Process as a reflex

Our bodies can do some amazing things, one of the most impressive of which is the reflex arc. Essentially, a reflex arc is what makes it possible for our body to react to things more quickly than we can think. Instead of sending every piece of information through the brain for processing, a reflex arc routes neurons through a synapse in the spinal cord and carries out a pre-programmed response, like throwing our hand up when something is thrown at us. The information is only sent to the brain afterwards, because we don’t need the full processing power of the brain to tell us that we don’t want to get hit in the face with a nerf ball.

Whenever I encounter a team that “doesn’t need processes”, I think of the reflex arc. First, I don’t believe that any team truly has zero processes. While their processes might not be written nor standardized, they still certainly operate by an accepted norm: When a bug is found, someone is told about it. When a bug is fixed, it gets pushed out to Production. These are all processes, although they may not always be the most efficient.

The difference between a process and an efficient process is how automatic the response is. If you have to think about who you’re going to tell about that bug or how you’re going to tell them, then you’re not operating at maximum efficiency. Imagine if every time something was thrown at your face, you had to think through your options for deflecting it: Will you use your left hand, right hand, or foot? Will you catch it or swat it away? If your brain were making all of those decisions on a daily basis, it would be constantly fatigued and wouldn’t have the necessary power to solve the important, complex problems in life (like which type of donut to get).

The same is true of processes. If you feel like your team is constantly fatigued and unable to catch up with the workload, the first places to look is at process. If you don’t have any apparent automatic processes, or if the processes aren’t well known and standardized, then your team is wasting precious brain power on things that could be programmed into them as reflex. Thankfully, the solution is a fairly easy one: define a process and follow it. In most teams, this works best as a group exercise, with one person leading the effort and incorporating input from everyone else. I recommend starting with the most time-sensitive, workflow-friendly situations (like when the website is down, or a key customer just found a colossal bug in Production), and work from there.

One word of caution: Process can be overdone, and that is always the death of it. A good rule of thumb is that if something can be an automatic reflex, then it should be in a process. If it can’t, don’t force it.


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Torrie Adams