Culture - The Great Hiding Place

Ideas that threaten to interrupt existing power structures, such as a move to DevOps or the introduction of container technology, nearly always lead to resistance. An oversimplified and often exaggerated explanation of a group’s culture is one such form of resistance. An oversimplified explanation provides a hiding place, on the one hand, for those who resist the change and, on the other, for those who want the change but don't have the skills to affect it. Here are some examples:

  • This is a bank, we have to have a separation of Dev and Ops for security reasons.
  • People in this country are lazy, we have to have incentives for them to work.
  • This is too bureaucratic, it’s not our/their way.

This sort of statement opens the door to nihilism. These oversimplified views of culture calls forth images of an ancient, entrenched ways of life or working that can’t possibly be penetrated. Thus, even the people who want things to change may find themselves having doubts. Therefore, when I say that ‘culture is the great hiding place’ I actually mean, ‘an oversimplified, and exaggerated explanation of culture is the great hiding place, and, worse yet, it opens the door to nihilism’.

An idea that threatens existing power structures causes the oversimplified views of culture to come flying out like shields against an incoming volley of arrows or rockets. This explains why people hide behind culture. They feel attacked, insecure, and for obvious reasons, they want to defend themselves.

You can’t blame people for this. In large organisations, shifts to DevOps, for example, are nearly always accompanied by cost-cutting exercises. Nobody cares about quicker deployments when the dole queue is beckoning in the same way that nobody cares about new infrastructure in their war-torn land if they can’t go to the market without fear of being shot or blown up. Safety, thus, precedes change. A lack of safety precedes the use of culture as a hiding place.

How to Overcome Culture as a Hiding Place
One trick is to begin to re-write the stories we share. In finance, we can merge the old narratives of security with the new narratives of DevOps and therefore aspire to be both quick and secure.

Another trick is results. People in the office will listen to alternative narratives, and all the bullshit that managers and leaders spout, and they will cross-reference that with what they see. If they see evidence that suggests the idea could work, they will consider that and update their models accordingly.

Good leaders and managers, therefore, must understand existing power structures. Who stands to lose? Who stands to gain? They must understand the old narratives, they must understand that simplified narratives are a form of resistance, and they must help to create new narratives that work for everyone. And, hot tip, that new narrative is not communicated with a Power Point presentation. It’s communicated through conversations, thousands of conversations, at all levels of the organisation and in all corners of the building. This of course means the manager or leader cannot work part-time.

What’s All This Got to Do With Docker or the DCOS?
The introduction of tools like Docker, Mesos and the DCOS are not technical changes, they are cultural ones. This is because these tools, like railroads and motorways, change the current modus of operation so dramatically that parts of the old world will crumble and fall away. There is an old pub, in my home town of Hull, that has the smallest window in the world. The pub was a coach house. The window was large enough for the gatekeeper to see through, to assess any visitors, but too small for a dagger or pistol to be pushed back through the other way. What happened to all these coach houses once motor cars arrived? They of course vanished, which is how a change in technology creates a change in a society and therefore a culture. That window is a curiosity of a time gone by, it's now nothing more than history.

Docker and the DCOS will leave some of the ‘coachhouse keepers’ of operations feeling detached and quite possibly reaching out for a simplified explanation of their own culture, or anything for that matter, to grab a hold of. I was at a talk, last year, where the speaker, point by point and bullet by bullet, systematically dismantled Docker. It’s not secure, he said. It’s impossible to monitor in production, he said. From the back of the room I felt a great sadness overcome me, which was a sadness I am convinced had transferred from the speaker to me. The speaker, who had spent his whole career deploying and managing complex applications, was reeling from the shock of Docker and the tools that were springing up in the space around it. And so he reached for his own narrative, simplified and exaggerated, that boldly placed operations engineers like him in the centre of things, and, with the tools he spoke about, invoked a wonderful, ancient and impenetrable way of life. The speaker had found his hiding place. Almost everyone in that room silently concluded, ‘he’s stuck in his ways’. I just thought, ‘poor bastard’. The threat to him was real and nothing short of existential.

Transference and Empathy as the Beginning of Change
Transference is what happens when emotions move from one person to another. Many people are happy about this when the emotion being communicated is joy, or excitement. When the emotions are misery and despair, people tend to run. Emotional transference, however, is the leader’s best friend. Anyone who is strong enough to let themselves feel what their clients and colleagues are feeling is much more likely to be able to drill down to any underlying resistant. Good leaders grasp what the ‘masses’ feel, learn how to articulate that, and only then do they consider sharing their vision for the future. Many leaders get this wrong. They start with the brave new world, and for reasons that are impossible to fathom, decide to capture and communicate it as a Power Point presentation. This betrays a startling lack of empathy for the needs, desires and fears of the people they claim to manage or lead.

So, we often get it all back-to-front. Leaders start by articulating what a tool can do in the abstract, ignore the needs of the people around them, and then later lament the same people as being ‘stuck in their ways’.

At Container Solutions, we have observed the following: those who start with the needs of their own people before attempting to create a narrative that encompasses both those needs and the promise of tools like Docker and the DCOS succeed. Those that start with something abstract, distant, and impossible, for example to become the ‘Netflix of the Netherlands’, fail. I suppose it’s good management vs. bad management. What I know for sure is this: actors in a system, such as leaders and managers and developers, are much less powerful than the stories a group of people tell each other. Replace the managers and not much happens. Replace the stories, or better yet, write the next version of the story, and things start to change.


  • Tools like Docker and the DCOS will change the fabric of how we run our businesses. Therefore:
  • We need to rewrite narratives that encompass the needs of people and the promise of the tools we want to use. This ability starts with empathy - a rare quality in the world and an even rarer quality in the software industry.
  • Oversimplified and often exaggerated explanations can be hiding places for those who feel threatened. Managers and leaders must train themselves to see these explanations for what they are.


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