DevOps Enterprise Summit Las Vegas 2018: Conference Review

Originally written for and posted at blogs@liatrio

DevOps Enterprise Summit Las Vegas 2018 took place in Las Vegas from October 22-24, and @teamliatrio had a great time bringing our largest number of consultants ever. The week was super productive and fun, especially since we coupled the conference with a consulting team offsite meeting. The move of the conference to Las Vegas originally had us a bit skeptical. However, the strength of the community and the quality of the speakers quickly won us over, furthering our belief that DevOps practitioners and evangelists are cut from the same cloth and are passionate about doing DevOps right.

It’s only fair to give Gene Kim (@realgenekim) and the DevOps Enterprise Summit Las Vegas 2018 programming committee kudos for hosting such a wonderful conference and offering a means for the community to grow. The speakers and the material presented were top notch. And even though we may at times disagree on the “how” of delivering DevOps, the why is becoming more and more codified — which is only right for the enterprises that need our help.

Highlights from DevOps Enterprise Summit Las Vegas 2018

As the Liatrio team takes a moment to look back at the week, we want to share some of our overall thoughts and a few fun pictures of our team at the conference:

  • We had the opportunity to meet new teams, organizations, and experts while catching up with some of our favorite specialists from all over the world. We heard it loud and clear that teams and organizations that have adopted DevOps believe they are doing good work and delivering better results!
  • The format of the conference is evolving. Each year, networking gets easier and easier, and attendee interaction with the speakers is valuable and fun! Some key messages we took from the talks —
    • DevOps work and a DevOps way of working are two different things. Since it’s still early in their maturity, the scale and size of changes and impacts seen across the industry are very small.
    • DevOps maturity models being used and propagated are not helping. Avoid them!
    • Security-focused discussions are often labeled as DevSecOps. However, DevSecOps is really just security work that needs to get done!
    • Talking about containers and doing containers right are two different things!
  • A handful of companies have implemented Dojos as a practice for teaching and immersing teams in new ways of working and the use of tools to improve quality and speed to market. Dojos are the wave of the future, though many companies are just starting to use them. It might still be too early to gather emerging trends.  
  • Gamification of metrics is the new thing! This is a good evolutionary development! Metrics talk is becoming stale, and gamification of metrics could make metrics more real and more fun!
  • Two new themes at DOES 2018 included Servant Leadership and Burnout. These topics reveal the softer side of IT through vulnerability and openness to talk about tough subjects. Servant leadership allows leaders to take on a new role of empowering and enabling their teams.

DOES 2019 Recommendations

  • As attendees for the past 4+ years, we have seen the depth and breadth of topics and talks continue to evolve. That said, the dirty details and misalignment in the enterprises are still not discussed openly, and there still seems to be a selection bias toward “success” stories. How about a few more real-world, down-to-earth talks such as @damonedwards talk? In his profound talk, he reinforced the reality that DevOps transformations are hard.
  • DevOps is still fairly young in terms of practices, and this community can help foster what the future can become. We would like to see more talks on what DevOps practices and ways of working could look like in the future.
  • There are definite “no-no’s,” bad practices, imperfect tools, and incorrect philosophies that exist in our industry. Just as we saw more vulnerability in the 2018 talks, we’d like to see the conference push the envelope further and expose the falsities that exist in the industry today. (More on this in future posts.)

We Had an Amazing Time at DevOps Enterprise Summit Las Vegas 2018!

Our entire team had a ton of fun at DevOps Enterprise Summit Las Vegas 2018!

On a final note, our proudest moment at the conference was when Alice Raia from Kaiser Permanente, one of our large client leaders, spoke about the company’s DevOps Transformation Journey over the last 3 years. Here’s Alice Raia from KP on KP.ORG’s DevOps Transformation.

DevOps Enterprise Summit Las Vegas 2018 Team Photos

Feedback @ravi_kalaga

Hidden realities that create Enterprise Delivery problems

Originally written for and posted at blogs@liatrio

Enterprises look like very busy places. There is a lot of activity – massive programs and projects, long off-sites, strategy sessions, big investment portfolios, a whole lot of people, and a whole lot of action. But is work really getting done? If so, is it getting done the right way and with the right direction and momentum with a flow of ideas from implementation to delivery to customer satisfaction? And is there a culture of continuous learning, along with fast feedback and the optimization and use of that feedback?

The answer is almost always NO.

One of the biggest things that leads to enterprise delivery problems is the inability to see work flowing from ideation to customers across an organization’s various teams/functional units. If enterprises were manufacturing plants, then we could witness the transformation from raw materials to finished goods, along with all of the roles, responsibilities, touch points, milestones, and roadblocks along the way. Unfortunately, however, many of these key details are hidden – or at least difficult to identify – in technology organizations, especially large enterprises. This lack of visibility is chronic and is present at all levels – people, process, and technology.

Hidden Ways of Working

The hidden ways of working I’m talking about include how hiring decisions are made, why some teams are overstaffed or understaffed, why some underperforming teams continue to receive patronage, and why some strong performers are maligned even after doing good work. Understanding these hidden details and pinpointing their root causes is one of the first things we do when we start working with an organization. Without this information, it’s nearly impossible to capture the current reality and develop and implement a meaningful, forward-thinking strategy that will bring long-term value to the entire enterprise.

