5 minute read

The agile manifesto talks about “people over process”. As someone who is often very process-driven, I know that the right process will produce the right results, and the importance it plays in effectively delivering software. What I really wanted to understand is what is meant by “people over process”.

As I move away from developer towards a more management role, I knew things would change.

I knew it would mean creating presentations, more time in workflow software like Jira, status reports, urgent emails and not so urgent emails, being responsible for workflows and processes, planning work, scheduling and attending meetings.

As it happens, it also means being a line manager. It’s as much about the people and their well-being as it is about delivering software and leading the technology, if not more. Being responsible for people is not for everyone, especially developers who have a stereotype of being introverted or worse, egotistical.

When I started in this role, I set out to make sure my team members were happy. As time goes on, oddly enough, you realise that happiness is not chief among the qualities that make for a well functioning team.

As a line manager, it’s my responsibility to ensure I’m getting the best out of the team. It’s also my responsibility to use the best practices to achieve that. It’s important then that I understand what is expected from me. I wanted to know more.

In agile, we use retrospectives as a way to identify areas to improve, often using a start-stop-continue approach. I’ve found this useful, however it did not give a sense of whether things were actually getting any better or not. I wanted to find a better way.

I found that lots of people have experimented with ways of measuring and visualizing how their teams were doing, often by showing progression through various levels called a “maturity model”.

“A maturity model is a tool that helps people assess the current effectiveness of a person or group and supports figuring out what capabilities they need to acquire next in order to improve their performance” - Martin Fowler

Maturity models are great, but they can easily be misused and sound a bit patronising. Instead I wanted something that would help the team understand where they felt they were and what areas they needed to improve on. At Spotify they introduced a “health check model” to help the teams self organise and identify areas to focus on, such as support, teamwork, control, mission, health of codebase, suitable process, delivering value, learning, speed of development, ease to release and fun.

I found that retrospectives provide useful feedback and the health check model does give you a sense of whether things are getting better or worse, but it doesn’t really help with line management. I needed to know more about what qualities make a good line manager.

Bright Idea

Fortunately, The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) provide in-depth guidelines for line managers on the subject of behaviour and stress at work, based on data they collected from hundreds of participants. It lists a competency framework of behavioural indicators of what constitutes as healthy management.

The framework outlines a number of areas, including, being respectful and responsible: managing emotions and having integrity, managing and communicating existing and future work, reasoning/managing difficult situations, managing the individual within the team.

It’s easy to get wrapped up in what it takes to be “agile” or “devops”, but it’s worth noting that these practices and methodologies won’t solve all the problems. There’s no disclaimer that says they don’t cover line management, but perhaps there should be.

You will find, however, that the principles laid out in the agile manifesto are aligned with what the experts say it takes to build a healthy team. A healthy team should be empowered and be able to review processes to see if work can be improved, which is exactly the same qualities that agile promotes.

This does mean that it is possible to model the skills and behaviours that are required to be a line manager. Having this knowledge gives you the ability to identify areas of strength and weakness, allowing you to focus improvement. This can be used as a regular health check.

It’s about transparency. Communication is key, both to management and to the team. The Manager Tools website (manager-tools.com) provides a great resource of templates and tools to use in these meetings, giving you 10 minutes of time for them to talk and give you feedback, 10 for you, then 10 for follow up actions. The advice is that one-on-ones are sacrosanct – good managers never miss them.

So what does people over process actually mean? It means results are not just about delivery, managing risk, scope, time, costs and dependencies, it’s about the people too. To me, it means that line management is more important than the processes we put in place.

It doesn’t mean that processes aren’t important, but it does mean that it’s more important for people to be passionate about the product. Processes don’t have to be perfect right away. Like people, processes will often need to be shaped and moulded into what they should be.

“The use of a good process that engages people is much more desirable, even if it does not initially achieve all the results.” ― Jeffrey K. Liker, The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership

In a 1995 interview, Steve Jobs explains that when companies get bigger, they try to replicate their success by believing the process is the magic. Processes don’t substitute content. Jobs explains that the best people are the ones who understand the content, and goes on to explain that although they are a pain to manage, you put up with them because they are so great at content. He explains “That’s what makes a great product. It’s not process. It’s content”.

It means caring about the product you build, not just the processes you use to build it. It’s about the people who build it. It means getting everyone aligned and work together towards the same mission, it’s about the values you hold, the principles you follow, the attitude of the people you employ, the company you keep. It’s all of that and more.

It’s about culture and culture, as we know, eats strategy for breakfast.