Aug 262013
gray wolf

gray wolf (Photo credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Midwest Region)

When I was in school, I bought a wolf adoption packet.  I don’t even remember what it was called, but the idea was to prevent the extinction of a specific kind of wolf.  You bought one of these packets that had a photo of your wolf and such, and your money went to an organization preventing their extinction.

When I told one of my friends about it, she said, “I can’t believe you spent money to save a wolf when there are so many children dying of starvation out there.”

You’ve probably seen something similar in your own life, when one person assists a cause, and that effort is criticized by someone on the grounds that there are other, more important causes out there.  Usually this criticism comes from someone who is doing nothing about either situation.

Obviously, there is the fact that people can care about more than one thing.  Of course I care about children dying of starvation.  Caring about one thing doesn’t mean you think it’s the most important thing, nor does it mean you can’t care about anything else.  But people do something for causes for a lot of different reasons.  In my case, someone presented an opportunity to me to do something about it in a way that made it easy to help.  People have different backgrounds, gifts, and preferences that draw them to certain causes, but I’d say the common factor in all of them is that people feel like they can actually make a difference in that area through their efforts.  This is why the Peace Corps has many members and the Giant Asteroid Hitting the Earth Prevention Society has so few.

In the Agile and Lean communities, we tend to talk a lot about processes – the pros and cons of different processes, how to tweak them, how to analyze them – and it usually isn’t long in such discussions before some wag pipes up, “Hey, guys, remember.  Individuals and interactions over processes and tools!”  Usually this is someone who is contributing nothing in either category.

I actually find this sort of thing both offensive and stupid – chronically short-sighted at the very least.

If the Saw movies have taught us anything, it’s that you can’t change a person.  People have to change themselves, and it’s something that takes a long time apart from some traumatic experience.  I can’t consult someone into a more agile mindset.  I can’t consult an organization into trusting each other more.  I might be able to point out these needs, but ultimately, I am very limited into what I can do about it.  I can’t change people by making them fall backwards into their co-workers’ arms, and I am unwilling to set up an elaborate chain of deathtraps to help them all see that they’re valuing the wrong things.  I can inform them, but that’s really where my power to change stops, more or less.

So, placing all my efforts in the people/culture bucket is kind of like joining the Asteroid Prevention Society.  It’s an important issue that I can do relatively little about – at least, directly.

At the same time, we all know that individuals and interactions are more important than processes and tools.  Absolutely.  100% agreed.  By a long shot.  So the question is, as a consultant, how are you best serving the individuals and interactions as opposed to being a process or tool vendor?  I believe the answer is in focusing on the things that will enable the people and the organization to change themselves – most notably, educating them, changing their behaviors (or processes if you will), and letting the results of that be the levers for creating the true people and culture changes that are the core of what will benefit an organization long term.

I have seen this path work several times – culture and people changes that cascade from education and creating more enabling processes.  It’s like irrigating dry soil, making it ready for the seeds of true growth that would inevitably die otherwise.  I have never seen lasting cultural change come from an initiative specifically designed to change the culture.

So, the next time you hear someone seeming to focus on processes or tools, don’t automatically dismiss that interest as misplaced, especially if they aren’t selling said process or tool.  It may be that they care about individuals and interactions far more than you know.

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  One Response to “People Over Processes”

  1. Dear Philip,
    you sound like a true scrummista!
    I have nothing to add to your words but…my sale steam became a strong wolvepack by scrumming :-).
    I learned that “people over processes” is not a believe, but a simple fact in succesfull projects.
    My blog is not solely about the agile manifesto’s content but is about the need to increase time-to-change….

    Wish you a very nice day and hope to hear from you soon again!

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