An enterprise’s hidden ways of working point to a much larger problem that permeates our industry – overestimating the level of performance or value of a certain team, functional unit, technology selection, project, etc. Enterprise delivery problems result when enterprises overvalue the contribution of this individual or that supposedly “successful initiative” or “successful team.” This tendency is usually the result of not looking under the hood to identify the true cost of projects and programs, including waste accrued through delays and rework; quality of people in a team (those who do and do not add value); the true quality of code; automation that solves problems vs. obstructs flow, etc. Discovering these kinds of details is an art, and because there is little incentive to do the hard work, it’s easier to take the talking points at face value and a lot of issues remain hidden.

For example, if we were to ask the leading contributors of 95% of the IT teams we work with what performance issues they see, the top three issues almost always are: “Business does not know requirements,” “test data is bad or does not exist,” and “our environment doesn’t work.”Does that sound familiar? Next time you hear these kinds of statements, probe a bit deeper instead of taking them for granted, and you may notice how no one can articulate what’s really going on or provide any additional details. The details and the quantification of those details are so hidden that these kinds of statements just become accepted as fact without problem.

So what causes the work in enterprises to be hidden? Let’s dig in to some enterprise delivery problems.

Competing Solutions

One of the largest (time and money) enterprise delivery problems involves senior leaders who have their own agendas and who attempt to solve the same problems in fundamentally conflicting or divergent ways without sufficient dialogue or collaboration. For example, one team may be building an internal cloud platform with a large vendor that gives them some features of a cloud platform but mirrors the current datacenter solutions (and its problems). Another team may actively try to push the envelope to build some services on a public cloud without much regard to operationalizing it. And in this process, another group might invest millions of dollars in a system that cannot ever be ported to a public or private cloud platform!

This kind of scenario happens all the time, even when there are massive yearly planning meetings and documented project rationalizations. This kind of scenario happens because the intent of the projects is so generic that unless one digs in it’s hard to really understand. And at the senior leadership level, few people have the time to do the digging. (An argument could be made that this scenario is really a clever ploy by senior enterprise leadership to drive competition between teams to see who achieves a particular goal faster. While that’s possible in some instances, I believe teams get away with it because their work is so invisible!)


Outsourcing is a touchy subject in enterprise IT, but it’s one we can’t ignore. Outsourcing and overuse of contracting firms are prevalent across enterprises, and the resulting enterprise delivery problems are often extensive.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with enterprise use of contracting firms, at least on the surface. After all, these firms are in the business of providing services that enterprises need. That said, problems often arise in one or more of three areas: (1) lack of quality in contracting resources (in comparison with enterprise FTEs), (2) enterprise leaders’ unwillingness to let contracting firms deliver value without excessive oversight, and (3) the never-ending cycle of problem firms being hired to solve the quality or speed issues that they themselves created.

Local Optimization

One of the things that hurts enterprises the most is local optimization of teams over the greater benefits derived from enterprise-wide process and productivity optimization. Some teams and leaders look to make the cost/barriers of entry of work into their teams so high that the purpose of the team is negated. These teams and leaders damage the productivity of the whole enterprise. When teams tend to focus more on enforcement vs. enablement, it’s the enterprise that loses its ability to operate effectively. (Unfortunately, the optics of “my team is doing well” often trumps that of “the entire organization/enterprise is doing well.”)

Not surprisingly, uncovering local optimization issues is extremely difficult, as local optimization “successes” are often veiled in jargon that tends to appeal to senior management (think terms like “full automation,” “metrics,” “dashboards,” and “ROI”).

Shortage of Leaders Who Can Uplift Skills

Enterprise delivery problems result when teams lack leaders who have people skills and who excel at skills growth and skills management. The reason’s simple: Few folks with the actual skills to do the work raise to the top. Instead, team leaders are often project and program managers who focus exclusively on managing people and delegating work without fully understanding the work being done. As a result, the quality of work suffers, leading to the death spiral of competing solutions, outsourcing, and local optimization.

In many corporate cultures, skills management and uplift are seen as performance improvement activities – tasks involving one or more people not doing a good job. The thing is, all skills require practice and constant improvement and re-education. Enterprises often ask us how they can hire DevOps experts or great DevOps leaders. From what we have seen, the answer is clear: Enterprises that want better tech leads, better automation engineers, and more highly skilled technical managers and leaders must first get better at delivery by hiring people with strong technical and communication skills and focusing on continuous learning and improvement.

Eliminate Enterprise Delivery Problems and Become an Efficient Delivery Organization

While the list above is by no means exhaustive, it highlights important (and extremely complex) issues that we often find hidden in enterprises. Interestingly enough, many organizations think their issues are unique. The truth is that, at a macro level, the same types of issues cause almost all enterprise delivery problems. The real challenge involves getting to the root of these issues and creating a roadmap to resolving them.

