. They need to learn something new.

Let’s talk science

You’ve probably heard people talk about ‘mindset’. The idea originates from Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck who concluded from her research that there are two mindsets: fixed and growth. In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work – brains and talent are just the starting point. People with the growth mindset consider themselves lifelong learners.

People with a fixed mindset, on the other hand, feel that their brains limit their potential and prevent them from learning. But neuroscience has proven learning can change our brains in terms of function, connectivity, and structure. Our brain shapes our learning but learning shapes our brain, and research has shown that simply knowing about brain plasticity can improve the self-concept and academic potential of learners. So we all have the power to learn the new and change – we just have to believe it and do it.

What stops us doing it? It’s typically fear – the other side of the trust coin. If we are not psychologically safe, our neural response is avoidance. Fear also 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.

Why are we afraid in business? Because we’ve been taught to be. We are afraid of failure. We have grown up believing it’s something to be ashamed of. We have been punished, and/or seen others punished for mistakes that have happened in our working systems. We haven’t been living in an environment where failures are seen as a step to success or as learning opportunities.

But if we are not afraid, if we see learning as a reward, and the satisfaction of grasping a new concept is in itself a reward our brain gives an approach response. The anticipation of something we like also creates an uptake of neuromodulators from deep within the brain that influences the way our frontal cortex is operating so that our brain can become more focused on the source of the excitement – so we just get better and better.

SEE ALSO: DevOps without automation is like peanut butter without jelly

So, once we’ve made our space safe for learning and our learners are engaged, then what happens to these new ways of thinking we are asking them to discover and use for themselves? Our brains work hard to grasp new concepts – working memory in the front of the brain can only handle a few chunks of information at once.

But as we practice, the brain activity shifts away from working memory regions to regions more involved with automatic unconscious processing. In other words, practice helps consolidate freshly-learned mental processes until we can do them almost without thinking (have you ever driven home from work and then realized you can’t recall any part of the journey?), so reducing the burden on working memory.

Effectively, we are automating in our brain – cool, huh?! And the A, in CALMS – automation of course. Now we can get into cognitive load theory which assumes that knowledge is stored in long-term memory in the form of ‘schemas’ (and we know about them too!). A schema organizes elements of information according to how they will be used. According to schema theory, skilled performance is developed through building ever greater numbers of increasingly complex schemas by combining elements of lower level schemas into higher level schemas. There is no limit to how complex schemas can become. An important process in schema construction is automation, whereby information can be processed automatically with minimal conscious effort. Automaticity occurs after extensive practice.

A tool we often use in DevOps is the improvement kata, from the lean body of work. The word kata in Japanese word (lean lovers will know a lot of it, originates from Toyota), meaning literally: “form”, is a detailed choreographed pattern of movements made to be practiced alone, but are also practiced within groups and in unison when training. The improvement kata gives us a pattern of movements (plan, do, check, act) to perform daily when making improvements. This repetition is what results in mastery – or automaticity.

There are places to look to neuroscience for help understanding what’s going on when we are trying to influence culture as part of a DevOps evolution – this is just a taste and as discoveries are being made about the brain all the time we can only expect more science to inform our thinking and practices in the future.


Helen Beal

DevOpsologist – coach, consultant, trainer, games leader for Ranger4. Product Owner for the DevOps Institute, DevOps Editor for InfoQ. Fond of llamas.

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