Your new process is no substitute for giving a shit

the co-pour

To be fair, someone at IBM tried.

I worked at IBM for a few years after university, and it was clear that someone meant well. Management at the local team level was always hit or miss. Somebody knew it, and they put in place two processes to fill in the gaps left by that weak leadership.

Or so they thought.

First was the Personal Business Commitments document. (For IBMers, the PBC. Everything at IBM is an acronym. Including ‘IBM’.) In a large organization, you can lose track of how your work matters. And knowing how your work matters is critical to keeping you engaged and creative.

Your PBC supported this need for context. It was a personalized set of commitments to the business. From your own, through your team’s, all the way to IBM’s global strategy. It connected the dots, and showed you why your work was an important piece of the machine.

Second was the Individual Development Plan (IDP). IBM wanted to invest in our growth, we were told. Each employee would develop this plan alongside our manager. Both of us would be held accountable for its completion.

PBCs and IDPs. Individualized, and built in to your accountability with your team.

Doesn’t that sound lovely?

Lies, damned lies, and process metrics

Here’s how it actually worked in my department.

My PBC said, “Develop and release WebSphere Application Developer Integration Edition.” That’s it. That’s the whole thing. I never saw other people’s PBCs, but there must have been 80 to 100 of us working on WSADIE. I have the distinct impression that they all said the same thing.

Give a shit. Make things better. Do it with your own authentic integrity and commitment, not with an acronym.

In time, I learned that my IDP was a tool I could control, and took more ownership over my own management. But for the first few years, my IDP said, in its entirety, “On the job training and peer mentoring as appropriate.” I suspect that here, too, I was not alone. I saw no evidence that my managers were ever brought to task on this stuff. Honestly, I bet their IDPs and PBCs were more of the same.

Process won’t make your people care if they don’t care.

This is not unique to IBM. I remember a few years ago,, Starbucks rolled out a customer satisfaction program. Do you remember this, too? Their systems were set up to print a survey invite for one in every 10 customers or so. Fill out a satisfaction survey, get a free drink code. And Starbucks HQ applied a lot of pressure on stores to score well.

I saw at least three stores adopt the same approach to this process. When the survey invites printed off, they would stash them instead of handing them over. They’d save them for their friendly regulars. They got a lot of perfect scores, and their regulars got a lot of free drinks.

It’s the same at my auto shop. The business gets so much pressure to ace their feedback scores that they have a five-step phone and email cadence for every visit. Not about how our service experience actually went. Purely as a plea to score them perfectly on the survey. If you’ve ever had an Uber or Lyft driver ask for 5 stars, you know the drill.

This is not what the creators of these processes intended.

But we need more structure!

Process itself isn’t the problem. Well-structured processes help well-run companies avoid mistakes and optimize. Good pilots use checklists. Smart companies schedule regular compensation reviews. Blind candidate screens are great process. So are 1:1s.

Yay, process.

But any time you introduce a new process, ask yourself why. What are you trying to do with it? I find the answers usually fall into one of two buckets:

  • Process as visibility/systematicity/error avoidance/risk management. Some examples: We should review core metrics weekly so that we’re all on the same page about how we’re doing. We should have a checklist before pushing new code to production because we sometimes forget steps. We should standardize on interview questions and scoring to reduce bias.
  • Process as driver of organization or individual change. Examples here are things like: We need a scoring system for prioritizing feature work because we’re too scattered. We need mandatory career plans for every employee because they feel adrift.

Most organizations need the stuff in bucket #1 as they grow. Adding people strains old communication and coordination channels. When that happens, it’s a good instinct to write down the things you used to keep in your head. Most organizations go through an adolescence where they over-invest in these processes. The result is rigidity and loss of velocity, but usually people who care will call it out and pull things back to centre.

If you are trusting to process things that you should trust to judgement, you have a leadership problem.

The stuff in bucket #2 is much more dangerous, especially for small organizations. People are complex, and organizations are just full of them. Process can’t drive meaningful and lasting change on its own; only other people can do that. When I hear someone ask for an automatic scoring system for product ideas, I ask where product leadership went. When I hear people demand a scripted career process I ask what their managers are doing.

Process to help you connect with your leaders, or report your leaders’ failings, or hold your leaders accountable? Yes. Yes to all of those! But process can’t replace leadership. Process supports leadership by catching the edge cases, watches for human frailties, and provides escalation paths for bad judgement.

If you are trusting to process things that you should trust to judgement, you have a leadership problem. More process won’t make that go away.

Employees rally around calls for more process as a way to remedy some of the power imbalance — to mitigate the damage of decisions made without care. Maybe because they just don’t understand the decisions being made, but often because they don’t trust the integrity of the decision makers.

It sucks. And if you’re an employee caught in that trap, and unable to vote with your feet, I have only sympathy for your situation. I don’t think process will give you the wins you want, but I understand the desperation to find a fix.

If you’re a leader hearing these calls in your company, you have some hard work to do to understand what your people need. Are they asking for process to support your judgement, or are they asking for process because they don’t trust your judgement? And what have you done to earn, or undermine, that trust? And what are you going to do about it, now?

This is a moment to lead. Show up for them. Give a shit. Make things better. Do it with your own authentic integrity and commitment, not with an acronym.

This article was syndicated with permission from The Co-Pour

Johnathan Nightingale

Johnathan Nightingale

Johnathan Nightingale is a founder and partner at Raw Signal Group. He is co-editor of The Co-pour and co-author of a book about modern leadership (coming fall 2017). Johnathan has built and operated organizations from 2 people to 250. He was the Vice President of Firefox for Mozilla during a period of intense turmoil inside Mozilla and in the web at large, helped build and launch the first Firefox offerings on Android and iOS, and still cheers every time the open web wins. After Mozilla he joined Hubba as their Chief Product Officer, and helped that team triple in size while improving their diversity stats instead of watching them slide. He is proud to sit on the board of Creative Commons, and is a big believer in the power of mission-based organizations. He has strong opinions about your coffee infrastructure.