In upcoming posts, we’ll talk in greater depth about how to identify hidden institutional knowledge and overcome organizational obstacles in order to accelerate innovation and enterprise transformation.

Feedback @ravi_kalaga

DevOps Enterprise Summit 2018 Planning

Vegas Here We Come!

Originally written for and posted at blogs@liatrio

The DevOps Enterprise Summit (DOES) 2018 is about 5 days away. We at Liatrio have been doing a lot of DevOps Enterprise Summit 2018 planning, and we’re getting ready to show up in full force with our consultants who lead our clients on their DevOps Transformation journeys. Members of our team have attended every U.S.-based DOES, this year and 10 members of our team are going!

This year, DOES has moved from San Francisco to Las Vegas. To be honest, we’re not thrilled about this move, as Vegas conferences tend to attract a lot of people looking for a Vegas trip on the company dime. Vegas conferences also tend to draw people who attend fewer sessions and worry more about the nightlife than the daytime networking and education. These are the kinds of things that can take away from the purity of the DevOps movement. That said, DOES is the premier conference in our space and, as always, we’re looking forward to getting the most out of it.

You can read more about DevOps Enterprise Summit 2018 planning in this interview with Liatrio’s Chris Blackburn and Ravi Kalaga. We’ve also included some highlights for you to consider below.

DevOps Enterprise Summit 2018 Planning and Highlights

At DOES 2018, speakers from diverse industries will discuss how they are building DevOps and continuous delivery into their organizations. Attendees will include more than 2,000 technology and business leaders from more than 500 organizations from around the world.

As part of our DevOps Enterprise Summit 2018 planning, the Liatrio team is focusing on the following areas and talks:

  • DevOps Dojo: The theme around Dojo has been huge this year. The DevOps Dojo was originally brought to light by Ross Clanton and Heather Mickman at Target and has since been integrated into many enterprise transformations. At Liatrio, our Dojo plays a huge part in the Delivery Acceleration journey for our customers. We are excited to hear Delta Airlines, Capital One, and DXC Technology talk about their own Dojo experiences.
  • SRE: Site Reliability Engineering as a role has taken off in the last year. Our concern is that enterprises are rebranding existing roles and assuming this rebrand is going to solve existing problems. Ernest Mueller talks about some of these concerns. At DOES, we are excited to hear what Google, AdvancedMD, and others have to say on the subject.
  • Security: Security is one of the biggest struggles when rolling out automation and DevOps practices for our customers. I’m not just talking about AppSec security but about such things as allowing individual engineers to run Docker on their laptops and connect to sites like Github and StackOverflow. One of the biggest problems we have seen (and one of the most frustrating) is the use of persistent chat systems like Slack. We look forward to discussing ideas and strategies with enterprises on the best ways to address these challenges.
  • Agile at Scale: We have been less than impressed with what we have experienced with enterprises that believe they’ve implemented “successful Agile transformations,” especially SAFe and other scaled approaches. Many enterprise leaders are frustrated because they are not getting the technical uplift, pipelines, and other benefits they expected from their Agile investments. We find that teams may understand ceremonies and terminology but are not equipped to deliver value to customers any faster. We are interested in seeing what industry experts have to say on scaling Agile and DevOps across large enterprises.
  • Tying It All Together at Scale: Likely the biggest conversation topic for us is talking with customers that have truly pulled off a DevOps transformation at scale. We find that most companies have made improvements in pockets, but that does not necessarily equate to a transformation. Liatrio has been refining our own internal framework based on numerous customer engagements. This framework is more of an evolution than a transformation. (Come find us at DOES to talk more about our Ignite Enterprise Delivery Acceleration Framework.)

DevOps Enterprise Summit 2018 Planning and Strategies

With 10 members of our team attending DOES this year, we have some DOES 2018 strategies to share to help your team make the most of DOES:

  • Plan out your schedule – there are a ton of talks, and it’s important to map out a schedule of the talks and people you want to hear.
  • Divide and conquer – Split up the talks if you’re attending with other members of your team.
  • Be prepared to interact, not only with the speakers but also with other attendees.
  • Remember the “Law of Two Feet” – if a talk is not benefiting you, head directly to another one. Make the most of your time.
  • Introduce yourself on the conference Slack.
  • Attend the lean coffee or fireside chats sessions. These sessions are facilitated by the DOES speakers and provide an opportunity for in-depth discussions. Come to the sessions with topics in hand and be ready to engage. The Lean Coffee sessions will be held on Monday and Tuesday at 3:15, while the Fireside Chat will be held on Wednesday at 10:10AM.

Liatrio DOES Game Plan

Liatrio is invested in its people, its clients, and in the continual education and discussions that foster smart growth and change in enterprise organizations. This year, we are taking the opportunity at DOES to also hold our consulting practice offsite meeting, where we’ll plan our 2019 strategy and game plan. We are looking forward to strengthening our alignment as a team as we continue to expand and grow our practice across many clients.

Members of our team are available and welcome the opportunity to meet up on the following days:

  • Monday – lunch and evening
  • Tuesday – lunch and evening
  • Wednesday – lunch

Keep an eye on the Liatrio Twitter (@Liatrio) for updates about what we are up to. Please reach out!

