5 Steps to Practicing Empathy in the Workplace

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Phoenix Project" by Gene Kim, Kevin Behr, and George Spafford. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is a continuous improvement culture? Why should IT departments deliberately introduce faults and design flaws into the production line?

In their book The Phoenix Project, Gene Kim, Kevin Behr, and George Spafford stress the importance of continuous growth in a company. Without growth and the ability to make mistakes, the workplace becomes toxic and stagnant.

Here’s how and why you should create a culture of continuous improvement in your company, IT or not.

Always Be Improving

The last and perhaps most important component to harnessing IT’s—or any system’s—full productivity is to create a continuous improvement culture through practice, repetition, experimentation, and useful failure. Using the story of their fictional company’s ill-conceived “Phoenix Project,” the authors provide a negative example of a company with a toxic workplace culture and a blueprint for a better way to encourage growth, development, and innovation that benefits your business as a whole.

The defining characteristic of a toxic workplace is that employees’ behavior is guided by a constant fear of failure. In such a culture, administrators address mistakes and malfunctions by assigning blame and taking punitive action. As a result, people are discouraged from identifying errors and problems in a system. Feedback is silenced, because who will provide it when the default cultural response is to kill the messenger? Toxic work cultures stifle any improvement, and without constant improvement, a system will stagnate and problems will fester until they become catastrophic.

On the other hand, a productive company culture will encourage people to report problems at once. The authors show that if employees can trust that they won’t be reprimanded—and may in fact be rewarded—for identifying and helping solve issues detrimental to the company, then those employees will feel an ownership stake in seeking out ways to improve the whole system. If they’re encouraged to take risks in the process by trying solutions that may or may not work without fear of reprisal from on high, then your company will foster a culture of innovation in which even failed attempts at improvement are seen as a way to generate knowledge that can be shared across the organization.

The Value of Making Mistakes

A corporate culture in which mistakes and failures are rewarded as long as they move the company forward may not be as unlikely as it sounds. In Reinventing Organizations, Frederic Laloux says that such companies already exist and that they represent the next stage of organizational evolution. These companies run on the basic assumptions that workers can be trusted to make good decisions and that when employees feel they have an ownership stake in the company’s success, they’ll hold themselves accountable for their mistakes without any threat of administrative punishment. Meanwhile, that same culture of trust gives workers the freedom to unlock their full creative potential.

As a counterexample to the toxic workplace depicted in The Phoenix Project, consider that of Pixar, as presented by its co-founder Ed Catmull in Creativity, Inc. According to Catmull, embracing failure as positive is an essential ingredient to Pixar’s innovation and success in the animated film industry. The key is to normalize failure by removing its associated stigma of fear. That way, when mistakes are made, people come together as a group to address them with creative solutions, rather than retreating into personal silos to avoid receiving blame. To destigmatize the inevitable mistakes that arise from experimentation, managers must cultivate trust by taking risks themselves and admitting their own errors.

Finally, the authors state that businesses should formalize their systems of continual improvement. IT staff can hone new solutions and practices while refining them through repetition and practice. Teams within DevOps can root out flaws in their products by pushing their products’ limits, forcing errors to emerge before they crop up on their own. One way to accomplish this is to deliberately introduce faults and design flaws into the production line so that staff can practice identifying errors, providing feedback, and coming up with resolutions. Not only can you identify systemic deficiencies in this way, but you’ll also promote a culture in which experimentation, risk-taking, and learning become an institutional way of life.

(Shortform note: The idea of deliberately making mistakes to test a system predates The Phoenix Project or even the modern IT department. Inventors, advertisers, and even telephone companies have introduced deliberate errors into their practices to test their guiding assumptions. In order to make productive mistakes, it’s important to know what a system’s underlying assumptions are. Mistakes should be designed to confirm or dispute those beliefs, especially when those assumptions are the basis of regular, automatic decisions.)

DevOps, Past and Present

The ideas behind DevOps—the merger of software development and IT operations into one department—began to cohere about five years before being illustrated in The Phoenix Project. The term “DevOps” was coined in 2009 by Patrick Debois of the photography website Flickr. As a management and design philosophy, DevOps gained traction in the business world over the following decade, allowing products to get to market more quickly while fostering ingenuity and creative experimentation, especially in the software industry.

Currently, DevOps principles are fueling a trend toward applications based on microservice architectures in which individual functions and processes are handled by small, modular units of software. There has also been a shift toward cloud-based computing that lets developers build software without spending their own time and resources building the hardware to support it. Finally, DevOps practitioners are using artificial intelligence and machine learning tools to enhance system operations, speed up software deployments, and enable faster testing and analysis of new products.
Why a Continuous Improvement Culture Is Necessary in Business

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  • Why a poorly-run IT department will destroy a business
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Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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