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Process diagrams aren't worth s**t if your culture's gone to pot

06 May, 2021, by Cosmin Marginean

Not so fast

If you’re looking for process consultancy, one thing you’ll find plenty of are diagrams in so many shapes and flavours that it can get truly nauseating. And all of them promise to save your team and your business. If you follow them religiously.

It’s almost always the emperor’s new clothes.

If it was as simple as adopting the latest Agile fad or the yet-to-meaningfully-scale Mob-programming (yes, it does exist) then there would be no more failed technology projects in this world. Yet, depending on who you ask, the percentage of failed and under-delivered software projects varies between alarming and fraudulous.

Business folklore dictates that you can fix almost any company or department with the right tools and processes. And there is a lot of truth in that, but the ability for the process to revitalise a delivery team is only as strong as that team’s preexistent culture.

Firstly, there’s the resilience to change which has nothing to do with business sector or team culture - it’s Sapiens programming down to the bone. I’m yet to see a team that doesn’t underestimate this.

Second, these processes are abstractions and some people’s beliefs and ideas about what should happen in order for your team to succeed. Often, however, they are ignorant of organisational specifics or cultural elements which can make parts of the process counter-productive. For example, none of these process gurus will tell you that the dreaded Agile stand-ups and retrospectives are perceived completely differently by people in the West to those in, say, Eastern Europe.

But the worst thing we’ve seen in process-ambitious organisations is that these workflow revamps allows the business leadership to opt-out of a sizeable amount of accountability. Particularly when the dogma fails and the consultants and coaches are Tarzaning off to the next vine. “Well, you guys clearly didn’t follow the process accordingly”. And, surprise-surprise, the delivery team is back where it started: entirely to blame, and with even less organisational agency than before.

The process diagram is useful. I would say that for most teams it’s vital. But it’s a guideline and a framework, and the more it becomes a bible, the more people will withdraw from taking initiative in their roles. You’re much better off with growing a culture where people can switch processes easily. And, more importantly, where a team can be autonomous enough to decide on its own when the process needs to be circumvented. Things that bend won’t break.

Lastly, many people confuse the import of process with import of culture. Which, by the way doesn’t work either because - in the words of Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia - culture starts with the first hire. Process import in a fragmented business culture is ambitious at best and a costly disappointment at worst.

If you haven’t had an honest look at your culture recently, then it’s probably wise to hold off on spending that fortune on process consultancy.


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