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Process, and Culture

developed cross-process by Provia
Credit: Flickr / kakki****

As an individual, I have habits, and I have processes. The processes are things that aren’t quite natural enough to be habits, yet.  I think process helps me create a framework that helps me be effective – at work, and in life. For example, having a schedule for my blog. Posting something on Monday, Wednesday and Friday means I write more, even if a lot of it isn’t very good. Some more general rules.

  • Do the most important thing first.
  • Eliminate known unknowns.
  • Finish, don’t 80%.
  • When feeling down, do something active.
  • In the morning, get up then stay up.

The book The Power of Habit (Amazon) is an interesting one. One story is that of Alcoa, which became one of the safest company in the world after Paul O’Neill became CEO in 1987.

Becoming the safest company in the world meant a whole lot of process. But, with a shared goal that everyone could agree with – safety – the process wasn’t the goal, the culture was.

I’ve long thought that good process is invisible. And software engineers like to disagree, one because they are somewhat ornery, but also because software engineers are often allergic to process, to anything that looks like interference in their (our) craft.

And my realisation from reading that is this – good process is invisible, because good process gets called culture, instead.

Meetings are process. Transparency, is culture.

Post-mortems are a process. Accountability, is culture.

Deadlines are process. Shipping, is culture.

Quotas are process. “Meritocracy“, is culture.

Slogans are “culture”, without process to back them up.

“Mobile is crucial!” is a slogan. “We ship on mobile and desktop simultaneously” is culture.

“We value a diverse team” is a slogan. A sea of white males, is culture.

“Don’t feel the trolls” is a slogan. The harassment of women online (and off), is culture.

As an engineer who likes and appreciates process more than your average engineer, I take from this realisation a few things.

Firstly, when you try to create or add process, it has to fit with culture. It’s the difference between “We’ve agreed we want to expand our outreach, but that we don’t have enough information to prioritise. Here is how we can address that. We will try this for [period] and then evaluate.” and “Here’s a form to fill in when you want something.”

Secondly, a slogan is meaningless without some process. This is the difference between “It’s a key priority! We must figure this out!” and “These are the resources and goals allocated to this” – and the numbers reflect it’s importance.

Thirdly, this explains why people who are convinced they are in a meritocracy exhibit higher levels of cognitive bias. Why have a process for a problem that doesn’t exist?

9 replies on “Process, and Culture”

Hey, great post! I like it that you both have the safe example and then venture out to brand slogans as impromptu culture – rather fun!

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[…] We could start with a culture where we don’t blame, where instead we look at our processes and consider how they have contributed to the situation. Then, we improve our processes. Our “culture” is defined by our processes, afterall. […]

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