This is a transcript of episode 309 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and special guest Gene Kim.

Phoenix Project author, Gene Kim, joins us on Troubleshooting Agile to discuss the groundbreaking theories of organizational management described in his new book, Wiring the Winning Organization. In this episode (part one of three), Gene talks about his mission to improve the way work is done at the world’s largest organizations, how that led to his collaboration with coauthor Dr. Steven Spear, and their “parsimonious” theories of workplace organization.

About Our Guest

Gene Kim is a Wall Street Journal bestselling author, researcher, and multiple award-winning CTO. He has been studying high-performing technology organizations since 1999 and was the founder and CTO of Tripwire for 13 years. He is the author of six books, The Unicorn Project (2019), and co-author of the Shingo Publication Award winning Accelerate (2018), The DevOps Handbook (2016), and The Phoenix Project (2013). Since 2014, he has been the founder and organizer of DevOps Enterprise Summit, studying the technology transformations of large, complex organizations.

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Listen to this section at 00:14

Jeffrey: Welcome back to Troubleshooting Agile. This is Jeff Fredrick and I’m joined today with a special guest, Gene Kim author, researcher, DevOps aficionado and so much more. So Gene, so excited to have you on the podcast! Thank you for joining us today.

Gene: Oh, I’m so delighted to be here. And just in case anyone doesn’t know hanging out with Jeffrey is one of my favorite things to do. He’s so much informed the latest project, Wiring the Winning Organization. And I was just telling Jeffrey just how much I get out of every interaction that we have.

Jeffrey: Thank you, Gene, the feeling’s mutual. We always have fantastic conversations. And hopefully today is another one. You mentioned Wiring the Winning Organization, the project that you’ve been working on for the last couple of years. I had the great honor of being an advanced reader. So good! So excited to talk about it. So happy to have you here.

Jeffrey: I just want to, for people who don’t know, I want to talk a little bit about how this fits into your kind of larger mission of the last several years. One of the places people might know you from is as the organizer of what was called the DevOps Enterprise Summit, and there you were pretty clear about what your goal was, which was, you know, let’s have you describe it. Why enterprise? What was the importance of enterprise to you in that?

Gene: Yeah. In fact, maybe just to rewind a little bit I would say I’ve been studying high performing technology organizations for 23 years. And you know, it started as a journey trying to figure out, like, how come these amazing organizations, you know, how do they simultaneously get the best project, due date, performance and development and the best reliability and stability in ops and the best posture of security and compliance. And so that started back when I was the CTO and founder of a company called Tripwire. And, you know, that took me into the middle of the DevOps movement in the late 2000s, and that really transformed into kind of a study of, you know, the principles and practices at the tech giants: Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google, Microsoft.

Gene: But it was always my belief that, you know, that’s not really where the majority of value will be created. Instead, it will be when large, complex organizations, across every industry vertical adopts those same patterns to use that to win in the marketplace. And I think that was what was so rewarding about the DevOps Enterprise Summit is we had 1,100 talks across 19 conferences from technology leaders showing how they were taking the same practices and inventing new ones to help their organizations win.

Gene: So across 19 conferences, ten years many people were saying I can’t get my friends to come because they think it’s just about DevOps pipelines.

Jeffrey: Haha right.

Gene: And it just did kind of, uh, bring out this point, right? So they would go on to say it’s about security, the regulatory environment, it’s about working with their business counterparts. It’s about helping their organizations win, about culture, psychological safety. Right. SRE platforms, team topologies. So we changed the name to Enterprise Technology Leadership Summit because that’s what we thought the programming is really about, the mission stays the same: help technology leaders succeed, and their organizations win. Same programing, just a different name.

Jeffrey: And I’m going to come back to because, again, part of this is like the societal ‘I have to go this way’. The societal impact of these practices, when applied at the largest scale. I remember a stat from years ago, and it was something like the majority of teams, like the vast majority of teams are less than ten people. But the majority of developers work on teams of more than 100 people. So there’s this weird kind of power law thing where, you know, these large teams have an outsized footprint in the software industry. And that’s kind of how I think about this when you talk about bringing these things to the largest organizations, is they just have a massive impact on society as a whole. For me, my motivation in high performing organizations, I have the same kind of interest, and a lot of it is reducing suffering because, like you say, it seems like like it’s a win all the way around somehow it’s faster, better, cheaper, more secure. Like there’s no trade offs. And so people are otherwise suffering needlessly. How can we fix that? So for me, your mission of like bringing this to the largest organizations just resonates completely. Is that-?

