Does “process” have to mean “control” which is seen as “bad”?

Late last week I had the pleasure of visiting a startup that is doing some very interesting things in the social network/online community web space. Like most 2.0 web development shops they consist of a small high performance technical team that work side-by-side a non technical team, each of whom all share equal responsibility for the production of their cloud service. So the developers cut the code that is the running web application, but the ideas that represent the cool innovation in what they are doing – and what gives the company its value – come from everywhere and anybody. As the discussions went on I became intrigued with how they managed all this on-the-fly creativity and how it was fed into the development machinery and eventually turned into production features on their website.

Essentially there was a minimal amount of process as “control” was seen as something that stifles creativity, and slows things down. Given that all the team members sat in the same office there wasn’t a problem with communicating issues so it was easy for them to identify and rectify issues that became problems, and problems that escalated in priority. So it was all good.

Mostly, but it wasn’t all roses and sunshine.

There was some discussions about how they were spending more time now fixing bugs that went into production than there were a few months ago, and the feeling was they didn’t want this trend to continue. In short, they felt the problem was with their QA process, as they all believed that good QA could solve this problem.

Well, yes and no, I thought; a skilled QA person would catch errors during a test cycle, but inevitably testing will only catch 85 – 90 percent of errors in any system. No system is ever error free when it’s put into production. This percentage however is affected by a lot of factors, such as the speed with which a release has to be done, how good the developers are, how conscientious they are with coding standards (which include things like commit reviews, unit testing, adhering to standard conventions), to name just a few. Good development practices always directly influence software quality. Or put another way, even the best QA person can not compensate for sloppy coding from a developer with a poor attitude.

But is there a middle way with process implementation that will support both high innovation and high quality?

I believe there is, and it’s exactly what AGILE tries to do. Remember that AGILE was born out of the need of web developers ten years ago to deliver web services that constantly kept changing from one week to the next. The old traditional methodologies based around waterfall and V model simply didn’t cut the mustard in the new landscape of the web. Instead of trying to control change – and the thing it represented, which was innovation – they embraced it. From that came the evolution of AGILE paradigm and quickly followed by frameworks that supported rapid development.

Really where things go wrong is not when a process isn’t adhered to, because that happens everywhere, but when control is lost. The whole – and arguably only – purpose of a process is to prevent loss of control, and thereby the onset of chaos. While some people I’ve worked with believe that there is such a thing as healthy controlled chaos, I don’t. Any type of chaos means you are not in control of what you’re doing, and at any point in time, inevitably, bad things will happen, and they will impact your ability to deliver work and meet deadlines.

Process really doesn’t have to be restrictive, not at all! It simply has to illustrate clearly how work flows and how problems are handled, both at individual, team and organisational levels. When everyone in a company has exactly the same understanding of who the internal customers are of their work, and how those customers use their work deliverables, then like a water park, everything is going to flow in predictable ways.

Good processes are continually changing as well. The nature of web development is one where what worked today is probably not going to work next month, let alone in six months, but this doesn’t mean your processes should be abandoned; when unpredictable things happen, situations change, or they stop working, then adapt them to something that does work. There isn’t anything wrong with that. In fact it if you’re not continually adjusting your processes they will eventually be ignored, which is worse than not having processes in the first place. Why? Because then it’s all just wasted effort.

In a shop that has adopted them properly, “process” should equal “ubiquitous repeatable success”, which is a very different thing from “stifling control”. Like everything else, it’s the attitude with which it is approached. But that’s something that is outside of the influence of anything other than the individual. Which is why it’s so important to get people with open minds into your teams, and remove those that do not. The quality and success of your software depends on it.

Andy.

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