15 June 2009

Process Ownership, according to Demarco

Process should be a team asset (i.e. owned by those who execute it), rather than a corporate asset (i.e. imposed on those who execute it). – Inspired by Tom Demarco’s book Slack

If you've read any of my stuff for any length of time, you probably know I'm not a big fan of the current craze of process-centric management (and frankly, industry seemed to lose interest in it right around the time the DoD decided to drink the koolaid). Which makes my current job title quite ironic (it's something about chief of process improvement, I think).

A few posts back I pointed to the phenomenon of throwing out the process as soon as we have a high-priority project. In these situations, we tend to rely on talented people instead of process. The opposite never happens - a top priority project where we kick out all the talented people and instead institute a rigorous process. Oh, wait, that's basically what we do on the 90% of projects that aren't "top priotity."

Still, if we must have process (and for the forseeable future, it seems we must), it should be created, owned and modified by the people who actually have to use it, not imperiously imposed by those who don't actually do the work.

And frankly, I much prefer freestyling, done by Master Rogue Project Leaders.


Phil said...

@Dan -- not related to your recent post, but I just had to share with fellow readers ... our squadron watched Paul Newman's Cool Hand Luke last week as part of our monthly officer mentoring sessions ... one Captain who admires Dan's thinking said, Maj Dan is a modern day Cool Hand Luke. How right she is?! Had to share that! (Dan, no fair editing or deleting my comment)

The Dan Ward said...

Aw, shucks, you're making me blush, man. (and now I'll have to rent that movie again)

Andrew Meyer said...


interesting post. I agree with you as an individual. The difficulty is that what's good for Dan is not necessarily good for the organization. Dan may do very well freestyling, but Dan doesn't scale. If you can create operating procedures, a training program, etc, you can scale it.

Admittedly, that scalable process may only be 80% as good as one star, but you can replicate that 80% one hundred times. The star, as stars are given to do, will look for bigger challenges and soon be gone.

Isn't the goal for the star to be able to create a process for what they did, replicate that process and reap the rewards?

The measure of a star isn't what they can do individually (think Allen Iverson), but whether they can make their team better (MJ or now Kobe or Lebron James)

The Dan Ward said...

Thanks for the note, Andrew!

I think you're right that the expert doesn't scale... sorta. However, I do think that an organization which relies on a cadre of Masters will outperform a Process Enterprise over the long term (and yeah, I rooted for John Henry against the machine). And while the Masters aren't all alike, it's not impossible to have more than one at a time, right? And their objective may not necessarily be to replicate their process... it might be to try something new, engage new challenges, and discover teachable principles rather than imitable processes.

I should also point out that my definition of organizational performance extends beyond the financial bottom line. It also has to do with creating a humane environment, where people can develop, grow and be creative. I think that approach is better for the people AND for the organization.

And the more I think about it, I'm not sure process scales. Not really. That's 'cause no matter how well we document, formalize and institutionalize a process, we never quite replicate all the factors and conditions that went in to making things work well the first time. In fact, we usually end up creating unfortunate obstacles and barriers. The end result is a twist on the law of diminishing returns. The more widely we replicate a process, the less it helps.

Now, in an assembly line, there's something to be said for streamlining and optimizing the process. But treating project leadership / program management like an assembly line job, well, I think that's not a great idea.

I LOVE your point about experts / stars who make their team better. That's what it's really about, right?

Andrew Meyer said...


I'm not so sure processes and procedures don't scale. Creativity doesn't scale, but the ability to follow processes does. Let me give an example.

A great chef may think of intriguing new ways to combine spices and come up with an amazing new receipt. Let's say this new receipt is 100% taste, presentation and texture perfect. Now when Andy wants to impress his girlfriends with something more than PB&J, he gets out the receipt written by the great chef. Maybe Andy's offering is only 80% as good as the chef's maybe even only 60%, but it's still a hell of a lot better than PB&J - or at least I hope the girl will think so...

Somebody developed programming languages for the first time, but most of us do well enough with "for Dummies" books.

J. Robert Oppenheimer and a team of the brightest physicists the US has ever come up with invented the atomic bomb. Now that girly-looking guy in North Korea has figured out how to download the instructions off the internet and is trying to make one in his Civil War era kitchen.

Other than being facetious while I enjoy my $2 chuck, my point is that if reasonable people have reasonable receipts/processes/structures and directions they can do pretty amazing things. Have I shown you my paint by numbers playboy centerfold?

The Dan Ward said...

You crack me up, Andrew!

You're right, of course, that these things do indeed scale. And as you pointed out ,something gets lost along the way, so the replication isn't a perfect copy, but it's better than PB&J. As a dedicated imperfectionist, I certainly appreciate that.

But to the point of the original post, I think Demarco was right about process being owned by the people who execute it rather than the people who manage them...