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October 23, 2020

A PM in a DevOps World

4 mins read

I had the opportunity to attend the virtual DevOps Enterprise Summit recently. The timing was a perfect convergence of a few activities: reading (AccelerateThe Phoenix ProjectProject to Product), discussing transformations with clients, and internal activities related to elite performance of development teams. Still I wondered, as you might also, what a Project Manager (PM) could learn about the DevOps world at a DevOps conference attended by software and cloud engineers. Turns out, a lot.

The case for thinking larger than Development or Operations has been building for years through The State of DevOps Research. The most recent report points to the cultural shift that must occur to support high-performing teams. If it sounds like IT is determining how the broader organization needs to behave to support IT, you may be thinking the tail is wagging the dog. A counterpoint to that thought is businesses face a growing need to operate at the speed of technology and to reinvent themselves in a hyper-competitive market. So, it makes sense that lessons on how to respond to the technology-driven reality should come from those most knowledgeable about successfully delivering technology. Instead of the tail wagging the dog, a more accurate image may be IT as mentor to the rest of the organization.

Here is what I learned from the practitioners and experts who are mentoring their organizations:

Value Stream Mapping is ‘In’

The Lean principle ‘map a value stream’ is an exercise undertaken to achieve broad agreement about all activities that either contribute to customer value or do not (aka waste). It is a consolidated view from idea to outcome which is often unknown by the very people contributing to the outcome. Large, complex organizations attempting to shift all aspects of their delivery chain point to value stream mapping as a necessary step to embarking on their journey. They cite benefits such as collective awareness, increased levels of empathy among participants, and stronger connection between work and outcome.

The takeaway: Value stream mapping brings a lot of benefits to organizations, especially its leaders and PMs who may be responsible for improving status quo.

Structure Interactions for Transparency

Any organization exists to solve a problem for its customers, e.g., the problem of transportation can be solved by a company building a car. In simplistic terms building a car is the result of a product design, a set of processes, and the interactions among people who produce it. Being deliberate about defining interactions can create visibility into issues that need to be resolved. By doing so the emphasis remains on the primary objective (building a car) instead of on reacting to crises.

The takeaway: A PM’s effectiveness at delivering a product is directly related to the structured interactions that have been established.

IT Outcomes = Business Value

One of the proven aspects of adopting a DevOps culture is the connection between delivering software faster and achieving business goals. Because of the strong tie between the two, IT and Business counterparts are working together more and require a shared vernacular. One proposal: IT projects/products exist in one of four zones—Performance, Productivity, Transformation, and Incubation. A system that generates revenue lives in the Performance Zone while a next generation technology product lives in the Incubation Zone. This paradigm provides IT leaders with a way to group similar efforts within their portfolio. More importantly, it allows IT and Business to understand what type of value is being created and to discuss the tradeoffs that exist for each.

The takeaway: Every IT system has a relationship to business value. Adopting a common reference point bridges the communication gap.

Leaders are Part of Transformation, Too

Any type of organizational change takes dedicated and fungible leaders—leaders who are willing to be role models, to keep people aligned to the vision, to make room for experimentation, and above all, to encourage psychological safety by viewing failure as a learning opportunity. Today’s knowledge work is emergent and often unknowable given its uniqueness, so a leader must create the space and conditions for solutions to be discovered. The reward for adopting a leader mindset is a team that feels empowered and fulfilled in its work.

The takeaway: Leaders at all levels of an organization, including PMs, make their own contribution to the success of the team.


My experience at the DevOps Enterprise Summit was instructive and inspiring. I heard lessons from the ‘front lines’ and caught a glimpse of highly complex transformations underway. The DevOps community’s embrace of learning explained why the community has momentum behind its ideas around transforming organizations and why this PM felt right at home.

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