Are we attracted to repetition?
Yes. We all are. It touches every facet of our lives. As a few examples, we eat the same types of foods each week, we watch the same TV series, and we read books that belong to a series. A study and report from Alix Spiegel of NPR captures the power of repetition in music that attracts us. Spiegel reports that “90 percent of the music we listen to is music we’ve heard before. We return again and again to our favorite songs, listening over and over to the same musical riffs, which themselves repeat over and over inside the music..” She then gives the result of a study that shows how people preferred music with repetition over the same song without repetition.
Repetition in Software Development.
Software development has the same draw for repetition. Managers spend time and thought to create a software development lifecycle (SDLC) that fits their company culture and team skill sets. They want something repeatable to drive efficiencies of a process, consistency of work output, and reliability of estimates. These are the attractiven features of a SDLC.
There’s an entire business industry built on repetition in software development. Books, training, and consultants feed us new ideas and different ways to think. But the end game they seek is adoption to a standard method that works within the framework of our business culture. This is all for good reason. As a professional in the world of software development, I recognize that we must be disciplined. I recognize that we have to think and find more efficient ways to produce software so that we can stay competitive and drive results through the business.
But there is a repelling force to repetition as well.
There are two danger zones that software managers should consider with repetition in process. Both of these creep-in an organization silently. Ironically they destroy the very things that repetitive process can build.
- Repetition can stagnate creativity. When we follow a script, we don’t think much about the ‘why’. We don’t think about better ways to do things. We just follow the process because someone already did all that thinking. Worst of all is that we don’t see it. We think we are accomplishing our job because we followed the steps.
- Repetition can become the end goal. When checking the boxes on the process flow becomes more important than the final product then the process has become the master. If employees are consumed with following every detail of a process and only satisfied when they mark steps as complete then the process has become larger than the importance of the end result. You’ll recognize this in an organization when the meetings about the process outnumber the meetings about the solution, the who, and the why.
Watch for it!
Watch for it in your organization and life. It’s like two magnets with forces that attract and repel. We have to find a way to both pursue and guard against the powers of repetition in the workplace. This means constant examination. It means living with shades of gray within process. It means we need write with a pencil, allowing for a both a sharp and dull point. The eraser is nice to have also.
In my reading this week I came across a blog post from Tom Peters entitled Strategy: War on Systems. Tom talks about “systems” within an organization and while they are developed with good intentions, they often become inhibitors to achieving the organizational mission. I talk about this very subject quite a bit on my blog also. In fact while reviewing my notes for blog post ideas I found this entry:
“Software Development lessons learned (process is both friend and foe) – Software development friend and foe”.
This thought matches exactly with Tom’s thought about war on systems. Your software development process has steps that exist to produce output and serve customers. Over time, the process becomes more elaborate. Steps are added to prevent faults that happened in the past, to satisfy regulatory requirements, to satisfy best practices, or even recommendations from a consultant. As Tom put it, this type of system or process can “strangle” the organization. It becomes a priority just to follow the process and team members lose site of the original mission. Team members become process engineers as they navigate the process from end-to-end and feel accomplished when they can check-off each step completed.
It’s a safe bet to say that end customer rarely has influence into the design of the process. Ultimately, the customer has to buy the output and no one else. So make sure your people have the ability to call-out and question process steps that don’t provide value for the customer. This is a big step for an organization that wants to increase its customer focus.
I’ve heard it said of teachers before that they lose their ability to do what they are passionate about because of all the paper work required for their job. As organizations or groups mature typically the processes within each group will tend to expand. So my question is, when does following the process remove people from their passions and what they love to do (i.e. serve a customer, teach a student, write software code, advise patients, etc.)? I see people making decisions because that’s what the process says or they are looking to check-off on a process step. At some point they lose site of the real need they are trying to solve as the following the process rules their thoughts and actions.
In my professional life, my passion zones are around being part of software development and helping to solve business needs through the use of technology. I had a reflective moment this week that I spend most of my time navigating through process management requirements such that I’m losing the ability to work in my passion zones. But is that really true? Is process management really part of the journey to solving the business need or producing the piece of software? Can the two be separated? Should we consider all of the steps and flows of a process part of the act of solving a business need or teaching a student, or advising a patient?
Let me know your thoughts and experiences.
I was watching CNN this morning while doing time on the treadmill. A story came on about the warning from OSHA to Sea World that whales would eventually kill a person in the current environment unless they made some changes. It made think about people within organizations that try to sound
Kai=Change, Zen=Good(for the better), Kaizen=Continuous Improvement
warnings and alerts about business process improvement topics. Everyone is quick to agree that business processes are always full of opportunity for improvement. Remember Kaizen and business process rengineering? I remember a time when the buzz word of ‘continuous improvement’ was common place in the industry. I’d see it at training sessions, webinars, and company culture and leadership training. But I don’t hear it so much any more.
So I wonder, how much time do we spend making incremental improvements of processes? How does an organization come to support and embrace this? Does it take an event where the process output reaches virtually zero? Is it the result of a change in leadership where the new leader seeks to leave his/her mark? Tell me about business process management in your organization. Do employees continuously seek improvement and does management listen?