The thousand paper cuts team

The company is growing or has grown. Tasks like environment builds, deployments, user creation, monitoring/alert requests, and configuration changes all run through the Ops team. Sure, they’ve changed the name over the years. First it was SysEng, then TechOps, now it’s the DevOps team. Regardless, the way to get things done in the organization is tickets. But as the company grows, there are more tickets, and more tickets. Soon, we are prioritizing tickets, and trying to figure out ways to get more tickets closed. Eventually we are hardly working on anything else and a solution is proposed. We will split out a team to handle tickets exclusively, so the rest of the DevOps team can focus on “real work”.

This newly split out team is the “Thousand Paper Cuts” team, as in “Death by”. The problem with this solution is that while it may create relief for the team focused on “real work”, the paper cut team is in the same boat they were in before, with no way to get out. More work keeps coming in, and they continue to struggle with it. If they make any progress in closing more tickets, people will only file more tickets! Sure, some other work is getting done, but only at the expense of these teammates who are “taking one for the team”.

The problem is that the team doing real work is not feeling the pain, by design! As one of the authors of Continuous Delivery, Jez Humble often says: “If it hurts, do it more”, because the idea is that you will work on ways to make it hurt less! To reduce or eliminate the pain. The problem with the above model is that it eliminates this type of learning and its benefits. Instead, it actively prevents this type of learning, and the paper cuts team just continually gets more and more cuts because there is no decisive effort made to close the loop.

What’s the alternative? I’ve seen many teams designate a person or two every week to handle the interrupt (ticket) driven work. What’s the difference? The people feeling the pain are on the same team. When they are not doing the interrupt work, they can focus on reducing or eliminating the pain they have felt. Plus, we know from cognitive neuroscience that people feel more empathy for those that are considered in-group vs. those considered in out-groups. That is, by keeping everyone within the same team, team members are more likely to feel the pain of their teammates, and want to create solutions for them, whether in project work or in design.

Splitting the team out only leads to efforts to spin the same wheel faster. As we love to say in Silicon Valley, that “doesn’t scale”. Instead, keep the paper cuts people, and the people who need to get that feedback, on the same team, and change the paradigm of how the work is done.