At DOES, we’re looking forward to taking advantage of opportunities to share thought leadership and learn from our peers. We’re equally excited about connecting with our fellow DOES attendees who are interested in talking about enterprise transformation.

We hope you found these DevOps Enterprise Summit 2018 planning tips helpful, and we hope to see you at DOES!

Feedback @ravi_kalaga

Values while scaling a Company/Team

As I spend more time on how to grow Liatrio to being a company that really believes in adding value for our customers and also having a culture that we always hoped all enterprises had, the below list (hat tip summarizes the value system that we completely subscribe to.

  1. Very high IQ.
  2. Strong sense of purpose.
  3. Relentless focus on success.
  4. Aggressive and competitive.
  5. High-quality bar bordering on perfectionism.
  6. Likes changing and disrupting things.
  7. New ideas on how to do things better.
  8. High integrity.
  9. Surrounds themselves with good people.
  10. Cares about building real value over perception.

At the end of the day; its the company and the team that will be our lasting legacy – not small wins or missed opportunities.

Feedback @ravi_kalaga

Game of Flow – Agile vis-a-vis Waterfall

Software Delivery is hard! Very hard.

Inherently, compared to writing software, delivery should be technically simple and needing less intelligence but thanks to the cumbersome, large, bureaucratic & silo’d enterprises; technical work has often become the easiest and the cheapest part – managing managers – has become the expensive part.

Development processes can be many but the principle of flow is key. The ability to identify which areas of the organization are local optimizing and inherently with their goals of being good/best more often than not, hurt the overall delivery capability of the larger team. Agile is a great methodology that is built on the concepts of flow and you will be surprised when done right; how much more organizations can deliver.

To demonstrate this, here is a game we run with our clients to show the concept of agile and flow.

Select two sides with 5 participants each. The formation of these teams is critical so follow the rules:

  • Team 1: Team Agile. Try to pick folks over 50.
  • Team 2: Team Waterfall. Pick folks in their 20’s or 30th.

Now place 10 of each – Pens, Envelopes, Letter size paper, Stamps and Glue sticks – in-front of each team.


  1. Team Waterfall:
    • First person will take a pen & paper and write down 10 letters with the same sentence – “This is efficient, we will win!”.
    • Second person will fold the letters written by first person so that they will fit into the envelopes.
    • Third person will put the letters into the envelopes
    • Fourth person will seal the envelopes and glue a stamp.
    • Fifth person will write the address on the envelope.
  2. Team Agile:
    • First person will take a pen, write a letter and pass to the second person. After passing will continue to write more letters till complete.
    • Second person will take the letter, fold it so that it fits in the envelope and pass to the third person.
    • Third person will glue in a stamp and will write the address and get the folded letter and place it into the envelope and close it.
    • Fourth person will take a call as to which part of the flow needs help and will help out. Most likely writing the letters.
    • Fifth person will help as needed.

Every time this exercise is repeated, guess who one! The over 50 group and for a very good reason.

Flow rules all the time. Sometimes in a good organization which flows smoothly, not all teams are perfect or will all teams be busy. This is the principal of slack and slack is good; tension is bad.

Try this game out! You will be surprised.

Feedback @ravi_kalaga

DevOps Service Delivery Quadrant

In the DevOps philosophy, one critical item to focus on is the co-relation of a software delivery functions that need to be performed to the tools that are being used. Tools are nothing but a constrained codification of a process so the actual tooling is always secondary to the function that needs to be satisfied. So as long as a function is satisfied when it comes to delivery (like code analysis or monitoring); what tool you use or do not, really does not matter.

One very precise way to look and think about DevOps is using this Service Delivery quadrant. For all enterprises that think about DevOps, a key question to ask – are all of these functions full filled at all steps of delivery?

Screen Shot 2015-11-17 at 10.40.43 PM

The tools can substitute each of the functions above in blue but make sure, the function is given importance and is being full-filled with the tools being optional or secondary.

Feedback @ravi_kalaga

Decoding Toyota DNA

 A fascinating read that really explains how a culture of continuous improvement embodies the Toyota manufacturing system and how generations after generations of workers are trained constantly to solve problems at their level by using tools in the form of counter measures, problem solving as a way to keep getting better and coaching by asking questions to enforce the idea of empowerment.

A lot of what we do at Liatrio is modelled on learnings from the Toyota system applied to Software Delivery and the terms Kata, Kaizen, Kanban are all concepts that were perfected there on the manufacturing floors of Japan.

Large enterprises are messy and complex with silo’s and large ego’s. There is no way a single silver bullet will enable a company to change and be successful overnight. The concept of continuous improvement – starting at a small team level with small changes – and then cascading them into multiple teams and having the ability to see and fix problems in a structured manner is probably the only way enterprises can be a learning and winning organizations and be competitive.

This HBR article about Toyota offers a glimpse into how the above can be practised and implemented in a daily manner. Must Read!

