Humans over Processes

In the past, as an inexperienced manager, I found myself mistaking processes’ issues with human ones. Imperfect processes usually slow down or make a team less efficient at something. It can be too many meetings, or requiring a number of extra steps until a feature is shipped. These usually frustrate the whole team. There can be many reasons why these processes are in place, from compliance to legacy reasons. The latter happens more often than one would imagine. If you can’t get a straight answer as to why a process is followed, then it likely falls under that category. As a manager with little experience, it can sometimes be tempting to solve problems by fixing processes, rather than addressing the root cause. So let’s look at an example.

In my last role, a couple of engineers weren’t adding any information in their PRs - they neither had a description nor a ticket. This created some frustration on engineers that were trying to review them But it also made PMs question what they were working on - since some of that work wasn’t planned. I knew from where the PMs were coming from: the planned work isn’t done, so why are people working on other things? There are second order effects by not adding any information in PRs. New engineers joining the company could think that this was the norm, so they would follow the example. Because this was done by senior engineers, they didn’t realise how much influence they had on the rest of the team. So what did I do? I tried to fix the process. I spent my time coming with an agreement among the whole team that PRs should have a description and a ticket associated. Did this work? Sort of. People started doing more of that, but the people that originally didn’t would fallback to old habits - even though I had an explicit agreement from them.

With the gift of foresight, and hopefully a bit wiser, what I would do now? I would speak with these engineers individually and listen to what they had to say about it. I would do my best to emphasise their views on the topic and would then share my perspective. Maybe there was a good reason why they weren’t doing it and I never thought about it. Or maybe not, maybe no one has ever given them feedback on the matter. The proper way to address this problem was to see it as a human issue, rather than lack of a process.

It’s easier to default to processes - as being the problem - because it allows us to evade the hard conversations. Often that’s exactly what’s required.