Repeatable, predictable, zzzzzzz (first appeared in InfoWorld)

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Do you believe in astrology?

Me neither. Still, a few years ago when I worked in product development for awhile, my boss and I regularly finished each others’ sentences. The rapport was immediate and strong.

The weirdest moment of this relationship came when our whole team took a personality inventory. When they were scored, I grabbed our profiles and held the graphs up to the light. They were perfect overlays.

Here’s the weird part: Fred was born just one week before me. Happy birthday, Fred.

Our mutual personality profile hit the target. The evaluator explained that people like us have no trouble with well-defined procedures. As long as we are the authors, that is. Otherwise …

Which may be why I flinch whenever I read about organizational maturity models, the need for clear procedures, and the importance of repeatable, predictable results. It’s the words. We need to give this idea to marketing for a complete makeover. Do you want to be repeatable and predictable? Sounds awfully dull, doesn’t it?

Don’t get me wrong. Manufacturing systems (and any system that produces large numbers of the same kind of item is a manufacturing system) had better produce repeatable, predictable results. I, for one, want every pill in my Exedrin bottle to have exactly the same contents as every other pill.

Data center operations fits the manufacturing model very well, too. If your data center doesn’t run by well-defined and documented procedures, you probably have a pretty big mess on your hands.

Systems development is a different animal. Don’t blindly apply a manufacturing metaphor to it: the fit is less than perfect, which is one reason programmers commonly rebel when managers try to institute quality initiatives. The best programmers are creative sorts, and when you use words like “repeatable and predictable” to them, they have an immediate, gut-level reaction.

To these folks … and they’re usually the ones you depend on the most … a focus on process and procedures sounds a lot like premature embalming.

Here’s the dilemma: we already make too big a fuss about designing a database, some screens, and a bunch of reports. You’d think that by now we’d be good at it, but development projects still go in the tank more often than not. One of the many reasons: We think of every new project as something new and unique, instead of it being just one more database, a bunch of screens, and some more reports. In other words … it’s the same old stuff, so we ought to be able to establish a repeatable, predictable practice. Sigh.

There is a sweet spot in the middle of these positions. That’s the difference between understanding current best practice and slavishly adhering to one-size-fits-all procedures.

So welcome to the magic boundary separating professionalism from bureaucracy. Professionalism includes an understanding of best practices. Bureaucracy means a shift of power from people to rules. And once you transfer power from people to rules, you’ve begun to slide from performance to mediocrity.

Sure, you need to organize people into processes and services. But when you do, define “process” as “here’s our current procedure, which we’re always ready to dump in favor of a better one, or ignore when it doesn’t fit the circumstances.”

Dale Dauten, who writes the syndicated “Corporate Curmudgeon” feature, once wrote that companies start by having “… a leader, employees who think they’re important because they are, and customers who think they’re important because they are.”

Companies lose their souls when leaders become managers, putting their faith in rules and procedures instead of employees who are important. Make rules and procedures … repeatable, predictable results … means to an important goal. Ask employees to focus on that goal. Employees should use procedures when they make sense, and their creativity and judgment when those make sense.

Which, of course, is always.