Gene: Yeah. No, absolutely. And I think just speaking kind of numerically you know, let’s say a couple of years ago, Forrester said there’s like 28 million developers on the planet, of which I think a million at most were in the tech giants. Right. And, you know, tech giants minus one. And so what it means is that you know, the majority of developers are in these more traditional enterprises. And it just seems, I think that you and I share a lot of common passion around is that, you know, they should not be relegated and predestined to live like the Phoenix Project forever, right?

Gene: And so isn’t it amazing that you can take the same people and put them in a- just like the Nummi joint venture. Same people, same same floor space, same equipment. And you go from worst to first. And that’s what I’m just so proud of as a organizer, I think it’s really a showcase for people to tell these amazing transformation stories of that do exactly that. We were at X, and now we’re at Y.

Jeffrey: Yeah. And the thing is, and the weird thing is we’ve had a lot of transformation stories here. And so I’m going to kind of segue a bit into what I’m excited about for your book. We’ve had a lot of literature about exciting, better results. I’m often finding the difficulty of somehow at these large organizations at the very top level, there’s like a disconnect that I often find the executives are often eager for change. The people at the lowest level are eager for change, and somehow there’s transmission problem. There’s this missing element in the middle.

Connect with Execs

Listen to this section at 06:22

Jeffrey: And it’s been how to help the leaders, at the highest level, get consensus among the organizational leadership about the changes they’re going to make and then bring them into the organization. That certainly was part of the goal of Agile Conversations was to help prepare people for those conversations. What I’m excited about with Wiring the Winning Organization is I feel like now I have a better book to take to some of those leaders and be like, ‘these are the conversations you need to be having,’ right?

Jeffrey: It gives them a framework to go out and and actually go and engage with the next level down. Well, first, even at the highest level, like get consensus, like this is what we need to do. And then the next level down and I and I think this is just a fantastic book for that. So tell me about then about how for you where this book fits in there. Because, you know, you’ve alluded to one of your books, many of your books have been about bringing these, these things to the larger publics, going from the DevOps handbook way, way, way back when to, you know, the Phoenix Project, the Unicorn Project. So where do you see and what was exciting to you to go through the pain and suffering of creating another book? Tell me about how that fit in.

Gene: Yeah, and as a fellow author, I think you can resonate with that Mark Twain quote. I hate writing, but I love having written.

Jeffrey: Hahaha

Gene: Yeah, maybe I can answer, I think I have like three responses, to your question. Like, what’s my most personal motivation? What was the quest that I felt like was dominated the last three and a half years, of which my conversations with you. Your appearances on the Ideal Cast podcast was so much a part of this, just answering this question of, you know, what is in common between the areas that I’ve been studying in software of like, you know, DevOps, Agile, SRE, the areas that Steve studied in manufacturing, Toyota Production System, lean, uh, you know, joint areas of like resilience, engineering, safety culture.

Gene: What do they have in common? And what are the universal principles at work? And you know, the answer that I just love that we put in the book is that is that they’re all incomplete expressions of a far greater but very simple whole. And I just love the, uh, for me, it was very exhilarating, you know, to say that, you know, whenever you look at a transformation, there’s only three mechanisms that work, right? And I love that phrase, explain the most with the least, the principle of parsimony. Or you try to explain the most amount of observable phenomena with the fewest number of principles, confirmed deeply held intuitions, but also reveal surprising insights.

Gene: So I think we came up with something very simple and very satisfying to be able to explain a lot and we can go into those mechanisms later. The second thing that I just found so exciting about the collaboration is that Stephen Spear, he’s famous for his contribution to decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System. So that famous 1999 Harvard Business Review paper, he was one of the second generation of researchers to focus on the Toyota productivity paradox. And he went on to study engine design at Pratt and Whitney, he helped build a safety culture at Alcoa. Similarly with the US naval reactor, comprehensively responsible for all aspects of design operations for the nuclear reactors, for the US Navy seagoing fleet. And so if I could really boil that down, I come from software, he comes from hardware.

Jeffrey: Hahaha

Jeffrey: And more, to show that it’s so much the responsibility of leaders, you know, to create the architecture and social circuitry. That is what is the main predictor of performance.

Gene: That is very compatible with the findings from the state of DevOps research, where we found that some of the top predictors of performance was software architecture, to what degree can teams work independently of each other without a lot of fine grained communication coordination, and that and we work in a way where effects are contained and don’t spread to cause global catastrophic outcome. Another one of the top predictors was the Western organizational typology model, right? You know, call it organizational culture. But we can explain a lot of that through the three mechanisms of slowification, simplification, and amplification.

