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People before processes: 4 lessons to reframe your organization's team culture

There is nothing more powerful than having a team that is in love with the company because each member feels valued and listened to. The reason they feel that way is because they come before the processes, not the other way around.

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Published 14 May, 2020 4 minutes of reading

Making software is making art—yes, “art”. You’re dealing with abstract characteristics and concepts that often have tremendous complexity, and you need to assemble them in a coherent way that makes sense in the hands of users.

If that weren’t enough, you also require special skills and knowledge that—in the words of Mythical Man Month—are more akin to craftsmen than engineers. This reasoning alone is enough to build companies that put their people first.

With this in mind, over the course of many years (and due to factors outside of the software industry itself), I worked with a few friends to propose an organizational change with a simple goal. We wanted to raise awareness of the immense value that people were adding to teams, even when certain processes failed.

Over time after having seen, tried, and applied the changes we needed, some important concepts started forming and I began to take personal ownership of this value-adding process in my own ventures and teams. Over time, I have continued to refine these ideas centered around putting people first, and I find myself where I am today. 

I have the tremendous fortune of working with a wonderful group of people at Modyo who, above all, are convinced of the value of human beings. It is within this context that I would like to share some of the lessons I’ve learned in order to build an organization that promotes high performance within teams by always considering the human beings that make them.

What’s obvious isn’t always so obvious. We work with people, not machines.

Behind any system interaction, there is or was a sensitive, thinking human being (at least for now).

So, it’s short-sighted to think that we should model a company or team according to strict rules, rather than according to the unique dynamics and uncertainties that are natural to dealing with people.

It is, of course, important to consider the obvious, and create rules to be followed. But above all, rules need to be understood and valued by the human beings they are meant for.

Another brick in the wall.

Read this and feel free to let Pink Floyd play in the back of your mind:

We don't need no education

We don't need no thought control

No dark sarcasm in the classroom

Teachers, leave them kids alone

Hey, teacher, leave us kids alone

One of the biggest mistakes that we can make as an organization is to attempt to build algorithms and metrics to measure every one of us equally. 

Yes, metrics are important, but just because we benefit from evaluation models or measurements of our teams’ output (i.e. sprint velocity and user story points, which incidentally may be the worst thing to happen to the software industry), doesn’t mean that these are the ideal mechanisms to measure everyone within our organization. These become measurements based on faulty assumptions in the equality of conditions, performance, and qualification among each individual team member. 

We need to reconsider our approach. We need to knock down the wall of annual measurements and feedback that never result in truth and honesty (often for fear of legal repercussions). We need to build an avenue where the truth is spoken, where these processes empower individuals and confirm hypotheses by reducing the risks of bias and subjectivity.

The value of measurements and feedback exists within environments that promote honesty and critical capacity, not in the context of a “boss” coming to tell you once every year that you’re doing it wrong. 

We don’t need the corporate wall to get meaningful metrics. Knock it down.

Adults, not children. Teams, not families.

Our CEO, Mark Bonnell, is obsessed with books and subjects. From among the stack of required reading he initially gave me, one of the most relevant books has been Patty McCord’s Powerful. 

It has helped us reframe initiatives within our leadership in People Operations by moving away from meticulous, detailed rules you would expect to see on the wall of a kindergarten classroom. Instead, we treat each other as adults, and it has been one of the best decisions that we’ve made.

Both Mark and myself have had the privilege in the past of practicing elite-level sports for years, and came to a decision together that we wanted to coin terms within our work culture that frame us as a team, not as a family. We did it, and it was necessary. 

The best performing teams are self-regulating, and follow training and rules they set for themselves, not set by the boss. Coaches each have their own ways of training, and force you to both adapt to their style while also learning to improvise. This balance can only be done through rigorous personal development.

This ability for teams to self-regulate has boosted our productivity and reduced overall rumors and gossip that normally spread in traditional organizations. When people have autonomy over their work, that sense of control empowers them. This happens with less rules, not more.

The most important person is “me.”

In the end, I often ask people here at Modyo to tell me who the most important person is. If they tell me that it’s someone other than themselves, I let them sit in the silence that follows. I then ask them to understand that we all work for ourselves, and serve others. 

If I work for myself, and improve, then the company will improve. I am where I am because I put others before myself, and serve and take care of those next to me. I am the most important person in my organization, but not from an egocentric point of view. Ego promotes selfishness which is quite the opposite.

There is a lot more to unpack here, but let’s get to an important conclusion: beyond what we’ve discussed here, if the teams that make up your organization do not adapt to these new models or old ones, then change the models. Adjust. Make decisions that favor people. There is nothing more powerful than having a team that is in love with the company because each member feels valued and listened to. The reason they feel that way is because they come before the processes, not the other way around. 

Remember, software reflects the organization that builds it. :)

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