The life and nature of a process
Post # 61 - Process and systems are often seen as opposites, with process at the lowest rung. I have observed the contrary to this idea; it's not so cut-and-dry.
“Our processes are creating hindrance for engineers to make progress”
“We need a well defined process to manage this chaotic situation in our program”
“We don’t need process dictating what to do, lets build systems”
“Culture eats strategy”
“Systems are superior to process”
“We don’t need more process. We have a culture issue.”
Process and systems are often seen as opposites, with process at the lowest rung. I have observed the contrary to this idea; it's not so cut-and-dry.
In reality, systems are created by combining multiple effective processes and over time, these systems become part of the organizational culture. A perfect example of this evolution is how Apple came to rely on their internal issue management tool — radar.
🍎 What started as a need for a process to unify the source of truth for engineering teams, after Mac OS 9 shipped, became a system for managing the work for every software engineering activity at Apple and eventually became part of the Apple culture similar to the role of DRIs. At Apple radar is not only a tool but a verb, a noun, an adjective, its everything.
All processes naturally progress through the same lifecycle. The struggle between two perspectives and three customer types determines how processes evolve from systems to eventually culture:
Senior leadership proclaims — we need a process; it’s the wild Wild West over here.
The process working committee is assembled.
Two camps formulate in the committee: hedgehogs and foxes.
Hedgehogs must consider the effect of the process on other existing and future processes, what happens if the process fails, how to properly execute it, the need for documentation, and the ceremony surrounding the process.
Foxes strive for simplicity; gathering together, clearly explaining the plan, and moving forward quickly; don’t worry about the details, we will improvise on the go. KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid.
Eventually, foxes will outlast the hedgehogs — who will be paralyzed by the need for perfection — and process will be pushed out in a decent state.
New process is introduced to the organization; three types of people will greet the process:
those who oppose it because it doesn’t do what was promised.
those who oppose it because it’s too cumbersome but silently are very happy that something exists.
those whose only stance is to just hate on process as a drag.
Those who oppose the process because it doesn’t do what they wanted will start to suggest fine tuning, step by step, and get the process to achieve their desired outcome.
The silent voices will grow to appreciate the process and become vocal advocates.
Those that disliked it continue to ignore the process and often continue to publicly decry it as a hindrance yet offer nothing in return. In extreme cases, build workarounds.
Eventually, the great processes will be combined into bigger systems that become part of the culture of the organization and drive results, innovation, and efficiency.
The bad processes will stutter, sputter, and become completely nothing but a series of motions the org goes through.
Then, eventually, senior leadership will come along and proclaim, this is not working, we need a new process.
And the lifecycle repeats.
Often, the process council is a single TPM. Each one of us has both a hedgehog and fox inside of us wrestling over our every move. Which voice stands victorious will depend on your personality and approach to work.
Over time, you must learn to balance these two voices in your head. Knowing how much details to scope out or finalize before just getting started will make you a super TPM.
Another note - not all processes are destined to become part of a system and not every system becomes part of the culture.
What matters is to not let either process, system, or culture to go bad. This is where feedback loops and iterative improvements will make things better. But, every step, the hedgehog and fox will fight.
Until next time 👋🏽!
How was this week’s newsletter?
The first time I read about the hedgehog and fox concept was in the book On Grand Strategy by John Lewis Gaddis. One of my first posts for this newsletter was on this very subject and how both these mindsets exist in every engineering organization I have worked in. It’s a fantastic read. I always tell people that to be a great TPM you must go beyond technical study and dig into the humanities where you will find the most important lessons for improving your soft skills.