The Null Process

Once upon a time, I worked in the IT department of a large company, leading a cross-organizational process development team to define, promote, and support a standard software development process to be used by most IT projects. Like many organizations' standard development processes, ours was large — it defined about 30 roles, 40 deliverables, and 50 activities organized into seven phases. In trying to make the process comprehensive, we had made it cumbersome.

Project teams complained that the process got in the way, and slowed the projects down. Every few months, one process development team member or another would bring those complaints to our monthly meetings. The first four times this happened, we tried to address the complaints by reviewing the standard process to determine which activities we could remove. Whenever someone recommended an activity that we could remove, someone else immediately explained why we could not safely remove it. We never removed a single activity.

The fifth time someone raised the project teams' complaints, I decided to try a new approach, an experiment: Rather than starting with our comprehensive process and whittling it down to size, why not work in the other direction?

So I offered a proposal. "I propose that we adopt The Null Process, a brand new process that I've invented. The Null Process has no deliverables, no activities, no phases, and no roles. It isn't possible to define a less burdensome process. The Null Process completely resolves the project teams' complaints."

"Now..." I said, "What would keep us from adopting The Null Process? What's missing? What do we absolutely need that The Null Process lacks?"

My experiment flopped. After a few minutes of silence, someone said, "We absolutely need everything that's in our standard process. The Null Process lacks all of it." The rest of the team quickly agreed.

I wasn't able to make The Null Process work that day. Still, I'm fond of it, and hold out hope that I can use it in the future. The idea of starting from The Null Process and adding only what's necessary is, I think, a fine one. But I failed to establish a context for the conversation about what's missing. Next time, before asking "what's missing," I'll ask the team to do some stakeholder analysis. Who are we intending to serve with this process? What needs do we intend to serve for those people? Then we can evaluate how well The Null Process serves those stakeholders, and add only those process elements that are necessary to serve their needs.

Consider replacing each of your processes with The Null Process. I offer it to you royalty free! Adopt a more complex process only if you can identify stakeholders and needs that The Null Process does not satisfy.

Experiment: Establish clear goals for each of your processes. Ask Who will this process serve? and What needs will this process serve for those people?

Experiment: Justify each element of your processes — each role, each activity, each deliverable — by asking Who does this element serve? and What needs does this element serve for those people?

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