People over process is at the heart of Agile. And though it might seem like a subversive approach, at least for the conservative mind, the philosophy behind it explains well the reasons why it’s so effective; and consequently, why so many development teams embrace it in the end.
Before we get into analyzing all about Agile’s theory on prioritization of processes, let’s focus on processes alone and their purpose.
Why do we need processes anyway?
When it comes to team management and coordination (of tasks) within a business framework, setting up processes is inevitable. We set up processes to avoid repetitive actions, improve our communication, reduce complexity, minimize hand-offs, orchestrate our actions and above all complete large, demanding and complex projects. No matter the type of our team, be it a software development, a marketing or a sales’ one, processes help us find common grounds, as a team. And that is of great value and importance since, most of the time, within a team there are many different people with one too many different perspectives; be it because of our role, our character or even our cultural background. All in all, with processes we are able to coordinate, fine-tune and orchestrate all our internal ‘transactions’. But, what happens when we make processes our highest priority?
Process-obsessed or process-driven? Which side are you on?
As it happens with any behavior when we initially adopt it — with the best of intentions — we (deliberately or not) end up kind of overdoing it. Process obsession is not a good thing. If we lapse into process obsession, then things obviously won’t work out as we may have initially planned or imagined. In particular, when process establishment is not just a means to an end but the end itself, we may probably end up being successful only in that; establishing processes. But why do we need do this and how does it affect our team’s productivity?
Well, most of the time it’s a part of our effort to get a sense of safety out of the processes we’ve set up. It’s that intoxicating feeling that we get in assuming we’ve got everything under control; now that we have finally established our fine-tuned processes. But the truth is, there is no process fine-tuned enough to help us eliminate all our troubles and just “work” on auto pilot.
Contrary to that, we need processes that work to improve our productivity. We need to be process-driven in a specific way. That is to say, we need processes that are adapted to our teams’ needs, rather than preset processes we try to retrofit to our team — or more accurately squeeze our team in. This, for example, is more likely to happen when a new project manager joins an already established team and tries to make this team fit their pre-designed process; placing processes — ones they have in their mind — over people. This is, of course, a recipe for disaster. So, how can we strengthen our processes to better serve people and make the most out of them?
People over process: a healthy approach on establishing processes within a team
Agile broadens the meaning of a process. It actually gives processes the real meaning they should have: people should be more valuable in a business than processes themselves. Traditional project management wants managers to be tasked with task assignment (pun intended). Contrary to that obsolete approach, management is much more than saying who’s going to do what, and when. Agile promotes team’s self-organization and values authority above all. In particular, once the ownership of “What gets done and when” is assigned to people that are actually responsible for these particular tasks, things will be accomplished much quicker.
Allowing team members to be responsible for their own tasks may arise fear and doubt that too much freedom may lead to code rot and bugs in software development teams; or respective mistakes in other types of teams. But on the other hand, control-freak approaches lead to ossified processes; whatever that means in terms of quality of outcomes in the long run.
Furthermore, the need for healthy processes is much more imperative when it comes to creative or demanding tasks that want us to think out of the box; and have the stamina to accomplish things within a stressful framework. Of course, in the previous statement we’re delineating entrepreneurship’s challenges. As it happens, working in or for a startup involves a lot of risk and stress as well. We may work within a kind of a ‘loose’ environment. But time is not on our side and we have to cope with uncertainty, as well. And it takes much more than establishing processes to help the whole team move forward. Therefore, we need healthy processes, such that will help gradually converge the whole team’s potential towards our ultimate goals.
That goes for any team, SaaS oriented, or otherwise.
What people over processes is not
Putting our team over processes doesn’t mean we’ll be accepting — or much worse celebrate — chaos. Neither that we’ll be compromising our outcome with lack of information regarding our team’s actions; or that we aim not to hold our team responsible for their work. On the contrary, resisting our tendency to intervene into team’s internal procedures might be a good thing for future success.
To justify this a bit further, let’s consider how sometimes a kind of micromanagement approach, focusing more on processes rather than people, might come out as an unwarranted intrusion on the manager’s side; just because they are standing higher in the hierarchy. In particular, when it’s people whose role is not directly correlated with the one this particular team has.
That is neither the wiser nor the most efficient way to manage a team. It’s actually something that was also pointed out in one of our scale up events when we had the opportunity to discuss the topic with one of our teams. As the CEO so eloquently put it regarding his IT team:
“They are a group of people that have their own way of thinking. You cannot intervene in their internal workings. The team and their manager know better what is important for them.”
And, of course, that valuable pearl of wisdom came about following a few failed attempts to ‘intrude’ on the team’s internal processes. So, people over process is by no means an improvident approach.
People over process: a matter of cultural shift
At the end of the day, it’s all about culture. No matter what kind of elaborate procedures or workflows we set up, we won’t be able to eliminate problems, difficulties and challenges. Processes won’t provide watertight protection for us from any of these. Neither can we force people to give their best by boxing them up in polished procedures. The one and only thing that can make a difference is focusing on what motivates them. People need guidance. And our role in case we’re in charge of a team, dictates not to dictate others (pun intended once more). We need to inspire, not patronize. And in that effort, we’ve got communication as the key tool to use. Being able to resolve problems and motivate people is one of the greatest virtues a manager needs to live by.
That’s what people over process essentially is. The theory behind guidelines, workflows and procedures is only the starting point for our entire effort. These are only tools, if you prefer, and the way we use them makes a world of difference. It’s our responsibility to make our team more efficient. And in that, we need to consider — or better yet value — our team, our people, above everything else.
Summing it up
As we’ve established, no matter what kind of procedures, workflows or processes we set up, projects are worked on and led to completion by people; products, too. And it’s a motivated team that makes great things happen. It’s passionate people that work wonders, in the end. And their driving force that comes as a kind of internal motivation, is incomparable to any old school management process that may only offer us short-term results. That’s why valuing people over process is an indispensable part of today’s management.