Low Process Culture, High Process Culture

When I changed jobs in 2020, I went from a low-process culture to a high-process culture (or: what I perceive as high-process, all things are relative). It was a bit of a culture shock.

The process stressed me out. For instance, my previous job did not have performance review. You were supposed to submit feedback every ~6 months – which I had always understood to be inconsistently enforced (I typically managed to do feedback for my directs every 6-9 months). So, coming into my first performance review, somehow my first ever as a manager despite years of experience, was something of an Ordeal.

To be clear, what stressed me out was the process. I really struggled with the template I had been given. And then I finally submitted what I’d put together, only to get the feedback that I had written everything as a list of bullet points.

Well, yes. The template had been a list of bullet points. Hence: my struggle.

My boss gave me a helpful piece of advice. He told me that if I knew what to do, I should just do it, and then fit the process to it. It helped a lot.

Time passed, and we came to the next performance review cycle. This time I was less caught up on my own struggle, and had more insight into how other people were approaching things in the role of “feedback reviewer”. From this vantage point, it was clear that having a performance review doesn’t guarantee great, or even good feedback – because that depends so much on all the other feedback that happens in between.

But, it’s better than nothing at all.

In Thanks for the Feedback, one of the frameworks is the difference between “evaluative” and “developmental” feedback. Evaluative feedback tells someone where they stand (and whether or not someone gets promoted is inherently evaluative). Developmental feedback tells someone how they can improve. If someone only gets developmental feedback with the evaluation, the evaluative feedback will override everything else. Being great at performance reviews (if there is such a thing), requires consistent developmental feedback the rest of the time – a product of accepting that people are unlikely to fully process the developmental feedback in the review.

The second review cycle was still stressful, but for entirely different reasons. Largely it was stress about whether or not people would get promoted, and anxiety about telling people if they didn’t get what they wanted. In short – it was healthy, unescapable stress. Not stress about process, or the stress of a manager who last gave feedback last review cycle.

Perhaps a less emotionally charged example, consider the release process. Any release process has a checklist. And I believe such a checklist is essential. But the checklist is about the release process and not what is being released. A great release is defined by what is in it – exciting features. A bad release is also defined what is in it, a bug, that causes a problem (and another process: that of running an incident).

The checklists maintain adequacy. They are necessary, but insufficient.

We have checklists for onboarding. We’ve worked hard on improving them. But I knew our onboarding process was better when the checklists failed, and people stepped in anyway to ensure the outcome – the success of the new person. The mindset of the team was one of collective responsibility, the checklist was just adequacy.

I believe the judicious application of process is a super power. But I also believe that process is necessary, but insufficient. Process as a super power makes the unclear, clear, and supports a mindset shift that leads to something more.

But like all super powers, used the wrong way, process becomes a bind and a distraction. People focus on the mechanics, rather than what they’re supposed to accomplish and why. They start thinking their job is to perform the process, rather than the desired outcomes they’re looking to achieve.

Stepping back to consider the contrast makes more clear to me why the low-process culture didn’t really bother me, or (for the most part) impede me from the things I wanted to do. I was willing to create what was necessary in order to achieve the outcomes I wanted. At the same time, it gives me more empathy for the people who I saw really struggle without it. There is no clear starting point or agreements about how things work in a low-process culture, and that can be very overwhelming.

All of this is not to complain about a higher-process culture. It is a relief to have a starting point for most things, even if I don’t agree with all of it. But process is inherently a mechanism of standardization and enforcement. There is no way to enforce greatness – we just enforce adequacy, and should be cognizant of the limits of that.

A company with a performance review process won’t necessarily mean you have a better manager or a better growth path than an organization without one. It just makes it harder for managers to fall short of the absurdly low minimum of some amount of somewhat reasonable feedback on some specific cadence.

No release process will guarantee a great release, just like no onboarding checklist will ensure someone is successful. But – they can help you avoid known pitfalls such that your release doesn’t explode and your new hire isn’t still completely lost after their first month.

But it’s always worth considering what process makes sufficient, and what you’re really aspiring for. Sometimes adequacy is the goal, but when it’s not, the process is usually the least of it. What are you optimizing for?

2 replies on “Low Process Culture, High Process Culture”

Thank you, the adequacy/excellence distinction is very useful! I usually say something like “process is there to rely on in an emergency, in a panic, or in a doldrums” but your way of putting it seems more correct. Definitely stealing.

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