Software Architecture and Effective Teams

Listen to this section at 10:56

Gene: I would say the last thing that I just love is the fact that the language of software architecture permeates the book. And so something that you and I hold near and dear, all the way to your CITCON days and before. The notion that there’s something about architecture that is so important for teams to be effective and have independence of action, coupling and cohesion. You know, if I could wave a magic wand. Every leader, right not just the technology leaders, but every leader also has some intuition about that. And we’re going to give them a language for it. And it doesn’t matter what domain they came from, you know, technology, manufacturing, supply chain. There’s a language of systems of how we control the socio parts of the sociotechnical system that is going to be imprinted by software architecture. I just find that just exhilarating.

Jeffrey: You know, as you’re describing it, and we won’t keep our listeners in suspense forever, we’ll get into the mechanisms. But having read, you know, Phoenix Project, Accelerate, Unicorn Project and Steven Spear’s work High Velocity Edge, some of his other papers, it’s like the two of them had a baby!

Gene: Hahaha

Jeffrey: You know, sort of like-! Except for it’s less the descendant, it’s more like the abstraction, you know, it’s sort of like finding what was common, what was common here. I will say something like, I really enjoyed reading High Velocity Edge, but I also struggled a bit to take it to some of the other leaders who I wanted to benefit from the lessons. I have done a lot of reading, as I know you have, in things outside of software, you know, things in lean and safety culture and things of that nature, the items that you mentioned. And so it was possible, having read The Goal and find that just fantastic and read other Goldratt and hanging out with the summit or DevOps days conferences and talking to John about Deming, you know, and having a background in that, that I could really easily make the translation from the hardware Toyota examples and so on, in high velocity edge, but struggled to have it have traction with people who only knew software.

Gene: Yeah!

Jeffrey: And so for me, the excitement of having this element, which I think does a great job of abstracting it to that higher level, and in finding a level that the audience can think about it organizationally. Because like I said, it’s the I think it’s often been the case that the leadership struggle to ‘well, what do we actually do within our organization? You know, we’ve read these principles, we’ve read these practices.’ But even if I read, for example, Phoenix project, there’s a lot in there that, say first and second level managers in technology it would resonate with them. But it was challenging for it to be an executive level conversation. For the executive team to engage in the content of Phoenix project. Does that resonate with what you’ve heard and your mission to kind of get these principles and ideas at the highest level?

Gene: Yeah, absolutely. In fact for those of you who don’t see the video, I’m just like, nodding violently as Jeffrey was talking because I think that was the- I think the two joint aspiration that we had- Actually let me talk about mine first and I’ll share how it also sounded like for Steve is that I often noticed, studying the DevOps enterprise technology leadership community is that the success of the technology organization was often dependent on their boss, and you change out their boss and it could collapse. Not overnight. But within months, quarters, years. And there’s something that seems so wrong that why is it that we are so dependent, wholly reliant on a fickle leader, the technology leader.

Gene: So one of my aspirations was ‘how can you create and communicate to the person who doesn’t come from software, to tap their own intuitions and experiences about what well organized systems look like? And give a language to that.’ And I think what’s so exciting is that we’re saying that the same sort of engineering mindset that we use to design the technical parts of the sociotechnical system, is exactly what you need.

Gene: You know, the same sensibilities can be used to shape the socio parts of the sociotechnical system. And it doesn’t matter whether that leader comes from supply chain, manufacturing, retail. One hopes that for them to get to where they are, they have these other important intuitions and beliefs that can have us converge on the right sort of principles that shape what organization should look like.

Gene: I think for Steve, he had a very similar parallel goal, which was that, you know, he too is experienced where, you have pockets of greatness, but somehow we don’t have the top level support from the person who matters. And, you know, can we create these simple vignettes that can communicate with them, to have them have their Aha! Moment, to say, ‘oh, I see now that I’ve designed an incoherent, overly coupled system’ using the metaphor of a couch, moving a couch and, you know, silos of movers and painters. And so those are things that, it’s my genuine hope that, we can communicate these things, where people have this Aha! Moment.

Jeffrey: Yeah. That’s fantastic. You know what? Let’s talking about the content, around the content, let’s actually get into it! I’m super happy to hear this and hear it from from you directly about your motivation. And because I was projecting a bit, you know, and to to hear it confirmed from you what you’re looking to achieve and the view from Steve and to have it align with it as is very gratifying. But we’re almost I think we’re about out of time for this week. Gene, would you be willing to come back next week and we can get into the content that your three magic recipes for the winning organization.

Gene: Absolutely, could not be happier to do so.

Jeffrey: All right. Fantastic. Thank you, Gene. We look forward to have you back next week. And we’re hoping for your listeners, for you to also be back next week. You can find us, of course, on and in your podcast player of choice.