Interview with Paul Reed

“Operational failure is the elephant in the room”

JAX Editorial Team

J. Paul Reed

Not many companies understand how to learn from their failures. We talked to JAX DevOps-Speaker Paul Reed about the importance of conducting actionable postmortems to foster learning and improve future outcomes.

In this two-part interview, J. Paul Reed, founder of Release Engineering Approaches and speaker at the upcoming JAX DevOps conference, is sharing his views on the importance of conducting actionable postmortems and how companies can turn into so-called “learning organizations”. 

“Operational failure is the elephant in the room”

JAXenter: In your talk at JAX DevOps you say that operational failure has become more acceptable to discuss within the software industries. Why is this important?

Paul Reed: Operational failure is sort of the elephant in the room and the fact of the matter is: whether or not it’s a public discussion or a productive discussion, it’s being discussed.

The organizations that are embracing failure in a healthy way are leveraging those lessons to foster learning and improve future outcomes, not “blame and shame” and throw all of that potential knowledge away.

JAXenter: Your advice here is to look for “actionable postmortems”. What do you mean by that? 

Paul Reed: Actionable postmortems are reviews of events that are not only sustainable in and of themselves (that is: they’re not a horrendous, insulting experience for attendees), but they also produce artifacts which the organization can actually do something about, can actually act upon.

These can be a bunch of different things, from tasks to improve infrastructure or code to changes to processes to improve the team’s response to outages.

JAXenter: How important is it to conduct actionable postmortems?

Paul Reed: Conducting actionable postmortems is only as important as the organization values reducing repeat-outages and repeat-system failures.

“Realizing that the value of learning is critical”

JAXenter: So “Learn from your Failures” seems to be a keyword here. Do you have a piece of advice on how a company can transform into a so-called “learning organization”?

Paul Reed: Organizational management science has been struggling with that question for years. It’s certainly a complicated answer, and no single set of steps will be the one-size, definitive fits-all for every company.

Having said that — realizing that the value of learning, from a systemic perspective, is critical, is often the first step and using actionable postmortems is a way to experiment with teams on a realistic scale about how to integrate “learning” tangibly into their daily activities.

JAXenter: If you were to choose one pitfall that most companies fall into, what would that be?

Paul Reed: The number one pitfall would be the following: not establishing a structure for an actionable postmortem and then following that pattern consistently.

The second (extremely common) pitfall would be scheduling postmortems (or, more commonly, rescheduling postmortems) so long after the event that they’re basically entirely useless from a learning perspective.

Thank you very much!

Read also part 1 of the interview:

The dirty secret about “DevOps culture” — Interview with Paul Reed

J. Paul Reed will be delivering two talks at JAX DevOps which will focus on shedding some light on actionable postmortems and implementing lessons from humanity’s other “operational” endeavors.


actionable postmortems

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