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Back to the Mediocrity Through Obligatory Process Definition?

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” – Albert Einstein

It is a frequently observed phenomenon that experienced experts often seem to reject the introduction of process models. This raises some interesting questions, e.g. regarding the effectiveness of a process-driven organization vs. implicitly performing expert groups. Which concept is more efficient: a group of process-conformant workers (“competent,” read further for more details on “competence”) or a self-organized expert team? Are expert teams and the process conformity incompatible terms? Is it possible to create an organization consisting of process-conformal experts?

These questions are more than justified, considering the huge challenge faced by  organizations introducing process models as required by the CMMI model (3rd maturity level). Due to the required budget and the high failure risk, those kind of measures must withstand a critical examination. The rationally defined goal of a process improvement is to model all relevant processes in order to reveal the weaknesses and to eventually “implement” the resulting improvement measures. This implies that one of the first steps should be converting the existing expert knowledge into a set of rules to be used as a basis for the improvement project.

But: what IS an “expert” anyway? In their famous book Mind over Machine the Dreyfus brothers introduce their famous Model of Skill Acquisition. It consists of five stages:

  1. Novice (only follows context-free rules).
  2. Advanced Beginner (uses new situational elements. Decisions are still solely based on rules ).
  3. Competent (the number of rules has grown large, available information is prioritized, self-organizing).
  4. Proficient (first intuitive decisions, holistic thinking begins, verifies own intuitive decisions using rational patterns).
  5. Expert (holistic thinking, including decision making and planning).

Experts don’t waste their time on an analysis of facts in the context of sets of rules. They act immediately on the basis of intuitively recognized patterns resulting from their extensive professional experience. It is obvious that experts inevitably work more efficiently than “simple” competent counterparts who still proceed based on a large number of rules.

However, experts – as remarked by the authors of Mind over Machine – are usually not particularly good at translating their expert knowledge into sets of rules. This implies that by studying and memorization, beginners can become proficient at best. This insight explains why process improvement measures often fail or at least don’t deliver the expected improvements. When an organization decides to capture its process model for improvement, the following happens frequently:

  • The process flows and results are not correctly captured – for the previously mentioned reasons, the experts just don’t give the best possible answers.
  • Eventually, the process improvement action conducted on that incorrect basis delivers mediocre results.

The good news is that defined processes can help the beginners to become proficient.

However, there is also some bad news:

  • The process description differs from the reality because of the erroneous expert answers used to build the model.
  • An obligatory process model obviously forces the experts to reduce their holistic abilities and forces them to act proficiently (that is, two skill levels below their actual abilities)!

Based on such observations, we dare to draw the following conclusion:

Defined processes can actually improve organizations with mostly inexperienced employees. However, introduced and institutionalized in mature expert networks, they are most likely to force the whole organization back to mediocrity!

Mediocre organizations are doomed to fail, at least in the long run. Does that mean that process improvement projects are useless at best? it depends. If we do not build process models, on what basis should we discuss complex topics such as requirement management procedures or quality maintenance concepts? There is indeed good reason why we need a rational process (S. also “A rational design process: How and why to fake it.“ from David Parnas).

You might now expect us to enlist a checklist containing some hints on “DOs” and “DON’Ts.” Recommendations of this kind are to be found in numerous books and publications covering these questions. This brief paper doesn’t offer the proper space to elaborate further, or to compete with those publications. However, if the above statement is true, the question about the consequences arises. Not each employee can be a process expert, so building expert teams cannot be the answer. Tom DeMarco, the famous management guru stated a long time ago that there are just not enough experts out there to proceed that way. That is correct, but as a customer you must be at least an expert in selecting your consultants. Since process improvements are rarely possible without external assistance, you will definitely need one. You must be able to trust your intuition, and that cannot be replaced by any checklist. If you choose right, all the answers come within reach.

(Originally published: 03 February 2008)

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About the Author

Roman MildnerRoman Mildner, Certified Project Manager (PMP) and member of the United Mentors Network (UMN), has worked in the IT industry since 1992 and an independent consultant and project manager since 1998. His professional offering includes IT strategy consulting, project management and process improvement. For more details, please visit his UMN page.

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