Process: no replacement for people and principles

· by Steve · Read in about 3 min · (611 Words)

Over my years in working in the IT business, one thing that’s a constant is that we’re never short of talk about the latest “Process” that we should be following. There have been a shedload of them over the years I’ve been doing this, and I’ve tried a load of them out and encountered them via third parties, and while some are interesting and useful when taken as a basis for adaption to individual circumstances, one thing I absolutely cannot stand is the kind of people that focus on this as a proof or guarantee that their projects are being run well.

Anyone who has dealt with a large consultancy firm will have encountered the scenario - that they of course tick all the boxes and fulfil all the paper requirements of procedure and ‘best practice’, but when push comes to shove all that really matters is what individual you get doing the job in the end. All the procedures and accreditation in the world will not change the fact that if you get some of the pieces of dead wood in the company, you’re screwed - it’s just that the process of becoming screwed will be handled with the appropriate paper trail and procedural tick-boxes. Conversely from the same company you can get some absolute stars who totally carry the project and make it much better than it would be otherwise. What difference did the process make to this outcome? At best, if it was a good process it might have oiled the wheels - often the opposite is true of course, especially with large bureaucracies. Good people will function well with no process, and may function better with an efficient, lightweight process, whilst bad people will do just as badly with any process and may well enjoy hiding behind the more complicated ones when things don’t work.

This isn’t an argument for not adopting reasonable processes - like I say they can oil the wheels when they’re appropriately deployed. Rather, this is about recognising that they are entirely secondary to the qualities of the people involved. I really wish more people would recognise this truth instead of pretending they can rubber-stamp an organisation with universal seal of quality through processes alone. People matter. What those people believe in and are motivated by matters. Process - it’s really just icing. It makes management types feel better, and allows them to believe they’re doing due diligence when vetting companies, but in the real world, it’s nothing but a helping hand.

What made me think of this today? Banking, oddly - specifically the FSA talking about how much of a pigs-ear they’d made of banking sector regulation. They were ticking all the boxes, making sure bosses didn’t have criminal records, tidying up the minutiae - but not once did they ask whether the principles of what was going on at the banks were at all questionable. They just assumed that bankers would act rationally, and all they had to do was check the processes were in place, whether reporting was in place, the right number of risk managers were on board etc. And here too, it’s proven that process doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things - what matters is the people you have doing the job, and what their principles and motivations are. No process is going to save you if the people don’t have the right stuff - and the FSA have rather belated realised that as they watch the ashes of the economy smoulder because they let a group of unprincipled, reckless, money-grabbing banking executives continue to run the show, just because they had the right paper trail.