Tuesday, May 28, 2013

People vs. Process ... vs. Principles

“Be firm on principle but flexible on method.” -- Zig Ziglar

Until recently, I have observed the difficulties and issues manifested in the work environment and debated, both with myself and with peers, whether the root cause was the people being unskilled or unmotivated or the lack of a quality process. It was not until recently that I have come to realize that it is the founding principles on which we operate that makes the biggest difference in how successful we are.

When debating people versus process, the argument for people is that good people seem capable of producing amazing results regardless of process. However, I’ve seen great people time and again be suppressed by poor process, being forced into inefficiency for the sake of policy. In grass-roots meetings and informal conversations, both within my company and in conversations with others across the industry, I hear complaints of red tape, write-only documents, and wasteful tools and bureaucracy that dishearten and discourage talented people. At best, people are being forced to work below their capabilities. At worst, people are lost to another company that doesn’t include such roadblocks.

On the other hand, a good process can, ideally, bring a team to a hyper-performing state quickly and keep them there, while poor processes seem to only be good for shielding people from the ugly truth. Processes, policies, methodologies, and frameworks that emphasize value and seek to eliminate waste tend to bring out the best in people. The downside is that the best processes expose weaknesses within the team and force them to confront their demons. If the problem is the people are not skilled or committed enough then they may not be willing to put in the effort required to get the team to where they need to be. The best case scenario is the team members who are unwilling to change leave to free up the rest of the team to reach their potential, while the worst case is they stay and cause the team to drag and stagnate.

Neither of these seems to get to root cause, so let us consider the principles that form the foundation for people’s decisions and behaviors. When considering founding principles as the root cause, it is necessary to start with two assumptions. The first is that the people doing the work are genuinely doing the best they can with what they have. It may be somewhat altruistic, but I believe it is true for most people. The next assumption is that these same people are working with a process and in an environment that allows for and even encourages continuous improvement. Whether it’s explicit or not, people tend to adapt the way they work over time, based on their experiences and their guiding principles.

If my assumptions hold true, and my experience tells me they do, then those guiding principles that determine in which direction the process evolves are the most important factor in driving productivity, efficiency, and morale. The founders of the Agile Manifesto understood this. They came from various backgrounds exercising various forms of what are now considered Agile Methodologies. They did not define any specific process for success – instead, they defined a mindset, a paradigm, for approaching Software Development. They backed this manifesto with 12 principles, only one of which pertains to the type of people that are needed to be successful:

“Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.”

The only qualification they state is that the individuals be motivated. Surely some people are inherently more driven than others, but, for the most part, motivation is something that can be fostered by the culture and environment that the individual is operating in. The other 11 principles provide great insight into how those people should work as well as what should be done to support those people in their pursuit of high quality Software Delivery. If people have learned and accepted these principles then they will recognize how important and urgent it is for them to improve individually, not just as a team. It is not a character flaw to admit imperfection – indeed; it is the manifestation of character that one can admit to room for improvement.

The Agile Manifesto is not the only source of correct principles. There are many books and courses in existence that focus on this very subject. The whole premise of Lean Six Sigma is there are solid principles that can be applied in any situation to eliminate waste and reduce delay. I think Lean, Agile, and Product Development Flow principles are the most crucial to our combined success, but I recognize that there are others. What I would like for you to ask yourself is, “What are my guiding principles? When things get uncomfortable, how do I evolve the way I work?”

Why is this important? Because too often we pick up a new process hoping it will be our Silver Bullet, the solution for all our problems, the answer to all our prayers. But we adopt these processes without taking the time to understand the principles on which they were founded. As a result, we bend the process to fit what we are comfortable with and lose much, if not all, of the benefit the process could have afforded us. This mistake of adopting a process without adopting its defining principles is what I’ve referred to previously as the “Movie Version” of that process as opposed to the “Book Version”, and the book is always better than the movie.


Only by taking the time to understand correct principles will we be able to govern ourselves most effectively. As Blaine Lee said, “The principles you live by create the world you live in; if you change the principles you live by, you will change your world.”
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