All about understanding

Revisiting empathy, the essence of DevOps

Jeff Sussna
Thinking image via Shutterstock

Conversational practices like DevOps can enable organisations to practice empathy by detecting and narrowing the gap between their customers and their understanding of them, says Jeff Sussna. With that, he revisits the essence of DevOps in empathy.

It has been gratifying to see the community take hold of the idea that empathy is the essence of DevOps. Putting empathy at the center of our practice emphasises the importance of relationships between people in improving service quality. It reminds us that at its heart “DevOps” is about developers and operations engineers working together. DevOps is systems thinking; systems thinking values the connections between things as much as the things themselves; effective connection requires the ability to see yourself from the other’s perspective.

I have noticed, however, a worrisome tendency to treat empathy as a static, binary state: “either you have it or you don’t”. I’ve also encountered subtle implications that certain kinds of people or organizations have the ability to empathize, while others lack it. On the one hand, we all have the capacity for empathy. On the other hand, perfect empathy is impossible. We are all different people, with different lives, histories, and daily experiences. Those experiences also change over time. Even if we could perfectly understand another’s perspective, that perspective would change before our eyes.

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I came to understand empathy as the essence of DevOps through cybernetics. The cybernetic worldview sees life, work, and business as a never-ending process of adaptation through conversation with one’s environment. Cybernetics shows us the way to a meaningful approach to empathy. We continually encounter gaps between our beliefs about someone’s perspective, and its reality. Seeing those gaps allows us to narrow them.

As the great cyberneticist Heinz von Foerster put it, “I like cybernetics: its intrinsic circularity helps me see myself through the eyes of the other.” Circular causality defines the nature of things as a process, not a state. Empathy doesn’t exist; it unfolds. Rather than being something we have, empathy is something we practice. Circularity implies the potential for us all to succeed, coupled with the fact that we all continually fail. It challenges us to approach our work and our customers, at whatever level we have them, with both curiosity and humility.

Conversational practices such as design thinking, Agile, and DevOps can enable organisations to practice empathy by continually detecting and narrowing the gap between their customers and their understanding of their customers. It is for this reason that feedback in various forms, from user testing and monitoring to direct communication, are essential to making these practices truly effective. Simply speeding up delivery misses the point. It is only by making design continuous, and unifying design and operations by embedding, respecting, and acting on feedback throughout our organisations, that we can hope to realise empathy in a truly meaningful way.

Jeff Sussna
Jeff Sussna is the founder of Ingineering.IT, a Minneapolis technology consulting firm that helps enterprises and Software-as-a-Service companies adopt 21st-century IT tools and practices. He is also the author of ‘Designing Delivery: Rethinking IT in the Digital Service Economy’ and is a regular speaker on the topics of design and DevOps.

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