The Agile Manifesto Teaches Individuals and Interactions Over Processes and Tools
There’s a common misconception, especially among those new to Agile, that the relationship between people and processes is one of friction — that it’s a dichotomy. The subtlety of the language used, “individuals and interactions over processes and tools” implies that both need to exist. The framers of the Agile Manifesto even state, “while there is value in the items on the right (Processes and Tools), we value the items on the left more (Individuals and Interactions).” I agree with this and would also argue that processes and tools are an input to productive interactions among individuals. We know what is more valuable according to the Agile manifesto but, which one is most important? People or Processes? Maybe we’re thinking about it all wrong?
Chinks In The Armor
Asking, “what’s more important, people or processes?” is a fair question to ask when you’re new to Agile. Especially since most organizations looking to “go Agile” start with Scrum (by the way, practicing Scrum does not mean you are Agile. It’s a great start as long as the leadership team continues to stay open minded and doesn’t limit the organization to just Scrum). Usually, a handful of developers, project managers, business analysts and line of business managers are sent to a two-day class scrum class; they receive a certificate dubbing them newly minted “Certified Scrum Masters/Product Owners/Developers” and are given a small project to show a “proof of concept” with the
new framework. It’s chaotic and exciting at the same time; however, the organization’s weaknesses begin to show up (Scrum has a way of shedding the spot light on the problems that have existed in the organization for a long time). I call these the “chinks in the armor.”
The biggest chink I’ve seen most teams discuss in their retrospectives are the People vs Process Dependencies. Invariably, team members and managers dig in their heels about which one is better. This is because people default to what they know best. They use what has worked for them in the past. Change is hard, even when there’s clear evidence that what they’ve been doing will not work anymore because of changes in the business environment.
As a coach, it’s important to understand the pros and cons of the people and process dependencies. It should be explained clearly with not only your teams but, with the management team too. The organization will have to move past striking a balance and figuring out which areas need the most improvement. Instead, they should assess the parts of each dependency and figure out what works best for them today. Below are some extreme examples of each dependency to illustrate the pros and cons of both.
- It gives workers satisfaction – employees feel satisfied when they know they are valued
- Flexible – employees are empowered to perform work in the way they feel is best
- Adaptable – the ability to pivot and make changes is the hallmark of business agility
- Efficient – unnecessary steps in a process are avoided
- Helps to retain high-achieving, confident, people – people stick around because they know they are important and are good at their job
- Less repeatability – changing processes are not repeatable and leads to waste
- Makes customers nervous – customers feel comfortable when there’s visibility on the process
- Can provide a “false sense” of a high degree of control – processes are measurable. What get’s measured gets done. When managers rely solely on the self-reporting, certain messages may get filtered and there is no data to verify.
- Turnover impacts are much greater – institutional knowledge can walk out the door or get hit by a bus
- Higher risks – for the reasons listed above
- Repeatability – repeatability helps with predictability
- Easier to improve – a documented process is easier to improve with less risk to the organization
- Less people dependent – automation of easily repeatable tasks frees up resources for more value added activities
- Predictability – it can be measured objectively and relied on as a lever for control in the organization
- Brings new personnel up to speed faster and with less risk of poor performance
- Paperwork can overshadow the task – processes that are overly complex distract from value added work
- Resources must be spent enforcing or ensuring compliance – managerial debt is incurred. Managers spend less time removing impediments and more time micromanaging processes.
- Someone must own and manage the process
- Less “thinking” is needed – employees and managers can become complacent if there’s no impetus for process improvement. This leads to waste.
Processes Come First But They Should Not Be Valued
I know I’m going to rub a few people in the Scrum community the wrong way (and probably piss of a few of the business process analysts too) But, processes should come first but they should not be valued in the same way we value our people and interactions. It’s easy for managers to regard processes as instruments for control. Some managers finely craft their business processes. They labor over them and build complex systems for the organization. But only effective processes facilitate people. Not complex ones. If you require a practical rule of me, I recommend you murder your darlings.
“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it — whole-heartedly — and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings”
— Arthur Quiller-Couch,
I argue that people and processes should not balance each other. Many representations of this balancing act builds a false dichotomy. It implies that they are of equal value. Like the framers of the Agile Manifesto, I do not value them the same way.
Processes should support our people and facilitate their interactions. Processes are either operational, supporting, or management oriented. If they do not provide value. Murder them. It’s up to the teams to decide which processes they need most and which ones can be forgotten. Each organization is different. Each darling should be judged accordingly — but retain the ones that still add value. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Don’t assume that just because you’re “doing Agile” that processes no longer needed to exist. No, processes are still important. They unlock your people’s ability to work at a higher level. But it’s time to end the love affair with processes and value your people.
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