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Baked-in Virtues versus the Zombie Apocalypse

A reminder of how good practices that are baked into a process get mangled in the real world

24 July 2014

William Nicolich
SPH Analytics

What I'd like to do in this article is take a moment to step back, appreciate, and even enjoy a repeated observation that, to me, is much like watching a movie about the zombie apocalypse. What I notice repeatedly is that any attempt to bake a virtue of some kind into a process will fall victim to the zombies -- or humans who negotiate their way through a process.

My team just underwent a midyear performance review process. First there were attempts to prime and frame the process. People were notified of some common good practices. Someone in HR wrote up a great piece on choosing reviewers wisely to up the chances of getting some good advice. Reminders of the steps and timelines went out. Fine.

Then there were the baked-in virtues. Just in case the reviewer forgets to make a suggestion about improvement in the various sections that cover competencies and company culture, the last question for the reviewer explicitly asks something to this effect: "List 1-3 specific things that this person can do to improve progress in their career in the next six months."

No doubt some concerted thought went into that question. It's time-constrained. That's a best practice. It calls for something specific. That's good. It appeals to self-interest and self-preservation -- likely to help someone progress in their career. But is it ready for the zombie apocalypse?

The results as judged from a couple dozen of these reviews were . . . entertaining. It would have been much better had people made good suggestions for change in each of the sections. Very few people did that consistently on their own. Most of the material was praise without any sort of challenge or suggestion -- which is one of the chief goals of this review. If the baked-in step at the end represents a desperate attempt to catch some suggestions before the review ends, then I suppose it worked, to some extent.

I wonder if something else would have worked better than the common formula of "Do A, B, and C." I'm thinking of maybe a question. Before you submit this review, ask whether you added value by issuing challenges; or suggest ways to adjust, in each of the sections, so this person has some ideas about how they can get better over the rest of the year. Maybe.

I've tried to bake in a variety of virtues in my team's ticketing work flow. An analysis step calls for a deliverable that describes the "game plan" -- so we can ask ourselves the question, "Did we follow the game plan?" before we send it off to QA. Sounds good. The results are . . . varied and interesting. During the code review step, I baked in the instructions to "Look at the tests to see if they are adequate" to encourage a test-driven development mind-set -- and to and call for some attempt to write tests for the code, whether formal or informal. Yeah, we've moved the needle some -- after a generous ramp-up period. The process description did little to move that needle. What's moved it is people talking to one another about it from different angles in various circumstances.

Methods like Kanban, Scrum, Crystal, and the like try to bake certain virtues into processes. That's pretty clear. However, they often get mangled hopelessly by the people who are subjected to them. If the process is not something that each person sees as a raft on which to facilitate their travel toward a valued objective, then the process is more like an obstacle course that people will subvert to reduce its impact as much as possible. That's my impression.

I enjoy reading a variety of business management books, most all of which suggest that one bake in some virtue or another into the processes of work. I doubt that many of these survive well out in the real world. At least, they frequently don't survive long in my work-life experiment -- and I really give it a go.

The reason I pause to celebrate the pandemonium and mayhem that ensues at work -- even in the face of baked-in virtues -- is not to cast doubt or disparagement on them. They are good. They are virtuous. The point is, they are often precisely like telling a leaf not to shake in the wind.

When the zombies take over, it's a clear reminder that designing a process is only the beginning of an odyssey that will lead to a direct confrontation with humanity. There is no quick tip or easy solution to that confrontation. Don't lose heart. This is the spice of work life. Let the mayhem begin.

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

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