Feedback @ravi_kalaga

Change or Die – by Alan Deutschman

Enterprise change is hard. Very hard. Nothing motivates a huge consortium of people to move and change to adapt to new trends than the fear of losing their jobs and comfort zone. Below is an article I though truly articulates the need for changing or choosing to die.

What if you were given that choice? For real. What if it weren’t just the hyperbolic rhetoric that conflates corporate performance with life and death? Not the overblown exhortations of a rabid boss, or a slick motivational speaker, or a self-dramatizing CEO. We’re talking actual life or death now. Your own life or death. What if a well-informed, trusted authority figure said you had to make difficult and enduring changes in the way you think and act? If you didn’t, your time would end soon — a lot sooner than it had to. Could you change when change really mattered? When it mattered most?

Yes, you say?

Try again.


You’re probably deluding yourself.

You wouldn’t change.

Don’t believe it? You want odds? Here are the odds, the scientifically studied odds: nine to one. That’s nine to one against you. How do you like those odds?

This revelation unnerved many people in the audience last November at IBM’s “Global Innovation Outlook” conference. The company’s top executives had invited the most farsighted thinkers they knew from around the world to come together in New York and propose solutions to some really big problems. They started with the crisis in health care, an industry that consumes an astonishing $1.8 trillion a year in the United States alone, or 15% of gross domestic product. A dream team of experts took the stage, and you might have expected them to proclaim that breathtaking advances in science and technology — mapping the human genome and all that — held the long-awaited answers. That’s not what they said. They said that the root cause of the health crisis hasn’t changed for decades, and the medical establishment still couldn’t figure out what to do about it.

Dr. Raphael “Ray” Levey, founder of the Global Medical Forum, an annual summit meeting of leaders from every constituency in the health system, told the audience, “A relatively small percentage of the population consumes the vast majority of the health-care budget for diseases that are very well known and by and large behavioral.” That is, they’re sick because of how they choose to live their lives, not because of environmental or genetic factors beyond their control. Continued Levey: “Even as far back as when I was in medical school” — he enrolled at Harvard in 1955 — “many articles demonstrated that 80% of the health-care budget was consumed by five behavioral issues.” Levey didn’t bother to name them, but you don’t need an MD to guess what he was talking about: too much smoking, drinking, eating, and stress, and not enough exercise.

Then the knockout blow was delivered by Dr. Edward Miller, the dean of the medical school and CEO of the hospital at Johns Hopkins University. He turned the discussion to patients whose heart disease is so severe that they undergo bypass surgery, a traumatic and expensive procedure that can cost more than $100,000 if complications arise. About 600,000 people have bypasses every year in the United States, and 1.3 million heart patients have angioplasties — all at a total cost of around $30 billion. The procedures temporarily relieve chest pains but rarely prevent heart attacks or prolong lives. Around half of the time, the bypass grafts clog up in a few years; the angioplasties, in a few months. The causes of this so-called restenosis are complex. It’s sometimes a reaction to the trauma of the surgery itself. But many patients could avoid the return of pain and the need to repeat the surgery — not to mention arrest the course of their disease before it kills them — by switching to healthier lifestyles. Yet very few do. “If you look at people after coronary-artery bypass grafting two years later, 90% of them have not changed their lifestyle,” Miller said. “And that’s been studied over and over and over again. And so we’re missing some link in there. Even though they know they have a very bad disease and they know they should change their lifestyle, for whatever reason, they can’t.”

Changing the behavior of people isn’t just the biggest challenge in health care. It’s the most important challenge for businesses trying to compete in a turbulent world, says John Kotter, a Harvard Business School professor who has studied dozens of organizations in the midst of upheaval: “The central issue is never strategy, structure, culture, or systems. The core of the matter is always about changing the behavior of people.” Those people may be called upon to respond to profound upheavals in marketplace dynamics — the rise of a new global competitor, say, or a shift from a regulated to a deregulated environment — or to a corporate reorganization, merger, or entry into a new business. And as individuals, we may want to change our own styles of work — how we mentor subordinates, for example, or how we react to criticism. Yet more often than not, we can’t.

CEOs are supposedly the prime change agents for their companies, but they’re often as resistant to change as anyone — and as prone to backsliding. The most notorious recent example is Michael Eisner. After he nearly died from heart problems, Eisner finally heeded his wife’s plea and brought in a high-profile number-two exec, Michael Ovitz, to alleviate the stress of running Disney. But Eisner proved incapable of seeing through the idea, essentially refusing to share any real power with Ovitz from the start.

The conventional wisdom says that crisis is a powerful motivator for change. But severe heart disease is among the most serious of personal crises, and it doesn’t motivate — at least not nearly enough. Nor does giving people accurate analyses and factual information about their situations. What works? Why, in general, is change so incredibly difficult for people? What is it about how our brains are wired that resists change so tenaciously? Why do we fight even what we know to be in our own vital interests?

Kotter has hit on a crucial insight. “Behavior change happens mostly by speaking to people’s feelings,” he says. “This is true even in organizations that are very focused on analysis and quantitative measurement, even among people who think of themselves as smart in an MBA sense. In highly successful change efforts, people find ways to help others see the problems or solutions in ways that influence emotions, not just thought.”

