Monday 3 December 2012

Changing things when change is hard

NB: If the post below makes you think that I have succumbed to managementese and became some kind of consultant, this is a false impression. I am simply reflecting on an unexpected connection between security improvements in code produced by Twitter developers and a management book.


A recent read of mine, recommended by one of the Atlassian owners - Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. I am not a huge fan of management books - many of them turn out self help books in disguise, others spend 200 pages chewing through an idea that can be explained in a paragraph. "Switch" initially looked like it belonged to the latter category, but to be honest it is worth reading from cover to cover.

The book is about exactly what its title says - changing things when change is hard (Hello there, "security evangelists"!). The premise is simple (and borrowed from another book):

"Jonathan Haidt in "The happiness hypothesis" says that our emotional side is an Elephant and our rational side is its Rider. Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reigns and seems to be the leader. But the rider's control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant. Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose. He's completely over-matched."
They draw lessons about change efforts:
Elephant looks for quick payoff over the long term payoff. When change efforts fail, it is usually the Elephant's fault, since the kinds of change we want typically involve short term sacrifices for long term payoffs. Yet it's the Elephant who gets things done in change situations. You need to appeal to both. The Rider provides the planning and direction, and the Elephant provides the energy. Understanding without motivation vs. passion without direction.
...And make another simple but non-obvious observation that change is hard because people wear themselves out. The "one paragraph" summary of the book is that there are three components to a successful difficult change:

  1. Direct the Rider - provide crystal clear direction. What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity.
  2. Motivate the Elephant - Engage the people's emotional side. The Rider cannot get his way by force for very long. What looks like laziness is often exhaustion.
  3. Shape the path - Shape the situation in a way that facilitates your change. What looks like people problem is often a situation problem.
There are other interesting simple thoughts sprinkled throughout the text. For example:
  • Build habits if you want the change to stick
  • Shrink change - give simple actions
  • Create a destination postcard (pretty vision of the final state) to motivate

Twitter, SADB and elephants

Now, why am I going on about a management book?

In my previous post I included a slideshare link to a talk about security automation from Twitter. There is also a video at Prominently featured is Twitter's central security dashboard, SADB ("sad-bee", funny) - Security Automation Dashboard.

One of its main functions is checking newly pushed code for known vulnerable patterns with Brakeman (see slides 46+ in the slideshare and quick demo video at and immediately bugging the responsible developer with specific recommendations on what has to be fixed and how.

This strikes me as a perfect implementation of "Direct the Rider" principle and "Shrink the change" approach.

I am going to try similar approach at work, we will see how sticky the resulting improvement is going to be :)

Some links:

Extracts from the book:

A related behaviour change framework: - from Stanford