Growing Your Processes

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Summary:

You can’t force a garden to grow, and you can’t force new processes to work. However, like the gardener who prepares and maintains a garden for optimal plant growth, you can use a planned, organic approach to lead your processes more successfully.

One of the topics we discuss in my full-day tutorial on “Becoming an Influential Test Team Leader,” is “Leading the Process.” This involves observing how work is being done and making the right adjustments when needed. It is a responsibility that is often handled by leaders and managers, but all too often process changes meet with high resistance.

The challenge is that new processes require people to change how they do things, which many people find uncomfortable. Interestingly, discomfort is also present when the current methods are broken.

I have seen and used two common approaches, but I favor a third.

The Great March

The first approach is what I call the “Great March.” Like Patton storming across Europe in World War II, the idea is that many things are placed in motion at once and an aggressive deadline is met. Another example of this was the US space program in the 1960’s. There was a target date—the end of the decade—to send men to the moon and back safely. This approach worked for Patton and NASA, but in many organizations these efforts collapse under their own weight. For example:

    • A company launches a new metrics program for IT. A rich set of measures are defined, tools are acquired, and people are trained, but after six months, the data is lacking and some people don’t even remember the project.
    • Management decides that test automation is a good thing. A lot of money is spent on tools, consultants, and training, but one year out, 95 percent of the testing is still done manually.
    • An organization tries to create and launch nine centers of excellence at one time. A noble idea, but with too much change and not enough senior management sponsorship the effort stalls.

You get the idea.

The Organic Approach

The second approach is what I call the “Organic Approach.” This is like planting a berry vine and harvesting fruit the following year. You don’t have to do much; just plant the vine in the right place and make sure it is watered and doesn’t get destroyed. This is a very uncontrolled approach, and the results depend on the people who care about the outcome.

Pilot projects are a common way the organic approach is seen. However, the old “skunkworks” idea is another way to do things small before doing them large. The thing about skunkworks is that you often are working without official permission and, therefore, in secret.

If your idea works, you have an example to show the benefits. Of course, then the critics start saying, “Yeah, but it won’t work in my team.” The nice thing is that the critics don’t have to try them. They can continue cutting down trees with an axe while you are using a chain saw.

Two things often happen:

  1. Peer pressure causes the critics to try the pilot or skunkworks methods.
  2. Management sees the benefit of your approach, goes on a grand march and, of course, takes credit.

However, organic approaches can make people uncertain. People ask, “Where is this whole thing heading?”

“I don’t know,” may be your honest feeling, but it doesn’t make for a good answer.

Also, after using the organic approach for a period of time, it’s common to have a lot of things lying around that few people understand or even know about. You have a pile of stuff, but you’re not sure what’s in it.

A Better Option

With these large project efforts that heavily involve people and process, I have come to realize some things:

  1. Just like a seed takes time to germinate and grow, so do some processes. You can stand there all day and try to motivate the plant, but it will do no good.
  2. People have become pretty wily over the years. They know how it goes. The boss goes to a conference, reads a book, etc., and before long there is a new initiative. They figure that the new effort will be like the old one and die in about two months (or whenever the boss gets a new idea), so they just wait it out. When all is said and done, they end up in the same place (i.e., no results) without the extra work.
  3. A particular project can only bear so much weight. If the project is too big or complex, it is simply beyond the resources and capacity of the organization to execute. Reality check: How often do you have excess resources (people, time, tools, etc.) available?
  4. Projects of twelve months or longer are at higher risk of failure. Too many things can change in a year—people, risks, laws, the business, technology, and priorities, just to name a few.

Even with the downsides of organic approaches, I favor them because they mitigate risk to some degree. For example, I would rather have one team be successful with test automation even if no other teams are able to pull it off. At least I have some lessons learned and a proof of concept.

Management, however, often lacks the patience for slow-moving processes, and with good reason—missed opportunities, lack of accountability, misuse of resources, and so forth.

Plus, I really do like plans. The problem is that I have trouble sticking with plans. Most people share that problem, so adaptability is the key. In fact, one of the greatest risks of having a plan is that you may achieve the plan’s objectives but miss other opportunities along the way.

When in unknown territory, a map helps. But, as the saying goes, “When the map and terrain disagree, follow the terrain.” (This also holds true for GPS devices.)

Plans often have steps. The problem arises when you realize that: 1) the steps don’t seem to fit your situation, and 2) decisions are required that you don’t feel prepared to make yet. I had a friend once that said, “Before you can do something, you have to do something else first.” How true.

The Planned Organic Approach

Imagine the task of planting a garden that contains a variety of plants such as tomatoes, onions, peppers, carrots, green beans, etc. You need to create an environment for these plants to grow. In fact, you need a plan.

You need to know which plants will grow in your climate, when to plant them, how much sun or shade is needed, how much water is needed, how deep to plant, and how much space is needed between plants. Don’t even get me started on the other factors that the Farmer’s Almanac gets into.

I call this the “Planned Organic” approach. In this approach, you know:

    • The desired outcomes
    • That the process will take time
    • That some things are out of your control (temperature, rainfall, etc.)
    • What must be done to prepare (tilling the soil, fertilizing, pesticides)

You know the desired “end state,” and you can build reasonable expectations. You can’t force the garden to grow, but you can help things along. For example, you will need to pull weeds. You also know that you have to do some things before planting a garden, such as picking the right location, picking the right plants, and tilling the soil.

Now, take these concepts to something like process definition and deployment. The outcomes may be things like everyone knowing how to do their job better, how to work together better, and how to close gaps that often occur from an incomplete understanding of the things done in the organization. We hope to see more efficiency, fewer defects, and lower cost of quality.

The prerequisites for processes may be cultural readiness, such as overcoming resistance to change, getting better understanding of process benefits, and getting senior management commitment. However, there are things outside of your control, such as reorganizations, new and competing projects, how people will react and respond to change, and availability of resources.

Maintaining the process growth effort will require understanding the work people actually do. Edwards Deming used to say, “If you can't describe what you are doing as a process, you don't know what you're doing.”

You will also need to help people describe their work in simple and understandable ways. For example, one tendency is to try to accommodate all possible situations in a single process. This makes the process too large and cumbersome.

Dealing with distractions is another maintenance task. Daily work duties can easily derail the task at hand. These are the weeds that can choke out processes.

Whether you are defining and deploying work processes, trying to make test automation a reality, or trying to establish some core metrics, you can grow in a planned, organic way. As the leader, your job is to communicate the vision (planting the seeds) and create an environment (keeping the garden maintained). You often have to adapt and adjust, but that’s where the learning happens.

Compared to the high-risk approach of large programs that introduce too much change at one time by transplanting ideas, the planned organic approach is a more natural way to let ideas take root and grow in a low-risk, yet controlled way.

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