Process 101

I recently joined my wife for her family reunion in Del Mar, California. Just down the road a few miles lies the storied Torrey Pines Golf Course, home of the 2008 US Open. One of Shirley's brother-in-laws wanted to play the course, but you have to book tee times months in advance. I called the starter and discovered that booked tee times start at 7:30 a.m., but, he said, we start putting walk-ons out at 6 a.m.

So Billy and I got up at five and got to the golf course at 5:30 a.m. It was dark and cool with no wind. There's a balcony by the pro shop and I noticed that there were a number of golf bags lined up against it. I asked one of the golfers what the protocol was for walk-ons and he said: "The order of the bags is the order that you tee off. Just put your bag over there." I didn't bring my clubs, so I dropped my bag of golf balls next to a big red golf bag full of clubs.

The golfer went on to explain that this was the weekday process for walk-ons, but that weekends were different. Since so many people wanted to play on Saturday and Sunday, the parking lot would start to fill up very early. On the weekends you pull into the parking lot at any time after midnight and you'll see several cars and one will have it's parking lights on. You walk over to the car, knock on the window, and the driver will tell you: "I'm 21, you're 22." Then they turn off their lights and you turn yours on. When someone knocks on your window, you say: "I'm 22, you're 23." And so on. That's how the order is determined.

About six the starter opened up and we all got in line according to the order of our bags. Two players from New Jersey at the front of the line needed another two-some to play with them. When they asked for two on the South Course (the pros play the south, but the north is more scenic), Billy and I jumped in. In a few minutes we'd rented clubs, loaded up the cart and teed off on the first hole of Torrey Pines South. Other than being long at 7,100 yards, the course was straight and didn't seem too tough. The wind stayed still and the skies were overcast, so it was a great day at the course. And we felt good for having figured out the system that allowed us to get on and play without a reservation.

The Lesson of Torrey Pines

One thing that may not be obvious about this story is that there's always a process. In the absence of a process, even golfers will invent a process. This is true in business: in the absence of process, workers will invent a process. It may be slow, it may be error-prone, but they'll invent one none the less. Even if there doesn't seem like there's a process, there's always a process. Even innovation is a process.

Software Project Survival

As a recovering software developer, I can tell you that software developers are notoriously resistant to all things "process." They think it will hamper their "creativity" (as if software development is creative).

Creating the mouse and folder interface at Xerox was creative. Developing it at Apple and Microsoft was repetition. Creating the Control Chart Wizard for the QI Macros was creative, but coding it was not. Design can be creative; coding shouldn't be.

One of the first programs I ever had to maintain was evidence of programmer "creativity." The programmer used women's names that began with the letter "A" as paragraph names (GO TO Abigail, PERFORM Alice UNTIL ...). It was the hardest program to maintain because you had no idea what it was doing.

In his book, Free Prize Inside, marketing wizard Seth Godin recommended a book called the Software Project Survival Guide by Steve McConnell. So I picked up a copy. McConnell's insights are great for any project, software or otherwise.


McConnell argues that every project involves some thrashing around. You have to discover some things in the process of developing a product, service or software.


McConnell also argues that you will have to spend some time on process: getting one and using it. McConnell suggests that if you don't spend the time necessary on setting up the process at the beginning, you'll end up trying to tack it on later when all of the thrashing and expanding complexity makes it painfully obvious that you need a process. Of course, adding process to a late software project is likely to kill it.

Here's the survival statistics for software:

  • Two million people work on 300,000 software projects every day
  • About half of these projects will exceed their schedule and budget
  • The other half will be canceled for being out of control

Developing software isn't especially technical. It's procedural.

Developing your product or service isn't especially technical. It's procedural.

Having a great process will let you be more creative.

Process is Good For Morale

McConnell says that process supports creativity and morale. A survey of 50 companies found that the least process-oriented companies had significantly lower morale (20% positive) than the most process-oriented companies (60% positive). Why? Because process-oriented companies accomplish more and accomplishment boosts morale.

Here's My Point

There's always a process. It doesn't matter if it's walk-ons at Torrey Pines or software development or your product or service delivery. Most are created on-demand in an ad-hoc fashion rather than with some clarity and vision. Most are then improved using trial-and-error, gut feel and common sense. A few succeed, but too many fail.

If you watch great golfers like Tiger Woods or Annika Sorenstam, you soon discover that they follow a process for every shot. They pick a target and have a simple routine for the setup and then the shot. Their preshot routine never varies. If they get interrupted, they step back and start over from the beginning. The lesson is clear: winning demands a commitment to process.

There's always a price to pay for not having a process and improving the process along the way. The price of establishing one at the start is far less than the cost of trying to add one late in a project. It's up to you. Are you going to let some pretense of being "creative" stand in the way of your success? Or are you going to embrace the freedom that process brings?


Rights to reprint this article in company periodicals is freely given with the inclusion of the following tag line: "© 2008 Jay Arthur, the KnowWare® Man, (888) 468-1537,"

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