Unfortunately, that kind of emotional persuasion isn’t taught in business schools, and it doesn’t come naturally to the technocrats who run things — the engineers, scientists, lawyers, doctors, accountants, and managers who pride themselves on disciplined, analytical thinking. There’s compelling science behind the psychology of change — it draws on discoveries from emerging fields such as cognitive science, linguistics, and neuroscience — but its insights and techniques often seem paradoxical or irrational.

Look again at the case of heart patients. The best minds at Johns Hopkins and the Global Medical Forum might not know how to get them to change, but someone does: Dr. Dean Ornish, a professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco and founder of the Preventative Medicine Research Institute, in Sausalito, California. Ornish, like Kotter, realizes the importance of going beyond the facts. “Providing health information is important but not always sufficient,” he says. “We also need to bring in the psychological, emotional, and spiritual dimensions that are so often ignored.” Ornish published studies in leading peer-reviewed scientific journals, showing that his holistic program, focused around a vegetarian diet with less than 10% of the calories from fat, can actually reverse heart disease without surgery or drugs. Still, the medical establishment remained skeptical that people could sustain the lifestyle changes. In 1993, Ornish persuaded Mutual of Omaha to pay for a trial. Researchers took 333 patients with severely clogged arteries. They helped them quit smoking and go on Ornish’s diet. The patients attended twice-weekly group support sessions led by a psychologist and took instruction in meditation, relaxation, yoga, and aerobic exercise. The program lasted for only a year. But after three years, the study found, 77% of the patients had stuck with their lifestyle changes — and safely avoided the bypass or angioplasty surgeries that they were eligible for under their insurance coverage. And Mutual of Omaha saved around $30,000 per patient.

Framing Change

Why does the Ornish program succeed while the conventional approach has failed? For starters, Ornish recasts the reasons for change. Doctors had been trying to motivate patients mainly with the fear of death, he says, and that simply wasn’t working. For a few weeks after a heart attack, patients were scared enough to do whatever their doctors said. But death was just too frightening to think about, so their denial would return, and they’d go back to their old ways.

The patients lived the way they did as a day-to-day strategy for coping with their emotional troubles. “Telling people who are lonely and depressed that they’re going to live longer if they quit smoking or change their diet and lifestyle is not that motivating,” Ornish says. “Who wants to live longer when you’re in chronic emotional pain?”

So instead of trying to motivate them with the “fear of dying,” Ornish reframes the issue. He inspires a new vision of the “joy of living” — convincing them they can feel better, not just live longer. That means enjoying the things that make daily life pleasurable, like making love or even taking long walks without the pain caused by their disease. “Joy is a more powerful motivator than fear,” he says.

Pioneering research in cognitive science and linguistics has pointed to the paramount importance of framing. George Lakoff, a professor of those two disciplines at the University of California at Berkeley, defines frames as the “mental structures that shape the way we see the world.” Lakoff says that frames are part of the “cognitive unconscious,” but the way we know what our frames are, or evoke new ones, springs from language. For example, we typically think of a company as being like an army — everyone has a rank and a codified role in a hierarchical chain of command with orders coming down from high to low. Of course, that’s only one way of organizing a group effort. If we had the frame of the company as a family or a commune, people would know very different ways of working together.

The big challenge in trying to change how people think is that their minds rely on frames, not facts. “Neuroscience tells us that each of the concepts we have — the long-term concepts that structure how we think — is instantiated in the synapses of the brain,” Lakoff says. “Concepts are not things that can be changed just by someone telling us a fact. We may be presented with facts, but for us to make sense of them, they have to fit what is already in the synapses of the brain. Otherwise, facts go in and then they go right back out. They are not heard, or they are not accepted as facts, or they mystify us: Why would anyone have said that? Then we label the fact as irrational, crazy, or stupid.” Lakoff says that’s one reason why political conservatives and liberals each think that the other side is nuts. They don’t understand each other because their brains are working within different frames.

The frame that dominates our thinking about how work should be organized — the military chain-of-command model — is extremely hard to break. When new employees start at W.L. Gore & Associates, the maker of Gore-Tex fabrics, they often refuse to believe that the company doesn’t have a hierarchy with job titles and bosses. It just doesn’t fit their frame. They can’t accept it. It usually takes at least several months for new hires to begin to understand Gore’s reframed notion of the workplace, which relies on self-directed employees making their own choices about joining one another in egalitarian small teams.

Getting people to exchange one frame for another is tough even when you’re working one-on-one, but it’s especially hard to do for large groups of people. Howard Gardner, a cognitive scientist, MacArthur Fellow “genius” award winner, and professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, has looked at what works most effectively for heads of state and corporate CEOs. “When one is addressing a diverse or heterogeneous audience,” he says, “the story must be simple, easy to identify with, emotionally resonant, and evocative of positive experiences.”

