Pros and Process – A Delicate Balance

I was reading a question on a forum the other day about the benefits of having highly skilled people work for you relative to having a clear and detailed process for how work is done. The answer, of course, is that neither will work without the other, and the challenge is to find the right balance between the two.

At my office, process is part of the daily grind. I have been working there for over 2 years, and I have come across scenarios where process was more important than expertise. (Note that I do not discuss the alternative, since it is easy to understand why having quality people is important, and for more information on that topic, read my post Saving Money on an IT Solution.)

We have an on-call procedure for supporting applications even when no one is in the office. On occassion, a system will fail, causing the person who is on call to be notified. We have a clear process for what to do in the event of such a notification, which is detailed to the level of what to do for each and every system that we support. The reason for this is simple. Calls can come in the middle of the night, while the support person is sleeping. Rather than have them try to make decisions while they are half asleep, we detail the process, the choices that need to be made, and the information needed to make those decisions. Following this process has helped reduce the severity of the failures to minor bumps without impacting our customers as a result.

However, process can, and often does, go to the other extreme. A reader of the Daily Worse Than Failure will be able to think of several examples. In this situation, the issues behind the process can often be attributed to having non-technical people write the process. A lack of understanding of how a technology works (and more specifically, the technology requiring the process) often results in compensating for the lack by insisting on more documentation, more signatures, more approvals.

A good process is written by the people who will ultimately be following it. It needs acceptance from its users based on understanding of why the process is there. When the process is put into place, and management says “Follow the process” but there was no input from those who are meant to be using the process, resentment about the process, and often a flat refusal to use it will often ensue.