Software Engineering   Culture  

Independent, Involved, Informed, and Informative: The Characteristics of a CoPE

By Nick Travaglini  |   Last modified on May 23, 2024

As our Field CTO Liz Fong-Jones says, production excellence is important for cloud-native software organizations because it ensures a safe, reliable, and sustainable system for an organization’s customers and employees. A CoPE helps organizations cultivate the practices and tools necessary to achieve that consistently.

In part one of our CoPE series, we analogized the CoPE with safety departments. David Woods says that those safety departments must be:

  • Independent
  • Involved
  • Informed
  • Informative

In this post, we’ll elaborate on what each of those characteristics means, why the CoPE should also match those qualifications, and how to achieve that status.

Why it matters: power dynamics

We’ll begin by discussing the quality of independence. This will allow us to think about how the CoPE relates to other parts of the organization and why that matters. It’ll also help us define some criteria for determining how independent your CoPE is at any given time.

What do we mean by “independence?”

Independence is the capacity to autonomously perceive or affect something. There can be no independence if the things being compared are absolutely identical or completely different. Independence is established by mediating structures like tools, formal roles, and life experiences.

Independence and organizations

So far we’ve discussed organizations as if they are a coherent entity, and in a certain sense, that’s correct. However, there are undoubtedly tensions within organizations as well. The effect of this is that there is not—and cannot be—perfect “alignment” between all facets of an organization. The people who work there each have some changing degrees of independence. Therefore, the coherence of an organization is a dynamic result—not a static premise to be assumed.

This brings us to why it matters and what it means for the CoPE to be independent.

There are some within the organization who benefit from the current state of affairs and have motives to keep it that way. They may therefore attempt to inhibit the CoPE because it is intended to change the state of affairs and perhaps that will disturb those benefits.

These tensions, however, aren’t all bad. David Stark argues that it is to organizations’ benefit to permit multiple views on what is valuable (and what is the correct thing to do) because dynamism enables adaptation as conditions in the environment change. Without that multiplicity, an organization risks overfitting to the short term and lacking the resources to effectively pivot when it meets a great challenge.

For the CoPE to do its work, it needs insulation from powers which would halt changes it deems necessary. In practice, this may look like funding the CoPE from a customer success or product department budget, rather than engineering. 

The CoPE should make sure that its efforts clearly benefit the generous department’s own goals in the long term, that it reports back how it’s working towards those goals, and that this aid entitles the department to participate in the CoPE’s work as a crucial stakeholder. 

If we can’t get rid of these tensions, then we should make good use of them. In subsequent sections we’ll discuss how to balance this tension over time and to utilize it to the organization’s benefit.

Effective communication

This section will focus on the three other qualities that an effective CoPE should display:

  • Involved
  • Informed
  • Informative

Involved

The CoPE should participate in the work processes that they are attempting to change. A good heuristic here is: Don’t ask someone to do something that you won’t do yourself.

We want to avoid the CoPE taking an outsider's perspective on the situation and merely prescribing actions for others to take. In those situations, it’s all too easy for this to turn the CoPE into mere counters or regulators. These are impractical and wasteful uses of scarce resources. Moreover, punitive measures can create distrust between CoPE members and their colleagues, leading to alienation and secrecy.

That sort of culture, as Sidney Dekker has argued, is toxic. That toxicity may prevent the CoPE from achieving its stated objectives by ceasing communication about the conditions of work, thus stopping crucial flows of information about the things it is attempting to change. Backchannels like private Slack channels or DM conversations are anathema to the whole endeavor.

The CoPE should help implement whatever changes it proposes and intimately understand the challenges of the work.

Informed and informative

The CoPE, as something that isn’t identical to the teams and work processes it’s affecting, has something to learn and something to teach. In terms of learning, it needs to study and produce knowledge about actual behaviors (“Work-as-Done” (WaD) to use researchers’ language) of people and the broader system. Teaching comes when the CoPE communicates the actual state of affairs to other stakeholders and affects the organization’s decision-making.

These two correlated aspects make the CoPE a supremely helpful advisor to frontline teams and organizational leadership. Understanding WaD lets the CoPE coordinate between disparate teams, enabling smooth working relationships. This “common ground” makes it easier to make mountains into molehills.

However, this may require slowing or quickening work timelines. A CoPE can only affect those deviations from plans when it is independent from leadership and can speak candidly about the good, bad, and ugly. Leadership has to be willing to hear bad news, or the CoPE needs to be insulated enough that it can deliver that news when it’s unwelcome. 

Let’s go even deeper next time!

That concludes our discussion of the location of a CoPE within an organization. Don’t miss the next post in the series, where we’ll go into recruiting CoPE members, and what strategy you should employ. If you missed the first post in the series, you can find it here: Establishing and Enabling a Center of Production Excellence.

I encourage you to try Honeycomb for free while you wait!

 

Related Posts

Software Engineering  

Investigating Mysterious Kafka Broker I/O When Using Confluent Tiered Storage

Earlier this year, we upgraded from Confluent Platform 7.0.10 to 7.6.0. While the upgrade went smoothly, there was one thing that was different from previous...

Software Engineering   Culture  

Establishing and Enabling a Center of Production Excellence

Software is in a crisis. This is nothing new. Complex distributed systems are perpetually in a state far from equilibrium, operating in what Richard Cook...

Software Engineering  

Simulation Theory, Observability, and Modern Software Practices

The 1981 book Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard is widely read and cited within academic circles but also permeates popular culture, influencing films, literature,...