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SRE as Organizational Transformation: Lessons from Activist Organizers


In the software industry’s recent past, the biggest disruptive wave was Agile methodologies. While Site Reliability Engineering is still early in its adoption, those of us who experienced the disruptive transformation of Agile see the writing on the wall: SRE will impact everyone.

Any kind of major transformation like this requires a change in culture, which is a catch-all term for changing people’s principles and behaviors. As your organization grows, this will extend beyond product and engineering. At some point you also need to convince the key power-holders in your organization to invest in this transformation. 

Folks who’ve been successful at managing these multi-year complex transformations point to a piece of invaluable advice: you must treat the transformation as its own project–with business outcomes, executive buy-in, and a project team. And there is an unexpected place to look for learning, strategy, and tactics to achieve this goal: activist organizing.

Activist organizers are in the business of changing minds and behaviors, leading decision-makers and traditional power holders in new directions. Here’s a curated list of their tips and practices that you can use to bolster your company’s transformation efforts.

Spectrum of Allies

Spectrum of allies: Active allies, Passive Allies, Neutral, Passive Opposition, Active Opposition
Photo courtesy of 350.org

The main principle to the spectrum of allies is that some people are more aligned with your cause than others. People will range from active allies, passive allies, neutral, passive opposition, and active opposition. There’s a few lessons to take away from this concept:

  1. It’s most efficient to try to move someone only “one slice” closer to active allyship at a time.
  2. It’s not worth the energy to try to influence people who are actively opposed to your efforts! Target passive-opposition at the most.
  3. Tailor your message and your “ask” to where someone is on the spectrum. An active ally can be asked to amplify your efforts within your company. However, you’ll need to pay special attention to how you frame the outcomes of SRE adoption to a person of passive opposition.

People Power / Stay on Message

Executives and other decision-makers are examples of concentrated power. The major alternative to concentrated power is people power, or the power of numbers and organization. People power exists when many people are all organized to make the same request.

Your campaign’s passive and active allies should all be trained on the elevator pitch that answers “What business value will Site Reliability Engineering give us?” Those allies should then repeat that pitch, and any other messaging in every venue available, amplifying each other until you create a level of support that builds heat on the decision-makers. At some point it will come to a boil and leaders will be forced to address the growing calls for SRE transformation.

Supporting Limbs of Power

Split illustrations. One side is traditional view of power where power is located at the top of a right-side up triangle. Second illustration is a "pillars of support" view where the triangle us upside down standing on its point being help in place by pillars.
Photo courtesy of 350.org

While framing your message appropriately and having intimate one-on-one conversations with those in charge can go a long way to build relationships and influence leaders, you will inevitably encounter someone who holds reservations about SRE adoption.

The traditional view of power thinks of a CEO at the top, giving orders to a VP who passes on orders to a director, then a manager, and finally an IC. This is a convenient mental model, but in the world of activism and organizers this view is disheartening. Instead, organizers have reframed the idea of concentrated power as being held up by various pillars of support. This support system can empower leaders to make choices that are beneficial to the organization as a whole, if they can be convinced of the campaign’s merit.

For example, while your SRE transformation effort might be targeting your CTO–a passive opponent– they might have the following pillars of support:

  • An executive mentor from outside of the company
  • An SVP who they rely on for guidance
  • A COO who “executes orders”
  • An executive assistant who controls their calendar
  • A thought leader they regularly quote or follow on twitter
  • An HR, finance, or legal business partner that holds them accountable

Get creative and you will quickly realize that there are many avenues for influence! You can first try meeting with those pillars of support. Any one of them you can bring into your campaign can have an outsized impact on amplifying your message with your target.

Start Small

Changing an organization doesn’t happen overnight, and while you work on influencing those in power, the best way to drive change is to start with what you can impact.

While SLIs and SLOs often require a more substantial level of buy-in, it is very easy to start running blameless retrospectives after a production incident. You can begin to build the culture of SRE by reflecting on an incident and looking at the failures as systemic instead of individual.

Another practice that works on a team level is writing and using runbooks for common incident responses. Once you’ve shown the value of process repeatability and consistency that using runbooks has achieved for your team, you can leverage that experience when trying to convince others to adopt the same practice!

Book Clubs are Practical

Even after reading this post you may still feel daunted by the prospect of helping or leading your company to adopt SRE. It can be a long and arduous process but here’s one practical way you can kick it off: start a book club!

Book clubs are a great way to:

  1. Organize a group of people and build community
  2. Learn about a new skill, a new technology, or a new way of working
  3. “Get on message”

Book clubs–especially long-running ones that read multiple books in sequence–provide the seed that can germinate into a much larger effort. Make sure to stay in contact with participants, and utilize a chat or message group to strategize and execute your broader campaigns!

At Blameless, we’ve run book clubs for “Implementing Service Level Objectives” by Alex Hidalgo and “Shape Up” by Basecamp.

One final piece of advice is to lean on other people’s experiences! You aren’t alone in your journey and the people power behind SRE exists beyond the boundaries of your organization. 

If you’re interested in learning more, we’ll be hosting a new SRE Thought Leader panel with industry experts who have experienced and helped drive this transformation. They’ve championed SRE adoption in companies like Goldman Sachs, LinkedIn, and Pivotal. Panelists include:

Register here today.

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