A Story of DevOps >> Episode 8. Balrog (Confront the Brutal Facts)

A Story of DevOps >> Episode 8. Balrog (Confront the Brutal Facts)

We are proper rolling now – you have the right vision, leadership, teams, environment and the new practices are maturing. Cooking on gas! #AStoryofDevOps

Is this good enough? Are you really going in the right direction?

You Shall Not Pass

The Fellowship of the Ring are are surrounded. Orcs all around them, closing in… There is no way out. Prepare for battle; united, until the end.

The orcs stop and flee – thousands of them. Something is coming. Run! Durin’s Bane, a Balrog, approaches. Balrog’s are tall, menacing creatures shrouded in fire, darkness and shadow armed with whips of ‘many throngs’.

The Fellowship reach a bridge, they cross. Gandalf stops, turns and faces the approaching Balrog. “I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass! The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass!”

With a crack of Durin’s Bane’s whip, Gandalf strikes the ground with his staff. “You shall not pass!” The bridge collapses and the Balrog falls. Gandalf is caught by the whip and falls. Clinging to the ledge he shouts, “Run, you fools”. He lets go and falls. Frodo screams!

Gandalf the Grey falls deep, chasing after the Balrog – he catches his sword on the way down; the man and beast battle as they fall. Splash – they hit the water. From the lowest point to the highest mountain, they battle. They fight until Durin’s Bane is finally defeated. Gandalf collapses and he enters the place of no ‘consciousness and time’. He is not allowed to leave and is returned from unconsciousness. Brought back from death, Gandalf the Grey is no more. Gandalf the white emerges… more powerful, more wise.


We are all too often fighting the immediate fight (the orcs), the battles of today with a great team but against all odds, we feel we can persevere and come through victorious. This is not enough. We need to take the bigger picture view of our situation, now more than ever, as everything around is changing so fast. The Balrog of our organisation needs to be recognised, feared and faced. Like Gandalf, as leaders, we must protect our teams and face the enemy head on – “You Shall Not Pass!” Dropping the enemy into a ravine is not good enough – we must chase it, battle with it, fight until it is no more.

By facing the truth of our situation and dealing with it, our teams, like Frodo, may think we are crazy or feel that they are losing us but we must go where we must go. We must fight what we must fight. In the words of Sutherland, “Adapt or Die.”

In Good to Great (Collins), there is a whole chapter called “Confronting the Brutal Facts” where organisations must respond to the hard facts on the table. Leaders must not just ‘believe’ and ‘hope’ things will get better and they must not rely on past performance for future success. They must collect, understand and respond to the facts -“Facts are better than dreams” Churchill once said. This chapter also describes the “Stockholm Paradox” in which Admiral Stockdale shared that overcoming a prisoner of war camp was due to “Unwavering faith amid the brutal facts”

Fostering an environment where the brutal facts can be surfaced is intrinsically important. We don’t like to hear bad news and we naturally like to have the answers. Sometimes, as a leader, we feel that our integrity is based on having the answers and being right. We need to look at the facts and face up to them – then we must do what is necessary to overcome the challenge, no matter how hard, no matter how long. A key to this is our ability to listen, I heard a phrase once, we have 2 ears and 1 mouth – use proportionately.


Radical Candor‘s (Scott) key message is; to create high performance in an organisation leaders must care personally and challenge directly. A key part of this is about creating an environment of openness and honesty – in fact, it goes further in saying that leaders should take the time to listen to the organisation, teams and people, clarify their understanding, stimulate debate, decide on a course of actions, persuade the organisation, execute the decision and learn. In fact, there is a story about Eric Schmidt (Executive Chairman, Google) where he has open dialogue and debate with the people in his organisation.


In the book about Netflix culture, Powerful; Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility (McCord), Netflix developed a culture which promoted employees raising their views and opinions where debates are commonplace. Future employers of Netflixers have struggled with their new employees as they are not accustomed to being challenged so directly by their employees.

Stimulating an environment where employees can speak up, challenge and debate is core to being able to see the Brutal Facts. As well as financial performance and customer satisfaction, your employees can help an organisation surface the truth. Our job is then to debate, decide, persuade, execute and learn.

Creating the right environment where all levels of the organisation can speak, listen and debate is healthy and you will need to address the issues you find head on.


You will find that if you have built an environment for DevOps, the philosophies and practices implemented will tend to reveal the reality of your situation. This will relate to everything from internal team trust issues to the competitiveness of your product or business in the market.

The journey for me as described in #AStoryofDevOps was partly challenging because we had to deal with the reality of our situation – there was nowhere to hide – no big programme or transformation; just us, our data, our customer, lots of feedback, teams and the technology and we had to take these on – head on.

I am not saying that we have overcome all the issues as big organisations have challenges with silos, federated business models, internal finances, service integration layers, etc. and one of the biggest challenges is around building a consensus of which direction to move towards and the philosophies and principles that enable corporate success.

To really build a great organisation, the highest level of leadership buy-in with a desire to recognise and embrace the actual reality of the situation based on facts is needed together with the development of a cross-organisation culture that promotes people speaking up, leaders listening and for healthy debate and decision. This requires us overcoming one of the main things that holds us back – fear. I was once told that to realise my potential, I had to face my insecurities – This is true for all of us.

I met Justin Hughes from Mission Excellence the other day and he talked about being in the Royal Air Force and the Red Arrows. he talked about the importance of Culture – Attitude – Process and the impact of having an environment where everyone feels comfortable to contribute.

In the Red Arrows training de-briefs (similar to Scrum Retrospectives), every member of the team is encouraged to critique the show and share what they could have done better. The Squadron leaders starts by sharing their failures and this enables the rest of the team to share – and most importantly to learn. The essence of continual improvement.

So, create an environment where truth is shared and heard and you can Confront the Brutal Facts, face the Balrogs of your organisation and persevere until they are truly defeated.

More in this series #AStoryof DevOps:

  • A Story of DevOps
  • Episode 1 >> Origins (Traversing the Change Curve)
  • Episode 2 >> One Ring (Alignment and Empowerment)
  • Episode 3 >> Freedom (Leadership)
  • Episode 4 >> Assemble (Productive and Teams)
  • Episode 5 >> Shield (Tools of the Trade)
  • Episode 6 >> Kryptonian (Value, Flow, Quality in a Complex World)
  • Episode 7 >> Jedi (Mastery)
  • Episode 8 >> Balrog (Confront the Brutal Facts)
  • Episode 9 >> Kryptonite (Anti-Patterns of DevOps)
  • Episode 10 >> The Suit (Digital Transformation)
  • Episode 11 >> Flux Capacitor (Automation and Orchestration)

#AStoryofDevOps #DevOps #Balrog

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