“Holding Space” for DevOps, Beliefs, and Values

I recently read about the concept of “Holding Space” in Reinventing Organizations, where Laloux states it is one of the most important roles of any CEO. Looking up more about holding space yields quite a lot of reading on the softer/spiritual side of things, rather than the practical day-to-day business world use-cases. It even brings up the Holding Space AntiGravity Yoga studio, which just looks pretty whacky and seems to have very little to do with DevOps.

Despite the lack of reference material, the idea of holding space resonates strongly with me. The idea is that values and beliefs, especially non-traditional values and beliefs are all fine and nice when the going is good, but can get thrown out the window when things get rough.

Think of a value of transparency. Seems legit, until you find a significant security issue or evidence of a potential data leak. Every one of us will have a natural instinct to sweep something under the rug: we might be busy and want to move on, we might feel embarrassed about disclosing the issue, or might fear that there will be specific repercussions. Without someone ‘holding space’ for the value of transparency, it’s altogether too likely that the pressures of the day-to-day world and our emotional instincts will erode the value over time.

DevOps is a lot of work. Real work: monitoring, metrics, deployment pipelines, proper logging, configuration management, service discovery, blah blagh blah. In addition to these many production-critical systems and services, I think one of the most important roles of someone who believes in the DevOps vision is to hold space. Hold space for blameless postmortems. Hold space for not throwing-work-over-the-wall. Hold space for calmness. Hold space for incident response chat rooms without unhelpful middle managers asking distracting questions at critical moments.

One particularly difficult aspect of holding space on the DevOps level is that the work still needs to get done. It would be crippling to say “Hey bob, you’re throwing this work over the wall at me and so I’m not going to do it. Fix your own stuff.” Instead, holding space at the tactical level requires a tough combination of strong beliefs and flexibility. Maybe: “Hey Bob, it looks like you are in a bind here. I think I can help you out today, but ultimately I feel like looping me into urgent work of this nature isn’t productive and holds us back from achieving our best. Is that point clear? Ok, let’s jump in and fix this up”.

Hopefully this simple term might help define a role or facility that many people are already fulfilling, and give a common descriptor to this difficult but crucial task. Thanks to everyone holding space for their beliefs and values, DevOps or otherwise.