When Processes Replace Interactions

A lot of companies have created processes that end up replacing interactions, or at least strictly dictate how, who, and when they happen. These processes even have friendly sounding names like “intake meeting” or “office hours”. In case you are fortunate enough to not know what these are:

Intake Meeting – A meeting, usually recurring, where stakeholders, external to the delivery teams, present and make a case for their needs. This usually requires an intake form to be completed prior to the meeting, and the project manager, process manager, or, if you are lucky, a Product Owner, will be there for the stakeholders to bombard with their demands and reasoning. Afterwards, the project/product/process team will decide what backlog, what team, and perhaps even when the work will go and story skeletons are created.

Office Hours – Recurring meetings where an individual or team, are available for questions, intakes, problem-solving, etc. Outside of these hours, these resources are unavailable. The teams are usually shared support teams like architecture, design, network, resource allocation, deployment, etc.

The obvious intent here is to create strict processes on how the interactions take place so that the teams have a process for their process, but are always bombarded with requests/questions so that they may focus on their actual work. The huge assumption here, and where we go wrong, is that these types of things require direct human, real-time, interaction. They do not.

Let’s fix the intake meeting first. Teach stakeholders how to create issues/story skeletons themselves. It is the same basic effort as filling out that form, but it is in a system that can now track it, and give transparent feedback instantly on prioritization. Using a system prevents the time being wasted by everyone attending the meeting. Intake meetings only focus on one request at a time, which means everyone else is, at best, only vaguely concerned with what is being discussed at any given moment.  Careful here though, and do not let the tool replace the interaction either.  The tool should provide meaningful and valuable information, and if it does not, try something else.

Once the story/request is in the system, then the PO can check on it, asynchronously, without wasting a lot of time, and flesh it out and ask questions back and forth. This is discovery. It can be done in person, using something like Slack, email, phone, fax, or comment thread somewhere. But it is being done in a way that is focused, because we humans are terrible at multitasking, and in a way that respects the time of everyone involved.

Office Hours are a little more difficult to get a firm handle on because the team that is needed, does require some time to do their work and they feel there are too many interruptions to be effective at delivering. The same basic concept still applies. By being respectful of everyone’s time and contributions, have the requests come in and be responded to in a timely fashion.

A lot of office hours setups have come out of the feeling the team being asked of does not respond quickly enough. Two things come to mind with this: 1) is the requested timeframe for response reasonable? and 2) does the team struggle with prioritization?

Office hours can often be resolved by having an effective PO handle the requests and ensure the followup is happing. This allows the flexibility of the team to self-organize and approach their work in a way that is best suited to them but also gives the “customers” the feeling the request is being given the attention it needs.

In both instances, there should be exceptions, not to be abused, given for true emergencies or urgent requests. The situation should still be the same basic setup. The stakeholder creates a request and marks it as urgent. The stakeholder/requestor can immediately follow up with the appropriate role, PO/PM, to ensure the team knows of the urgent need. I would recommend this be done in email/chat. Again though, to be respectful, these types of communications only work with the receiver gives it a sense of urgency and replies in a reasonable timeframe.

These process could not be less “Agile”. They replace interactions and dictate how they are to be accomplished instead of being focused on value, transparency, and collaboration. They create a sense of control which can lead to resentment and creates a wall that must be overcome to effectively communicate. And effective communication is the most valuable and important tool for everyone. Don’t let processes get in the way of interactions and communications.