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Good Process, Bad Process

Published: December 26, 2015

To most people the word “process” might as well be a four-letter word.

At some point in our career, most of us have encountered a misguided attempt at “big bang” business process re-engineering. Or a mind-numbing, soul-sappingTPS-style approval process (approved in triplicate!) Or the introduction of the latest hot development approach.

But I see process in a different light. When I think about process I think about things like the creative process, the learning process, transparent and collaborative problem solving, information processing, and evolution and mutation. My thoughts drift to design thinking, surfboard shapers, and bespoke tailors. I just don’t share the visceral reaction.

In this post I would like to address two common assumptions:

  1. That process is by definition rigid and inflexible
  2. That process is by definition “top down” and overly dogmatic I’ll start by giving a couple examples of process at work.

Checklists sound awfully controlling. But, by using a checklist surgical teams can ”significantly lower the number of deaths and complications” regardless of the type of surgery.

But even a small change, like having surgical team members take a moment to say who they are and what they do before scalpel touches skin, can have important consequences later on should one of them develop a concern during the operation. Earlier studies have shown that communication problems are fairly common in operating rooms, with junior members of the team sometimes hesitant to speak up.While a staff psychologist with the Israeli military, Daniel Kahneman (Think, Fast and Slow) describes how his team disrupted the common practice of assessing new recruits. Instead of relying on intuition and a comprehensive assessment,Kahneman introduced a new process consisting of a simple 5 point quantitative survey.

What he came up with was so controversial it almost caused a mutiny. Kahneman asked interviewers to put aside personal judgments and limit interviews to a series of factual questions meant to generate a score on six separate personality traits. A few months later, it became clear that Kahneman’s systematic approach was a vast improvement over gut decisions. It was so effective that the army would use his exact method for decades to come.At Henry Poole “each new client is a fresh and unique canvas to us”. Their “cutters” use a time honored bespoke process to craft custom tailored suits.

With each piece of clothing being made personally by our tailors on the premises on Savile Row, London, the theme remains consistent: individuality expressed through craftsmanship and style.Improv groups use a basic process to guide the scene while keeping things “unusual” and interesting.

Characters need to go on journeys, be altered by revelations, experience the ramifications of their choices and be moved by emotional moments. We go to the theater to see the unusual days characters have, not the everyday moments of stasis and stagnation.The scientific method (as described by this teacher) “is the process by which scientists, collectively and over time, endeavor to construct an accurate (that is, reliable, consistent and non-arbitrary) representation of the world”.

Alistair Cockburn describes the “heart of agile” in four simple words: collaborate, deliver, reflect, and improve. Which is remarkably similar to the learning process, and the Deming Circle (PDCA).

0 IU7FzFvFIufSAPPL Four processes form the “basic mechanisms”

of evolutionary change: mutation, migration, genetic drift, and natural selection.

The creative process invites experimentation, and iteration. In describing the making of Bitches Brew (Miles Davis), Author Paul Tingen quotes drummer Jack DeJohnette:

This was the beautiful thing about it. He’d do a take, and stop, and then get an idea from what had just gone before, and elaborate on it, or say to the keyboards ‘play this sound.’ One thing fed the other. It was a process, a kind of spiral, a circular situation. The recording of Bitches Brew was a stream of creative musical energy. One thing was flowing into the next, and we were stopping and starting all the time, maybe to write a sketch out, and then go back to recording. The creative process was being documented on tape, with Miles directing the ensemble like a conductor an orchestra.The point I’m making with these examples is that process itself is not the problem. Trying to demonize the concept of a series of steps towards an outcome is like calling breathing an anti-pattern. Calling it by some other name: craft, practice, “way of working”, method, and ritual is more palatable for the process phobe, but we often are discussing the exact same concept.

Thinking on the examples above, a good process …

  1. Represents the current tactic with full knowledge that the tactic may change
  2. Attempts to eliminate individual biases and groupthink
  3. Allows us to reflect on what is and isn’t working using both qualitative and quantitative data
  4. Allows for iteration
  5. Is explicit and transparent … everyone knows what we’re trying to accomplish, minimize, and maximize
  6. Encourages variability and conformance when it is most valuable
  7. Engages the participants and players in an inclusive fashion by harnessing them as sensors and actors
  8. Is repeatable relative to the diversity of inputs and desired outputs
  9. Does not usurp and try to control the collective intelligence of your team I’d like to end by discussing discipline and process. Alistair Cockburn has a great YouTube video on disciplined Agile which inspired this line of thinking.

We often equate discipline and process with rigidity. It just sounds inflexible. Cockburn claims that “lazy Agile” is surprisingly effective, but that we can do better by exploring different methods, and processes. Yes this discipline has more “process” (a couple more box and arrow diagrams), but it is no less (and perhaps even more) “Agile”.

A disciplined approach can be extremely flexible (you don’t see MMA fighters throwing up their hands due to the variability of their opponents). And the disciplined team — just like the disciplined improv group — knows when to break the rules and explore a new process.

The truly agile organization resists the temptation to oversimplify. Like surgeons with their checklist it evolves processes to de-bias decisions and applies discipline (the good kind) and process where it will have the most leverage. This approach empowers all layers of the organization to experiment with and evolve the current tactic while making the tactic transparent and explicit. When modifying open source code we check out the “code” (the process), iterate, and check back in improvements for testing. It is egalitarian but disciplined.

In closing, I’d encourage readers to define and practice process (under the guise of any word, really) in a way that generates results and introspection for your team and organization.

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler
Albert Einstein I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity but I’d give my life for simplicity on the far side of complexity
Oliver Wendell Holmes