Tuesday, August 01, 2006

rant: the process/chaos standing wave

Being a PM/PMM is no easy task - I hear from other PMs/PMMs who share with me their tales of woe and (occasional) triumph. One such communique I received yesterday spoke of an impression I thought I'd share with you.

I can sum the writer's thoughts like this - "consensus-driven organizations typically lack process".

To which I'll add the corollary "in equal proportion to how much they crave process". But that's a discussion for another day. Back on topic.

"Process" in my way of thinking doesn't mean breaking down every task into prime numbers - it just means an agreed-upon way of getting things done as a team. It means that in order for you to get from A to C, you need to pass through B. Unless you explicitly agree to bypass B. . .which opens the door to other shortcuts. . .more on that later.

Organizations without process suffer the same way individuals without direction suffer. I won't say that processes are non-existent in organizations that are consensus-driven, it's just that the ones that emerge share a lot in common with a William Golding novel. Archetypes are assigned, and the play begins - with predictably tragic results.

Process, ultimately, is structured repetition (in other news, I will declare that morning is a period of increasing light). Processes create organizational "muscle memory". They codify transitions and promote multi-player competency. A team executing at the peak of its powers cannot do so consistently, repeatedly and with quality without processes to guide them.

That said, process that exists for the sake of the process reminds me of a cargo cult - a hideous waste of time and damaging to all involved. With all respect to any Melanesian readers, of course. I appreciate working toward goals using processes that make sense, with outcomes that are pre-determined as desirable, not merely "required".

Me, I like systems, I like knowing what to expect and what is expected of me. I appreciate some fluidity in those I work with, and I like being able to work toward goals shared by myself and others.

And that's the one final ingredient required, the subtle "wa" that fuels all processes, that drives its participants to improve them and that draws newcomers into its rhythms.

The Goal. Why. The. $%&. Are. We. Doing. This. In. The. First. Place.

Articulate it, understand it, embrace it, share it, love it.

The goal makes it all worthwhile. Lose the goal, and you lose the desire to play nicely together. Lose that desire, and the decent into the tyranny of consensus begins. And because not everyone can participate in the consensus, players who are told what to do fail to understand the why, and often feel put-upon. Ergo my use of the word tyranny, QED.

But everyone can participate in process. If we agree on how we can achieve excellent results repeatedly in pursuit of a shared goal, everyone gets in the car. Until. . .someone decides that short cuts work, that "they know better", that "there's not enough time". Or someone has an entrepreneurial spasm that catches fire. Or. . .or. . .

I think all organizations experience the process/chaos standing wave continuum. How frequently, and how pervasively, depends on the quality of management, the desirability of their goals to the workforce, and their ability to articulate the goal clearly to everyone, inside and outside the company.

For my next act, I shall draw a comparison between software development and the first law of thermodynamics. But first, to sleep, perchance to dream.

1 comment:

Ron said...

A very good post, one that gets me thinking about how to measure 'energy' in projects. I would like to apply a 'Sabrmetric' analysis sometime to projects, just to show where the energy flows go, and to show how much people lie to themselves about projects, (and work generally) and your post is a good starting thrust in that direction.

BTW, did you see the NYT article the other day about 'boomer slackers?' Dovetails into my 'Work is dead' thesis...