Is Your Process Your Purpose?
Blog: Tyner Blain
A common suggestion from product development teams when asked how to improve their working environment, is to “spend less time in meetings.” I’ve felt this way personally when I was writing code – I just wanted to get back to it. I don’t believe I’ve worked with an organization where I didn’t hear this sentiment from the people with hands-on-keyboards.
The wrong thing to do is to have fewer meetings. The better approach is to have purposeful meetings.
Perception of Purpose
The challenge, I believe, is centered around perception and purpose. Many (most?) meetings lack purpose, although they are administrated by a well-meaning someone who was taught how to ‘run’ a meeting. Teams often don’t perceive the problem with how they are coming together.
…every meeting should be organized around a “desired outcome.” When a meeting is not designed in that way, they found, it ends up being defined by process.
Priya Parker, The Art of the Gathering
One of the smoke signals which indicates agile in name only to me is when the daily stand-up reads as a status report. “Today I’m working on this” followed by “Today I’m working on that”, dutifully around the room, maybe with “no blockers” post-pended into the commentary. This is a process-centered meeting, not a purpose-centered meeting. This is the team’s time, no one else’s, and tragic to see the team’s purpose lost in a conversation driven by process.
As painful as this is for the team, it can be ten times worse when there is an hour long meeting providing status reports or project-progress updates to stakeholders. Poke your eye out if someone is trying to reconcile percentage of allocated budget remaining against percentage of pre-defined tasks (or outputs) remaining. This is weaponizing the burn-down. At least in the stand-up the language belongs to the team. In the status report, there is a forced translation into language which feels awkward to the speakers and may be incomprehensible to the audience regardless.
As they reflected on their experience of the way a certain open-ended quality of conversation generated purpose, meaning and innovation, the managers repeatedly referred to this as being non-organized, or not organized in advance, not designed, not managed, not driven.
Patricia Shaw, Changing Conversations in Organizations
As people change how they are Orienting to Value, away from process-framing and to purpose-framing, meetings can become uncomfortable. The process of grappling with our constantly evolving understanding of outcomes, how we pursue our outcomes, and what we know and don’t know is fundamentally different. We are having conversations about what we hope to achieve, not what we plan to do.
This is more than simply an inversion of explicit and implicit. When we discuss what we plan to do, it is explicit – where the reason why we chose this plan is implicit. When we discuss our purpose, the planning is secondary. The plan is less important than the purpose, and more likely to change, when we give ourselves space to learn – space to discover the flaws in our original, assumption-based plan.
When we invert the conversation – to align on the purpose – the conversation feels simultaneously more compelling, and less comfortable. “Today our goal is to help new users understand this interaction. We are going to try…”
Over time, these conversations will become more comfortable without becoming less compelling. These discussions are doing work, not preventing you from doing work. Perhaps this is the secret. Thinking about what it means to do work in a different way.
Markers of a Better Orientation
Here are some examples of things you should be listening for – are teams making decisions or having conversations around purpose and discovery like the following?
- For how many of our target users do we need to solve that problem to meet our business objectives?
- How many of our users with that need do we believe we can address with this solution approach?
- How fast does it need to be for this group of users in this situation to find it acceptable?
- Are we missing anything – do we need to build anything else to completely cause this change?
- What did we learn from our demo to the users when we showed them our approach?
When you aren’t hearing these discussions as the central element of your team meetings, you likely don’t have the voice of your user in the ears of your developers. It is a sign of a team who might be operating with feedback loops measuring how well they follow their process, instead of how well they achieve their purpose.
You cannot usefully create a burn-down chart which says “how close are we to achieving our goal?” The non-sequitur is nonsensical. In truth, we are somewhere between “no idea” and “some idea.” There is false comfort in counting how many features have been released, or how many functions have been created or lines of code have been compiled. None of those things which are very easy to measure and comfortable process-progress-tracking items is important to measure. And the lack of measurement at this level of granularity is uncomfortable.
We want our teams to always be putting their best effort into the best ideas they have – and developing better ideas as needed – in pursuit of purpose. At the end of the day, we can either be certain we completed a list of tasks and uncertain about their value, or we can be certain we caused the changes we tried to cause and uncertain about what it would have taken to cause them.
We don’t want to measure the team’s outputs any more than we want to measure if they are touch typists or if they hunt-and-peck their way to elegant solutions. We want to measure our collective effectiveness at pursuing our goals. At each level of abstraction, we want conversation centered on purpose. What we are trying to accomplish, and what we plan to try next in that pursuit.