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  • Writer's pictureShai Yallin

Chaos-Engineering Your Culture: Building a Self-Healing Organization

In the world of software, we've embraced the concept of chaos engineering - the practice of intentionally introducing failure into our systems to test their resilience. But what if we applied this same principle to our organizational culture? What if we actively prepared for disruption, not just in our technology, but in the composition of our teams?

The Myth of the Irreplaceable Employee 

Too often, we build our organizations around the idea of the "rockstar" employee, or a 10x developer - the singular genius without whom nothing gets done. Or an organization might be completely dependent on its head of R&D, from vision through decision making, to delivery.


We convince ourselves that without these pivotal figures, everything would fall apart. But the hard truth is, as the saying goes, "Cemeteries are full of irreplaceable people". No matter how brilliant, essential or committed an individual may seem, life happens. People take parental leave, they go on sabbaticals, they get poached by competitors, and yes, tragically, sometimes they even get sick or die. If your organization can't function without a specific person, then you've built a house of cards, not a resilient system.


Designing for Replaceability

The key to a self-healing organization is to build replaceability into your corporate culture. This doesn't mean treating people as disposable cogs; quite the opposite. It means investing in your people, in their growth and development, so that knowledge and skills are continuously shared and propagated.

Here are some ways to foster a culture of replaceability:


  1. Encourage cross-team work and knowledge sharing. Everyone should have a working understanding of their colleagues' roles, responsibilities, and owned domains. 

  2. Delegate everything. A good manager makes herself redundant. Encourage team members to come up with ideas that affect product vision, engineering culture and even policy. Of course, this has to be done carefully so as not to create false expectations.

  3. Implement pair programming and mentoring. Have senior employees regularly work alongside and teach their junior counterparts, or work with other seniors from other areas of the organization.

  4. Encourage mobility - temporary and permanent. Have people periodically switch teams for a week or two, and create a culture where when someone’s bored with their work, they can move to another team that works in another domain. It’s better to lose a key member of the organization to a sister team than to another company.

  5. Conduct regular "fire drills." Encourage key employees to go on long vacations to test how the team functions in their absence, and to take sick or mental health days if they feel even slightly under the weather. It will force their team to function without them, and help prevent the spread of infectious diseases.

  6. Cultivate managerial reserves inside your teams, so that an employee can step up as a team lead if required to do so. Even if no one leaves, it will allow you to split a team into two and foster easier growth.


Preparing for the Unthinkable 

This philosophy of replaceability is especially crucial in cultures like Israel, where military service is a fact of life. At any moment, a key employee could be called up for reserve duty for an extended period. In the worst case, they might not return at all. But it's not just military service. Life events like the birth of a child, a family emergency, or a global pandemic can all take essential people away when you least expect it.

By designing your culture around replaceability, you ensure that your organization can weather these storms. You build in the redundancy and resilience needed to keep moving forward, even in the face of the unthinkable.


The Self-Healing Organization 

When you chaos engineer your culture, you create an organization that can heal itself. One where the temporary or permanent loss of any individual, no matter how senior or central, is not a fatal blow. This is not about devaluing people; it's about valuing the collective resilience and the mission of the organization over any one individual. It's about creating a culture where everyone is constantly learning, growing, and sharing, so that the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts.


In software, we know that systems fail. The key is to design for failure, to build in the ability to recover and keep going. The same is true for our organizations. By embracing replaceability, we create teams that can adapt, heal, and thrive, no matter what chaos comes their way.

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