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Align organization and culture

“Any organization that designs a system will produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organization’s communication structure.”

— Mel Conway

One of the biggest challenges of digital transformation is aligning your organizational structure, culture, and methodologies with your digital strategy. Ideally, engineering, product, and business groups are optimized to respond to new market opportunities with culture propelling them forward like a trade wind blowing across the Atlantic. More typically in large organizations, there are cultural barriers that trap teams in the doldrums, preventing them from making progress.

Many of the companies who are leaders in the API economy have adopted a new paradigm for delivering their digital products. This paradigm includes Agile development practices, a DevOps mentality, cloud-native technologies, microservice architecture, and API-led connectivity at the core. This “way of the API” has helped these companies maintain extreme levels of innovation and operational stability even as their business have scaled astronomically. Following these practices over time can help shift any organization’s culture in a new direction.

One of the most powerful tools we have for changing culture is also the simplest. Setting principles and reinforcing them by example sends a clear message to employees about what’s important. The more those at the top of your organizational structure articulate and embody the principles of your digital transformation, the more rank and file employees will internalize them as well, allowing decisions to be made faster and at lower levels.

Amazon’s 12 leadership principles are deeply embedded in the organization, manifesting themselves in daily business operations, and in new candidate’s job interviews. That level of principle permeation can have a profound impact on your organization’s ability to become an agile business that innovates at scale.

Another best practice for enlisting culture on your side is to incentivize self governance. Historically, IT organizations in big companies have a tendency to practice top-down, punitive governance. They send down dictates to the developer or engineering groups “thou shalt follow this standard, or use this framework, or else!.” Corporate standards are effective in some cases, but there is much less friction when you show people how you would like things to be done, explain why the approach you are advocating makes sense, and offer tools and documentation to make your directions easy to follow. When this works out, engineers and developers end up governing themselves — continually asking “is what I am doing matching what I want or need to be doing?”

While restructuring isn’t necessarily effective in changing a culture, a certain amount of realignment may be necessary to map your organizational practices to a more agile way of building systems. Organizations that are accustomed to big, monolithic product releases will want to reorient their developer teams so that release cycles support a high frequency of change. A rapid cadence of small changes has become the best practice in today’s software industry, replacing decades of big production releases that were all too often followed by rounds of fire fighting and emergency patches. Instead of fearing change, organizations now strive to become really good at it.

Hand in hand with faster release cycles is pipelined delivery. Typically the more automation you can add, the better off you will be.

To support these new developer practices, you will want to cultivate a culture of experimentation and learning. Some business models and releases are bound to be buggy. But with rapid feedback loops, failure becomes another tool for transforming your business.

One final recommendation for aligning your organizational practices and culture with your digital strategy is to explore domain-driven design. This approach, which has become popular in the microservices movement as an alternative to more monolithic, UI-based approaches, looks at systems from the perspective of business domains. Applying DDD in an API context allows us to model a system based on the interactions between components. You end up with an API-based architecture that aligns much more easily with your business needs than if you tried to do things the old way.

To help organizations align their organizational practices and culture to support their digital transformation, MuleSoft offers API Program Workshops. Learn about establishing an API strategy, nurturing developer ecosystems, and more.