Monday, May 05, 2008


Using Process as a substitute for competence...

James Tarbell said something interesting to me that made me reconsider previous postings on why process can be a substitute for competence...

In the past I have commented that process is not a substitute for competence. In order to understand my new thinking, it first requires defining the distinction.

Large enterprises and Indian outsourcing firms embracing worst practices such as CMMi because they believe their is value in focusing on process over people. I believe that process is intended to "raise the floor" - that is to elevate the minimum acceptable standard across all participants. The process itself is designed to create an output of a particular (acceptable) level or quality. Process is also good for consistency.

Competence is about "raising the ceiling." The upper threshold of what I can achieve is dictated by my competence. As per above, my incompetence can be offset by process (to a certain extent). People of high competence may want to resist process, because it brings their execution down to a lower level than what they are capable of delivering. This creates the tension of "do I have to follow THAT process?" This tension is exacerbated by a couple factors:

1) Process-enforced consistency. I may be able to do better work, but it is different than what the process dictates - therefore it creates more work for the rest of the organization to understand.

2) Setting a precedent. While I may be able to deliver better results than the process dictates, my choice to not follow the process sets a precedent for someone of lesser competence to try the same - potentially with sub-standard results. Managers usually dislike having the conversation that goes something like "You aren't skilled/competent enough to break the process, so don't!"

There is not now, nor has there ever been, nor will there ever be, any programming language in which it is the least bit difficult to write bad code.So you could also say There is not now, nor has there ever been, nor will there ever be, any process of which it is the least bit difficult to make a complete pigs ear.. Reality says that no matter how many facts are on the table, fighting the process is futile.

If it is true that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic then it is also true that sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice.

A final thought. Process is an organization-wide solution. Implement once and it touches all people (or is supposed to). Competence is an individual-wide solution. It is implemented one persona at a time. This makes it much harder to manage...

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