In Louis V. Gerstner Jr.’s successful turnaround of IBM in the 1990s, he learned the surprising importance of this kind of emotional persuasion. When he took over as CEO, Gerstner was fixated on what had worked for him throughout his career as a McKinsey & Co. consultant: coolheaded analysis and strategy. He thought he could revive the company through maneuvers such as selling assets and cutting costs. He quickly found that those tools weren’t nearly enough. He needed to transform the entrenched corporate culture, which had become hidebound and overly bureaucratic. That meant changing the attitudes and behaviors of hundreds of thousands of employees. In his memoir, Gerstner writes that he realized he needed to make a powerful emotional appeal to them, to “shake them out of their depressed stupor, remind them of who they were — you’re IBM, damn it!” Rather than sitting in a corner office negotiating deals and analyzing spreadsheets, he needed to convey passion through thousands of hours of personal appearances. Gerstner, who’s often brittle and imperious in private, nonetheless responded admirably to the challenge. He proved to be an engaging and emotional public speaker when he took his campaign to his huge workforce.

Steve Jobs’s turnaround at Apple shows the impact of reframing and telling a new narrative that’s simple, positive, and emotional. When he returned to the company after a long exile, he recast its image among employees and customers alike from a marginalized player vanquished in the battle for market share to the home of a small but enviable elite: the creative innovators who dared to “Think different.”

When leaders are addressing a small group of people who have a similar mind-set and shared values, the reframed message can be more nuanced and complex, Harvard’s Gardner says. But it still needs to be positive, inspiring, and emotionally resonant. A good example is how chairman and publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. rescued The New York Times from crisis. Former editor Howell Raines had alienated much of the newsroom’s staff, undermining its communal spirit with a new culture of favoritism. Raines fell when a star reporter he had shielded from criticism was exposed for fabricating news stories. The scandal threatened the famed paper’s credibility. Gardner says that Sulzberger successfully reframed the narrative this way: We are a great newspaper. We temporarily went astray and risked sacrificing the community spirit that made this an outstanding place to work. We can retain our excellence and regain our sense of community by admitting our errors, making sure that they don’t happen again, and being a more transparent and self-reflecting organization. To achieve these goals, Sulzberger replaced Raines with a new top editor, Bill Keller — a respected veteran who reflected the lost communal culture — and he appointed a “public editor” to critique the paper in an unedited column. Now, Gardner says, “the Times is a much happier place and the news coverage and journalistic empire are in reasonable shape.”

Radical Change

Reframing alone isn’t enough, of course. That’s where Dr. Ornish’s other astonishing insight comes in. Paradoxically, he found that radical, sweeping, comprehensive changes are often easier for people than small, incremental ones. For example, he says that people who make moderate changes in their diets get the worst of both worlds: They feel deprived and hungry because they aren’t eating everything they want, but they aren’t making big enough changes to quickly see an improvement in how they feel, or in measurements such as weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol. But the heart patients who went on Ornish’s tough, radical program saw quick, dramatic results, reporting a 91% decrease in frequency of chest pain in the first month. “These rapid improvements are a powerful motivator,” he says. “When people who have had so much chest pain that they can’t work, or make love, or even walk across the street without intense suffering find that they are able to do all of those things without pain in only a few weeks, then they often say, ‘These are choices worth making.’ ”

While it’s astonishing that most patients in Ornish’s demanding program stick with it, studies show that two-thirds of patients who are prescribed statin drugs (which are highly effective at cutting cholesterol) stop taking them within one year. What could possibly be a smaller or easier lifestyle change than popping a pill every day? But Ornish says patients stop taking the drug because it doesn’t actually make them feel any better. It doesn’t deal with causes of high cholesterol, such as obesity, that make people feel unhealthy. The paradox holds that big changes are easier than small ones.

Research shows that this idea applies to the business realm as well. Bain & Co., the management consulting firm, studied 21 recent corporate transformations and found that most were “substantially completed” in only two years or less while none took more than three years. The means were drastic: In almost every case, the CEOs fired most of the top management. Almost always, the companies enjoyed quick, tangible results, and their stock prices rose 250% a year on average as they revived.

IBM’s turnaround hinged on a radical shift in focus from selling computer hardware to providing “services,” which meant helping customers build and run their information-technology operations. This required a momentous cultural switch — IBMers would have to recommend that a client buy from competitors such as Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft when it was in the client’s interest. But the radical shift worked: Services have grown into IBM’s core business and the key to its success.

Of course, radical change often isn’t possible in business situations. Still, it’s always important to identify, achieve, and celebrate some quick, positive results for the vital emotional lifts that they provide. Harvard’s Kotter believes in the importance of “short-term wins” for companies, meaning “victories that nourish faith in the change effort, emotionally reward the hard workers, keep the critics at bay, and build momentum. Without sufficient wins that are visible, timely, unambiguous, and meaningful to others, change efforts invariably run into serious problems.”

Supporting Change

Even when leaders have reframed the issues brilliantly, it’s still vital to give people the multifaceted support they need. That’s a big reason why 90% of heart patients can’t change their lifestyles but 77% of Ornish’s patients could — because he buttressed them with weekly support groups with other patients, as well as attention from dieticians, psychologists, nurses, and yoga and meditation instructors.

