Agile & DevOps

Are some sports coaches using DevOps to improve their team’s performance?

When thinking of techniques of how to improve the output of an IT team by moving towards DevOps, it seemed obvious to pick on some sporting examples to demonstrate how it would work. Changing the traditional methodology of how any team operates raises a number of challenges, the team will feel doubt and uncertainty over what is happening and what the change means to them. This can result in resistance and maybe even anger at the changes being proposed, it is important to get the team to buy into the new ideas, manage any conflict and protect the team from external criticism during the change process.

To demonstrate some methods to help you do that, I am going to use some examples from two teams who have had a large upturn in performance.

In 2015, England hosted the Rugby Union World Cup, only for the national team to become the first home side in the competition’s history to be eliminated at the group stage.

In December 2015 after Chelsea lost nine out of sixteen league games, José Mourinho was sacked as manager and the team eventually finished 10th, their lowest finish in twenty seasons.

A few months into 2017 both teams have seen a remarkable turnaround in results, with limited changes in playing personnel. England until their final game against Ireland went undefeated for a record equaling 18 matches against tier one opposition after the appointment of coach Eddie Jones winning two Six nations Championships in the process. Chelsea meanwhile has a healthy lead at the top of the Premier League in Antonio Conte’s first Premier League season in charge.

Let’s consider four areas where these teams have changed, including collaboration, mindset, using flexible processes and how to learn from failure. These concepts helped Jones and Conte counter the challenges of change and improve their team’s performance. While both teams have seen some minor changes in players, the main change in both cases has been the coaching staff. How have the new coaches been able to turn things around? And what can we learn from this in order to improve the management of IT teams?


One of the big issues with managing any team is getting the members to collaborate and see the benefits of doing so. If a team becomes over reliant on a superstar player or programmer, what happens if they are unavailable or leave? The rest of the team can become demoralised and not perform, thinking they can’t cope without that person.

Eddie Jones dealt with this very differently from most coaches, by claiming England had no world class players (which I agreed with). Instead of inflating his players’ egos he brought them all down to the same level and then talked about there being a few who had the potential to be world class. Jones also refers to his replacements bench as his finishers to make them feel that they are vital to the team, the impact of the England replacements has been key to their results.

DevOps creates a collaborative work environment where team members, developers, testers, system administrators and business users work together towards a common goal, without the siloed approach where teams simply pass the issues around between the different groups.


One of the first things both Conte and Jones had to do was to change the culture of their teams from being comfortable in what they know, to encourage people to work outside of their comfort zone. To do this they needed their players to learn and adapt. Changing an entrenched view is a challenge, and in some ways, both Conte and Jones were helped by managing teams that had suffered a big failure which enabled them to realise they needed to change.

Eddie Jones’ view is that ‘”players in a very comfortable environment have a fixed mindset, so they work to the things they know. Changing that to a growth mindset, where they are happy to be challenged and to try new things, is always most difficult.”  While doubt and uncertainty can creep in at this point explaining the benefits to the team of expanding their skillset.

In the IT world, we know that technology changes all the time, but it is a lot easier to stick with what you know even though getting teams to open their minds to new ideas is really critical to innovating and improving performance. As IT managers, we often keep individuals in set roles, which limits their contribution. By using a growth mindset, we can allow team members to explore new challenges and stretch themselves. This allows everyone to contribute and innovate without worrying about their own limitations.

In rugby terms, developing a prop’s passing skills would enable them to be much more effective when they find themselves in the scrum-half position in the melee of test match rugby. In Jones’ words, play heads up rugby, play what is in front of you and react to the situation.

Much as I prefer heads up rugby players, I also prefer head up developers who react and speak to someone and say I think there might be a better way that we could do this, encouraging your team to talk through issues and use messaging apps with those who are remote is a simple way to do this.

Flexible processes

Chelsea under Conte has changed to a more flexible formation of 3-4-3 when in possession of the ball, but switch to 5-4-1 without the ball, this has led to Chelsea keeping many more clean sheets and improving their results by being able to vary their system based on the situation in front of them. The players will have had to change their mindset to accept this and have been empowered to react to the opposition and may have had some failures in adapting to this method, but ultimately this has been much more successful.

In the same way, our development team at Basis Technologies switch between Kanban and Scrum depending on the situation in front of them, both are Agile techniques and the team can pick the best one for the situation. Giving the team the ability to change from one process to another may make them feel uncertain about how this works, but they need to be given support and when it does not work, to learn from this failure.

The key here is that to be truly effective, your team needs a system that will allow them to adapt quickly and easily so they can be flexible. In the SAP ecosystem it is difficult for IT teams to achieve this type of flexibility, but that is one of the key reasons many organizations use the automation tool Transport Expresso. It enables SAP users to become more Agile or start to operate DevOps which means they can add value to their business and customers quicker and with less risk.


In IT we can always use a sandpit environment to try things out just as players and coaches try things on the training field. However, in both cases, we don’t really know how well something will work until we try it out for real. In their 2017 Six Nations match against Italy, England at first failed to deal with the innovative way Italy were defending and while we can debate how quickly they reacted to those tactics they did find a way to do so and win the game.

It was the reaction from England’s captain Dylan Hartley afterward that he had learned that he should “Pull the team in, deal with the scenario earlier, and see what was happening earlier in the game”. Taking responsibility for ensuring it won’t happen again is something we can all do as part of a team.

In IT we can apply the same principle, we can learn from every failure and as long as you avoid blaming individuals and look for solutions this encourages everyone to be much more open about the problem which makes solving it and preventing it much easier. It also helps to relieve some of the doubts and fears individuals may have about moving to DevOps, knowing that failure is ok and used as a learning experience. Learning and iterating on our processes is something that makes Agile so valuable.

After Eddie Jones’ first defeat as England’s head coach against Ireland, Jones said “It’s great for us. It’s not great to lose, but it’s a great learning experience”. After losing to West Ham in the EFL Cup Conte said “Usually you learn more after a defeat than a win.” Both of these coaches therefore understand the benefits of failure and failure is ok as long as you learn from it and make sure it does not occur again.

Part of what Jones and Conte are doing when they talk this way is protecting their team. After Chelsea only managed a 1-1 draw with Burnley, Conte was still full of praise for his team protecting them from external media pressure. In the same way that IT managers should protect their teams when things go wrong.


Change is always difficult in any organization and a sports team is no different, it is no surprise it is easy to draw parallels between the two. The concepts above are fairly well established as helping IT teams progress on a DevOps journey. In very much the same way as Chelsea and the England Rugby Union teams have been turned around, software development teams are also seeing the benefits of turning to DevOps.

Puppet in their State of DevOps survey 2016 found that…

High performing organisations deploy 200x more frequently than low performers, with 2,555x faster lead times … with 24x faster recovery times and 3x lower change failure rates.

This demonstrates that an IT team’s results can dramatically improve by transforming a traditional change process to DevOps. 

To learn more about how DevOps can work with SAP systems contact us.

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