How a DevOps culture fits within popular Culture Models

ecs-admin 1st September 2016

One of my favourite definitions of culture was coined way back in 1994 by William E. Schnieder:

“How we do things around here in order to succeed”.

Company culture is made up of the way that companies do the things they do.

Academics have been attempting to define the different types of organisational cultures since the early 1970s. There are a number of organisational “culture models”, which segment cultures based on different aspects of behaviour and values.

Some of the most widely acknowledged of these culture models include:

  • Harrison (1972): How processes and decisions are made within organisations.
  • Deal and Kennedy (2000): What kinds of decisions are made by organisations.
  • Schneider (1999): The general way of thinking in the decision process.
  • Cameron and Quinn (2011): Values that are important to an organisation.

You may or may not have heard of all of them, but what they all have in common is that they divide organisations into four distinct cultures – based on a differing set of axes.

In reality, of course, organisational culture is not found as one pure type. Researchers suggest, however, that most companies will focus on and aim for one distinct “principal” culture.

If this is true, we wondered which culture type those companies working towards DevOps would achieve.

Where does DevOps fit in the Cameron and Quinn culture model?


I’ve chosen to use the most recently acknowledged culture model, proposed by Cameron and Quinn (2011). This model categorises cultures through their values.

We can quickly discount hierarchy, since DevOps does not promote a “formalised and structured” environment. And, whilst many organisations are looking for increased profitability as an output of DevOps, evidence suggests that innovation and flexibility (coupled with alignment) are key to achieving and sustaining such benefits.  For that reason, we also discount market.

It’s easy to see and jump on the word “collaboration” under Quinn and Cameron’s clan culture, and associate it with DevOps.  A clan culture places teamwork and employee satisfaction at the centre of organisational culture, and, much like the clan, DevOps promotes shared responsibilities, cross-functional teams and the breakdown of silos.

However, we must remember the overall goal of DevOps. When placing DevOps within one of these cultures, the question we need to ask is:

Why do organisations adopt DevOps?

The answer, of course, is not that organisations want DevOps – but that they need the results of DevOps: the ability to deliver software and software services faster, cheaper and with greater quality.

DevOps culture, whilst promoting collaboration, does not place collaboration as the ultimate goal. Collaboration through DevOps is simply a “means to an end” that allows organisations to maximize their efficiency in rapidly changing environments.

It was Deal and Kennedy (2000) who stated that:

“The environment in which a company operates determines what it must do to be a success”.

DevOps is being increasingly adopted as part of digital transformation – not just by organisations wishing to disrupt competition – but also those that don’t want to be left behind.

If this is the case, then it makes sense to place DevOps within the adhocracy culture: a culture that promotes adaptability, flexibility, and creativity in turbulent (or disrupted) environments.

Much like DevOps, characteristics of organisations operating within an adhocracy culture include: frequently and rapidly changing structure, temporary roles and responsibilities depending on changing client problems alongside the values of experimentation, creativity, innovation and risk-taking. Business leaders implement DevOps for the long-term goal of gaining traction in their market by increasing the speed and flexibility of their software processes, allowing them to keep up with competition (see our recent whitepaper).

Supporting an Adhocracy Culture

Quinn and Cameron (2011) discovered that successful organisations developed elements of other quadrants to “soften weaknesses[es]” of existing in one fixed culture. Where companies are unlikely to be a mixture of all four cultures, many companies do have a “strong secondary component”.

I therefore suggest that DevOps promotes an adhocracy culture, with a strong secondary clancomponent. Within DevOps, the collaborative clan culture introduces practices such as shared responsibilities and blameless post-mortems to soften the experimentation and risk-oriented focus of the adhocracy-led workplace.

DevOps Culture: Case Study


A fantastic real-life example of DevOps culture within a culture model comes from Spotify.

Much like Quinn and Cameron, Spotify places their own culture model upon the values that they hold to be important: alignment and autonomy.

Within their Agile and DevOps culture, the target Spotify culture includes one where employees are able to work with little guidance (autonomy), but do so with the same goals in mind (alignment).

To achieve this, Spotify teams work in squads: loosely coupled and tightly aligned teams that hold community over structure and trust over control. In this setup, the more aligned a team is, the more autonomy they obtain.

Achieving a DevOps Culture

So, now we know where DevOps sits in a culture model, we can implement the culture directly into an organisation, right? Cameron and Quinn (2011) found that “new organisations tend to progress through a predictable pattern of organisation culture changes”.

 Organisational culture tends to begin in the adhocracy quadrant. That’s because being creative and innovative is much easier for early-starters – those that are still small and flexible enough to take risks.

For these early starters, achieving the next step – collaboration – can be more difficult.  Here we might find, conflicting interests and power that impede collaboration. However, with any cultural adoption, there are small steps towards achieving collaboration that can be taken in any organisation. These steps include anything from team tech-sharing sessions to questioning existing processes. You can read more about small steps that you can take in our blog, 5 DevOps quick wins.

Quinn and Cameron’s process of organisational culture explains why companies in the early startup phase find adopting DevOps processes much easier than larger, legacy organisations. For organisations that have already passed through the adhocracy and collaboration cultures and settled into hierarchy and market cultures, it is a question of taking steps backwards to think more like a startup in order to promote flexibility and innovation.

This can be a difficult task. It requires organisational-wide understanding and adoption of new processes and ways of thinking – which is why DevOps uptake in these organisations has been slow – until now. Gartner has predicted 2016 to be the year that DevOps goes mainstream, adopted by one in four organisations. As culture is shaped by outside influencers, digital transformation within the industry means that the ability to be flexible – through DevOps adoption – is now becoming a necessity.

This dramatic increase in demand for DevOps transformation expertise led to the acquisition of Forest Technologies by ECS, to become ECS Digital. The combination of our 12 years of DevOps expertise, and the ECS experience working with FTSE100 organisations allows us to ensure large organisations realise the maximum benefits from beginning or accelerating their DevOps transformation initiatives. You can read more about the acquisition here.


If you’re looking to start or accelerate the adoption of DevOps in your organisation, why not organise a “DevOps maturity assessment”? We’ll assess your current DevOps readiness or maturity, and advise you on how and what ROI you could achieve from taking the next steps to fully adopt DevOps practices.

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