Xerox’s executives learned this lesson well. Four years ago, when the company was in crisis, they came up with a new vision that required salespeople to change the way they had always worked. “Their whole careers, salespeople had done one thing,” says James Firestone, president of Xerox North America, who leads a sales force of 5,400. “They would knock on doors, look for copiers, see how old they were, and sell a refresh. They knew how to do that.” The salespeople had such predictable routines that they could plan their days, weeks, even years. It was comforting. But it just wasn’t succeeding any longer.

Under the new strategy, the salespeople were supposed to really engage with customers so they could understand the complexities of how their offices operated and find opportunities to sell other products, such as scanners and printers. Maybe they would find that the customer actually needed fewer machines that could do more than the old ones had. Learning about the client’s needs meant that the sales reps had to take a lot more time and talk to more people about broader issues. It undermined the cozy predictability of their routines. The reps became anxious, Firestone recalls. “They’d say, ‘I know how to sell and make a living the old way, but not the new way.’ ”

Their anxiety was compounded by the fact that Xerox lagged in giving them the support they needed. It often took a couple of months before the salespeople received their scheduled training in the new approach. And it took two years before the company changed its incentive pay system to fit better with the new model, in which the reps had to invest a lot more time and effort before they signed deals. Eventually, though, the change effort, by expanding the sales focus to a larger range of products, helped Xerox avoid bankruptcy and return to profitability. “People need a sense of confidence that the processes will be aligned internally,” Firestone says. “For large companies, this is where change usually fails.” Even if change starts at the top, it can easily die somewhere in the middle. That’s why Xerox now holds “alignment workshops” that ask middle managers — the people who make processes work — to outline the ways its systems could inhibit its agendas for change.

This Is Your Brain on Change

Are most of us like the fearful copier salespeople who dread disruption to their routines? Neuroscience, a field that has exploded with insight, has a lot more to say about changing people’s behavior — and its findings are guardedly optimistic. Scientists used to believe that the brain became “hardwired” early in life and couldn’t change later on. Now researchers such as Dr. Michael Merzenich, a professor at the University of California at San Francisco, say that the brain’s ability to change — its “plasticity” — is lifelong. If we can change, then why don’t we? Merzenich has perspective on the issue since he’s not only a leading neuroscientist but also an entrepreneur, the founder of two Bay Area startups. Both use PC software to train people to overcome mental disabilities or diseases: Scientific Learning Corp. focuses on children who have trouble learning to read, and Posit Science Corp. is working on ways to prevent, stop, or reverse cognitive decline in older adults.

Merzenich starts by talking about rats. You can train a rat to have a new skill. The rat solves a puzzle, and you give it a food reward. After 100 times, the rat can solve the puzzle flawlessly. After 200 times, it can remember how to solve it for nearly its lifetime. The rat has developed a habit. It can perform the task automatically because its brain has changed. Similarly, a person has thousands of habits — such as how to use a pen — that drive lasting changes in the brain. For highly trained specialists, such as professional musicians, the changes actually show up on MRI scans. Flute players, for instance, have especially large representations in their brains in the areas that control the fingers, tongue, and lips, Merzenich says. “They’ve distorted their brains.”

Businesspeople, like flutists, are highly trained specialists, and they’ve distorted their brains, too. An older executive “has powers that a young person walking in the door doesn’t have,” says Merzenich. He has lots of specialized skills and abilities. A specialist is a hard thing to create, and is valuable for a corporation, obviously, but specialization also instills an inherent “rigidity.” The cumulative weight of experience makes it harder to change.

How, then, to overcome these factors? Merzenich says the key is keeping up the brain’s machinery for learning. “When you’re young, almost everything you do is behavior-based learning — it’s an incredibly powerful, plastic period,” he says. “What happens that becomes stultifying is you stop learning and you stop the machinery, so it starts dying.” Unless you work on it, brain fitness often begins declining at around age 30 for men, a bit later for women. “People mistake being active for continuous learning,” Merzenich says. “The machinery is only activated by learning. People think they’re leading an interesting life when they haven’t learned anything in 20 or 30 years. My suggestion is learn Spanish or the oboe.”

Meanwhile, the leaders of a company need “a business strategy for continuous mental rejuvenation and new learning,” he says. Posit Science has a “fifth-day strategy,” meaning that everyone spends one day a week working in a different discipline. Software engineers try their hand at marketing. Designers get involved in business functions. “Everyone needs a new project instead of always being in a bin,” Merzenich says. “A fifth-day strategy doesn’t sacrifice your core ability but keeps you rejuvenated. In a company, you have to worry about rejuvenation at every level. So ideally you deliberately construct new challenges. For every individual, you need complex new learning. Innovation comes about when people are enabled to use their full brains and intelligence instead of being put in boxes and controlled.”

What happens if you don’t work at mental rejuvenation? Merzenich says that people who live to 85 have a 50-50 chance of being senile. While the issue for heart patients is “change or die,” the issue for everyone is “change or lose your mind.” Mastering the ability to change isn’t just a crucial strategy for business. It’s a necessity for health. And it’s possibly the one thing that’s most worth learning

– By Alan Deutschman

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