Say no to more process, say yes to trust

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When creating products, saying no to things is vital. We must say no to things because there are always too many features to build, too many directions we can take, and too many policies we can adopt. But it is also extremely hard to say no. So I am here to encourage you to say no a lot more.

As developers, designers, and product managers, one area where we should say no frequently is when someone wants to introduce a new policy to our process in response to an issue. Oftentimes, that issue will be surfaced during a retrospective, but it could come about in other ways.

And the issue is likely very real. I am not here trying to minimize that. We should address the issue. But too often we default to introducing a new policy into our process because (a) it shields us from blame for future mistakes (e.g. “it was the process that failed, not me”), and (b) it makes us feel safe from future mistakes (e.g. “issue x cannot happen again because of policy z”). But I think that 9 out of 10 times the better solution is to clearly communicate problems and possible solutions and to trust your team to implement them.

Let me give you a couple of examples that might make things more concrete.

Scenario 1: The bug that raises the gates

Suppose a bug was introduced into your product. The bug was caught, and the team fixed it but not before some clients complained. During a retrospective the issue is brought up and someone suggests, “this should have been caught in code review. How come no one caught this? From now on Jeff (a particularly talented developer/designer) must approve all code reviews. And let’s set the GitHub requirement that two people must approve the pull request before any code can be merged.”

In this example, the issue is very real: a bug was introduced that affected clients. The solution, however, seems like an overreaction. The team should certainly do code reviews, but we have suddenly turned Jeff into a gatekeeper. Now pull requests will likely be backed up because Jeff, a single person with limited time, must review and approve every single one of them. To make matters worse, we have shifted the responsibility for the code being introduced away from the individual with the most intricate knowledge of the feature (the one opening the pull-request) to someone with less knowledge (in our case, Jeff).

What’s the alternative to gatekeeping?

I am not saying that having multiple people review your code is bad, especially if one of them is a very talented developer/designer in your team. I think it’s great. But there is an alternative to introducing that policy. The alternative is to trust that you can speak to your team about the issue and that they will behave responsibly in fixing it.

Back to our example: I think it would be better to say “Team, let’s be more proactive in code reviewing. Don’t merge your pull requests unless you’ve gotten good reviews and feedback. If you haven’t gotten code reviews, don’t be shy. Ask for more code reviews.” This empowers developers and designers to be the owners of what they are introducing into the code base, and it does so by trusting them. Moreover, as the experts in the feature they are introducing, they may know who would be an essential reviewer for their feature, and they can ask that person accordingly. So trust that your team is comprised of responsible adults who can behave professionally.

At thoughtbot, we have two points in our code-review guides that highlight that trust and responsibility,

  • Remember you (the reviewer) are here to provide feedback, not to be a gatekeeper.
  • Final editorial control rests with the pull request author.

Scenario 2: The unspecified tickets and the day-long meeting

Suppose that during the last iteration two tickets were not specified well. As a result, it took lots of back-and-forth conversations between a developer and the product manager in order to figure out what needed to be done. During the retrospective the developer brings this up, and the team decides to implement an all-team meeting every Monday to go through every single ticket for the upcoming iteration.

Once again, the issue is very real. When tickets are underspecified, and a lot of work needs to be done before they are even ready for implementation, it can cause serious delays in shipping features. But we have now turned a situation that cost a developer some time into a weekly meeting that takes 1 hour for 8 people. That’s 8 hours combined, a full day of work!

What’s the alternative to underspecification?

As with the previous example, the alternative I would suggest is communication and trust. Inform the product manager that the tickets were underspecified. Ask if there was something that blocked them when they were writing it. In this instance, it may be that the product manager needed to ask for more input from developers and designers before the iteration started. But instead of creating a mandated meeting, trust that the product manager will be more proactive in getting input when they feel is needed. If the problem resurfaces, revisit it at the next retrospective. There may be a different blocker next time.

Adding policies is easy. Removing them is difficult.

Introducing new policies tends to be easy. But removing outdated policies can be very difficult. And the more policies you have, the more rigid your process becomes. That rigidity will slow down the rate at which your team can iterate. So even though the cost of introducing a single policy may seem small, the costs compound quickly.

I think a quote from Rework in the chapter Don’t scar on the first cut really captures the essence of the problem,

Policies are organizational scar tissue. They are codified overreactions to situations that are unlikely to happen again.

The alternative of communication and trust allows the team to remain flexible and iterate quickly. It also empowers co-workers by trusting that they will responsibly address the issue without the need for a mandated decree. Only add policies to your process when it is absolutely necessary. Don’t scar on the first cut.

What’s the right amount of process?

It is true that the right amount of process will vary in each company, and the process must adapt as teams grow and change. At thoughtbot we have found great success with a lightweight process and two core concepts that encourage open communication and trust, daily syncs and weekly retrospectives. And we have found that, often enough, that is enough.