Monday, June 13, 2016

Process is a lame excuse

Responding to change is like jazz, blues, and rock
One of the central tenants of the agile manifesto is responding to change over following a plan.  For someone with a background in science or engineering it seems commonsense.  Sadly, many people in leadership roles see responding to change as a threat.  This week I want to talk about “process” and why it get in the way of agility.

I have plenty of late nights and early mornings on the phone with off-shore consultants.  These meeting are typical stand-up meetings familiar with co-located teams.  It is also an opportunity to share technical knowledge.  According to the scrum guide, stand up meeting should be fifteen minutes long.  The scrum guide does not take into account a team thirteen time zones away and working with complex legacy system.  So our meeting lasts about thirty minutes and we have follow up calls between individual members.  We have no formal process but the scrum guide is not helpful so we responded to change over following a plan and had a longer meeting.

Many business leader like to say they have processes in place to minimize risk.  It has been my experience that many of those processes are in place to maximize control because those business leaders do not trust their people to do the job correctly.  This makes me sad.  Instead of working with customers and solving problems, many people spend their days wrestling with the bureaucracy and process.  Confronted with this environment people loose initiative and motivation.  Eventually, nothing gets done except the stale process.

This may have worked fifty years ago but product cycles are measured in weeks instead of years today.  People need to be motivated and engaged if the wish to compete in this new business environment.  Process makes it hard for people to be motivated and engaged because it discourages original thinking and ownership of decisions.

That does not deter business leaders from coming up with more process.  To them, a business is like a symphony orchestra with every not scripted and every performer knowing his or her place.  If someone deviates from the music sheet or the conductors instructions then they are expelled.  I strongly disagree with this metaphor, I see a business like a jazz or blues combo.  The players have strong technical skills but com improvise based on the situation and can adapt to changing situations with the audience.  To a command and control business leader, this is unacceptable and a recipe for chaos.  To the agilest, it is responding to change over following a plan.

One of my favorite stories about Jazz history is about Benny Goodman.  A critic said his music was immature and untrained.  Goodman responded by recording Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A major to critical and popular acclaim.  In a more modern context Wynton Marsalis plays trumpet in both jazz in classical situations.  Finally, Trombone Shorty easily transitions between Jazz and Rock music.  In short, it is common for jazz musicians to cross over into other styles of music while it is uncommon for classical performers to do so.  I blame the “process” of training and conditioning of classical musicians who struggle in ambiguous creative environments.

This is the big challenge of business.  Do we want our employees to be like classical musicians of like jazz musicians?  In my opinion, I am going to trust my business to the jazz nerds.  The will be able to respond to change when necessary.  This is why I rebel against process.  I see process as a necessary evil.  I also see it fungible and able to change.  This drives my superiors crazy because sometimes the process is the only thing which keeps them in control.  Squeaky wheels often call attention to a bad axle and managers hate that.

So I say to you, treat process with contempt and skepticism because it is an excuse for behavior at a company rather than a reason.  This makes it impossible to respond to change.  W.E. Deming said, “Survival is not mandatory,” if you follow process chances are you are more likely to become extinct.

Until next time.