What’s more important, process or “getting things done”?

“The process” gets a bad rap, not only by the people subject to the process, but by those who should “know better” as well. All too often process is viewed as a necessary evil at best, and an unnecessary, counterproductive burden at worst. Even worse is the idea that “agility” and “process” are somehow at odds, and that to be Agile means that you have to sacrifice structure and process. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The most common arguments made against process:

  • “… a waste of time that could be better spent doing (other) work.”
  • “… really only for people who don’t already know what they’re doing.”
  • “… stifles creativity by forcing people to do the same thing every time.”
  • “… limits organizational agility.”
  • “… a documentation nightmare.”
  • “… adds overhead and extends project schedules”
  • “… holds back superstars.”

Most of the time when people make these complaints, what they’re really complaining about isn’t process itself – what they’re really complaining about is BAD process. And just like anything else, when something is implemented poorly, it will give bad results and negative impressions, leading to the perception that it’s the idea of process itself that’s bad.

However, there is a truism in business that seems to run counter to the perception of the maverick innovator that changes the world by thinking outside the box. That truism is this:

It’s better to be consistently good than occasionally great.

While there certainly are cases of businesses becoming overnight successes with groundbreaking products, 99% of companies become successful by doing what they do very well and doing it repeatedly, not with occasional successes littered with substandard results.

A simple example of process that illustrates this is the basic supermarket checklist. Compare making a list of items needed prior to visiting a store vs. just relying on memory and feelings when going out shopping. Which of these is more likely to result in:

  • Making sure that everything needed is gotten?
  • Keeping within budget?
  • Not getting distracted by things that “look good” but aren’t actually needed?
  • Making sure that you only spend the time necessary during the trip and aren’t sidetracked by looking at other items?

It’s pretty easy to see that having a list and sticking to it is most likely to result in buying everything that’s needed, keeping within the budget, not ending up with unnecessary items, and only spending as much time in the store as intended every time. This is a simple example of how a well-implemented process is the only path likely to result in consistent success.

Process, when implemented correctly:

  • Limits organizational risk by providing a repeatable path to success every time.
  • Improves efficiency and creativity by allowing focus on the work, not on the steps. Not having to worry about what the next step should be allows more focus on the work being done.
  • Reduces time needed to complete projects. Effective process catches problems at an appropriate time to be dealt with, not at the end when they’re more difficult to deal with.
  • Exposes potential problems and creates opportunities for improvement. If something conflicts with the process, it allows analysis of what’s being done and whether it’s actually appropriate for the project.
  • Reduces conflict. When everyone agrees on and accepts the process, it reduces conflict from what steps are appropriate.
  • Increases predictability for future planning.
  • Improves morale. People don’t like working in an ill-defined, unpredictable environment where everyone isn’t held to the same rules and standards.
  • Allows quick integration of new team members. People become effective contributors more quickly when there’s a clear process to be followed.
  • Allows for more rapid growth. Process helps ensure that departments and teams of any size are on the same page in producing work.

Note that none of this should be intended to imply that the process should be rigid and immutable. Any legitimate conflicts with process should be evaluated fairly rather than just automatically defaulting to the process, and the process itself should continuously be evaluated for improvements.

Unfortunately, with Agile’s focus on agility, many have misunderstood the intent of what “agility” actually means and assume it means less reliance on structure and process. Agile doesn’t conflict with process in any way – in fact, true agility relies heavily on process. Agile methodologies such as Scrum, Kanban, XP, etc., all prescribe developing and following detailed processes, and the agility in Agile comes from short process cycles (such as iterations or sprints) and constant evaluation and improvement of the process (through retrospectives), not from lack of process itself.

Process is one of the greatest tools available for continuous success. Process, when implemented correctly, provides consistency, predictability, efficiency, and increased satisfaction. Agile in particular, rather than deemphasizing process as is sometimes perceived, relies and improves on process through constant reevaluation and enhancement. Effective process is something that all organizations, no matter what size, should strive to implement.

Share your thoughts and examples of the importance of process in the comments below.

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One thought on “What’s more important, process or “getting things done”?

  1. Pingback: 10 “Don’ts” to a Better Workplace – 5. Don’t Allow Mavericks – Agile Software/Web Development Leadership, Process, & Product Strategy

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