Context over dogma

Ope Adeoye 8 minute read

I use a Compaq 6710b at work. Sometime ago, it's power pack got busted and I got in touch with the infrastructure department of my BigCo to ask for a replacement. The guy I met said "hey! Ope, how you dey now?", then promptly handed me over to another department saying "They are the ones who take care of such things". Seeing the other department was just the lady at the desk across the room I smiled to myself and sauntered off towards the chick, explaining my predicament with my usual brash humour. She said "Eeyah, ok. I'll give you another one, but...".

And so started my trouble.

She told me I had to call my BigCo's service desk and state my problem. Then they would in turn log my request into an application called Remedy, she would see my request, verify it, then give me another power pack. That was the process. That's the way it's been designed to work. By the way, she says the power pack is not an issue, she'd just call the store room and they'd bring another one.

But, I should please call service desk on 5441 first. She was so courteous and nice. Not taken back by that I said "No wahala" and promptly called service desk. They asked me the usual questions, where's my office located, what's my name, my number, etc. Then I received an automated email saying "Remedy notification: Your call with number 090887788888 has been logged and will be taken care of”. So I go right back to the first lady and say can I have the power pack now?

She never got the Remedy notification. I convinced her to come to my desk and confirm that indeed the request had been logged, but she insisted that she had to get her own notification. By now about an hour had passed. I had not gotten any work done that day. We were waiting for the defined and documented process to run its course.

And there was a Power Pack lying fallow in the store room.

Later that day, I got the much needed power pack after sending multiple emails to the service desk, some not endearing to read.

What am I trying to say?

Ok I’ll get to it in a moment...

I once had a boss I really respected for his insight on issues of management and strategy. Once he mentioned to me that in order for a business or an organisation to grow, you have to put in place repeatable systems and some element of predictability. Some kinda formulae for the different functions carried out in your organisation. So, companies today create processes. To get a new chequebook, you fill a form, you sign it in ink (which means you can’t do it without being physically present), someone at the bank signs off, his own boss signs off, etc. Then it takes 2 weeks to get what you want and it’s inconvenient. But that’s the process. The repeatable process that new employees can follow. Management consultants tout this as a way to ensure your company stays for the long haul and grows. And big words like ‘business continuity’ are used freely. I totally agree. I totally agree if and only if you want your company to grow ‘large’ and you envisage having a high churn rate of staff. If you want to grow big to the point where the CEO walks in at the front door and wonders when the girl at the reception was hired, you might need repeatable documented processes.

 And that’s typically soulless. But that’s a story for another day.

So back to the point.

Processes are important in an organisation whether small or big. Having things clearly spelt out and defined is good. It means you have a ‘system’ not just a bunch of people doing whatever. But what’s the use of a ‘process’ when it doesn’t leave room for human judgement to override it? Over the weekend I hit a man on a bike while driving away from the basketball court (where I lasted a wooping 5 minutes before getting tired this time). The guy and his bike were sort of caught under the car so I reversed to get off the road and help the man up. Some moronic police man showed up and started saying ‘the law says you should leave the vehicle where it is till the road has been marked’. Bla bla bla. The Okada man was frigging injured and you are telling me about some law that says I shouldn’t take him to the hospital till some idiots have gotten a chance to massage their black-uniform-wearing egos? Rat crap! 

In my opinion, it’s all about context. Take a look at a scenario and see whether the stipulated guidelines can be applied without alteration, if yes then go ahead and execute your job/business function by the book. But if not, by all means write another chapter in the bloody book!

The same goes for things like functional specifications and signed-off documents. I once worked for a supervisor who totally believed this mirage that the software development process was as simple as below:

1.    Attend a couple of meetings with client to ‘identify requirements.’
2.    Do a functional specification document detailing your findings.
3.    Get client to read and agree saying that’s exactly what he wants.
4.    Develop software in a dark room alone with no feedback to client.
5.    Show up with shiny finished software 3 months later.
6.    Sign off with the client.
7.    Customer is happy.

Everything would have been fine except for step seven. That’s so not true. Even though the customer agreed to a document you both signed and you have built software to the specifications in that document, the guy is still going to want that page header changed from “View Assets” to “Fixed Assets Register”. Specs or no specs. And if you don’t oblige him, step 7 won’t happen. Document or not. In this scenario, the functional specs is the dogma you are trying to execute the project by, but the customer’s happiness is the context that should make you go outside the scope of what the document says. If you do that, then you can guarantee step 7.

I used to be crazy about basketball. I had a friend – name withheld.  He went totally by the books. Triple tread, turn to the right, keep your hands up, shoot and follow. He followed the defined standard process to the letter. He was boring to watch play. I had another guy – Chacha. Jeez! Chacha used to wow the crowd at our matches. He’ll dribble from one end of the court to the order and finish in a totally stylish and almost stupid way. But he kept scoring, and his game kept bringing crowds to our matches. And we won a lot of games. This was what we wanted. To hell with the books.

But really, without being extremist and anti-organisation, documented processes are important. Wait a minute, I think I said that before. It’s expecting people to function within those confines without bringing to bear the context and peculiarity of a particular scenario that’s not effective. I know  It’s a big challenge getting people to have freedom and exercise their own judgement in an organisation and ensuring that the availability of such open ends are not abused or exploited, but there are benefits. Our working hours at a place I once worked was not 8-5 as is with most organisations. We were given open ends... “Be around for SCRUM by 10 every morning” was the only requirement. But I was surprised at the outcome of this. Guys would get to work at 9 and typically stay through the night then go home to get some sleep in the early hours of the morning. Work got done. Period. When I worked at another company in Lagos, you had to resume by 8 and if you came later than 8, you wrote down your name in the late comers’ book. So I’d leave my home at 5.30 in the morning to beat the traffic and get to work by 8. But I was always so tired I never got any work done in the mornings till like 4 in the evening.  Found out it wasn’t just me. Work simply didn’t get done in that company. Projects took forever.

If you can create your business processes, then manage to give it some open ends that make the judgement of your team important, the benefits to team morale and overall creativity in the execution of business functions far outweigh repeatability and business continuity. 

But only if you can pull that off. If not, please stick to your book of dogma, recipes and rules.

Disclaimer: I think this is more easily achieved with small teams than in bigger organisations. It doesn’t scale well. Companies like 37 Signals, Fog Creek, etc might be able to do it with a little more ease than the Microsofts and the IBMs and the General Motors. So as a business decision maker, you might get to a point where you would want to decide whether to arrest your growth and stay small, fit and agile with efficient creative output that makes your customers happy or grow big and methodical in a manner that makes your projects taste like factory produced doughnuts from Sweet Sensation when Mama Put is custom pounding yam for the few happy customers she has. The choice is yours.

UPDATE: I found this really interesting article by Neil Davidson over at BoS and I thought I'd share it here. Yeah, I know, I am already biased. :)