Process over people

Managing processes, not people, is the key to maintain productivity and foster creativity.

Photo credits Ricardo Gomez Angel

“If you want to run a company that’s light on full-time managers,” writes 37signals CTO David Heinemeier Hansson (DHH), “you have to focus on managing processes before people.”

There’s nothing wrong with full-time managers, but the full-time-manager-to-employees ratio is a proxy for how much bureaucracy and organizational friction exist in a company. And, as Meta recently learned the hard way, flat, lean organizations tend to be more efficient.

Bureaucracy and organizational friction are an inevitable byproduct of growth, but companies can remain lean by delegating traditional managers’ and product owners’ responsibilities to codified systems.

DHH shares five techniques they use at 37signals:

  1. Replace synchronous stand-up meetings with async, automated questions in Basecamp.
  2. Use Hill Charts to give a bird’s eye view of a project’s progress status.
  3. Confine most product planning decisions to happen every other month, as per their Shape Up framework.
  4. Constrain projects into a 6-week development window, then let teams adjust the scope to meet the deadline.
  5. Delegate reviewing work to mentoring peers.

Unsurprisingly, 37signal’s approach relies heavily on their homegrown Basecamp and Shape Up, but we can extrapolate generic principles from their example.

Use asynchronous tools to share status updates and monitor progress

37signals replaced the synchronous stand-up meeting, an infamous staple of modern product teams, with automated, asynchronous pings to answer questions about individual progress. Doing this allows each team member to share their progress, plans, and blockers at a time that suits them best and removes a possible interruption during the day.

The automation also removes any need for someone to wrangle starting the meeting or the awkward time spent waiting for that one team member who’s always late.

Sharing status updates through a written medium also makes it accessible all across the company.

The same goes for progress on projects. Once you have a system in place that can track work done vs. work left to do, information such as percentage progress and ETA estimate can be automatically extrapolated. This lets anyone within the company access the knowledge without needing a project spoke person to query.

Delegate decision-making

As far as I understand, at the start of every cycle, 37signal’s leadership sets the overall direction for what the company will work on in the form of projects, then gives teams complete ownership of them.

The reason you hired brilliant people is because of how smart they are. Put their brain to use!

Most everyday decision-making within a company is reversible, and there are often mitigation strategies that can be put into place. Features can be shipped with toggles and percentage roll-outs. Code can be merged and then reverted.

Delegating decision-making down the reporting chain empowers individuals, makes use of the skills for which they were hired, and removes time-consuming back and forth.

Distribute ownership

The concept of delegating decision-making goes hand in hand with distributing ownership of a project and its quality to the entire team.

DHH’s teams own the scope of their projects and can knock off items if they fear they’ll delay shipping.

Ensuring quality is a collaborative mission. They distribute “one of the key functions of management, ensuring the quality of the work, amongst the entire team,” for example, by having “mentoring peers” review new employees’ work.

Distributing ownership and establishing peer-to-peer mechanisms to raise the quality bar removes the need for full-time oversight. When done right, it incentivizes each individual contributor to be a team player, resulting in better outcomes than the sum of what each member could have done alone.

Constraints that create freedom

As Cal Newport argues at length in A World Without Email, “to get the full value of attention capital, we must start taking seriously the way we structure work.”

Placing rails on the way work is structured frees up energy to invest in how work is executed.

At a personal level, this empowers knowledge workers to operate in a way that maximizes their autonomy and creativity.

At an organizational level, this improves quality and retention and makes for a leaner org chart.

Investing in process doesn’t mean introducing friction and overhead. Notice how both principles of delegating decision-making and distributing ownership are more a matter of culture than tooling.

One additional benefit of explicit, codified processes is that they can be reviewed and iterated upon. This approach fits neatly into async-first writing cultures. It also makes onboarding easier because new hires can get up to speed with the documentation. And when certain processes are automated, new team members can be added to it with little additional setup cost.

Knowledge work organizations, particularly software companies, operate in a space of infinite leverage. Small teams can service products used by millions of people.

Investing in processes is an alternative to growing headcount. It’s a more creative way to maintain efficiency and foster creativity.

What are your team’s processes? How can they be improved?

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