Process Hawks and Doves

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In US politics, and now politics around the world the terms “hawk” and “dove” (really “war hawk” and “war dove”) are used to identify politicians who have leanings in a particular direction – either towards controversial wars or against. The arguments always play out on both sides, hopefully tending towards a solid, well-argued solution for a particular scenario. But I always get the impression in these debates that really, almost regardless of the facts on the ground, there are individuals who have a leaning towards war and, in the absence of counter-argument, would take that route; and there are those of the opposite persuasion.

This made me think about this notion of an internal bias, towards one approach or another, in the much less controversial area of process in the workplace.

My very first working day (in a proper “grown-up” job, rather than spending Saturdays in a shoe shop) was at British Airways on their computer training scheme (the BACT program, now sadly no more) and I still remember my new boss’s boss coming in to give us a welcome speech. The main point he made, that I remember at least, was that the JFDI approach just wouldn’t fly at at BA. In a company of 50,000 with an IT department of 2,000, there were processes and systems that had to be adhered to, if the whole machine was going to work. I didn’t question this at the time and happily spent a pretty large proportion of my working life at BA making sure everything was in its right place – that docs were named and catalogued accordingly, that all docs were written in a certain style, signed by the right people and that all software was developed in the standard approach (whether changes were big or small). The incident I remember most was having to move my PC from one desk to another. I was about to unplug the thing and pick it up when I was given a stern look by my team leader – there’s a number to call, a form to fill in, then you wait for a team of two (always two), to come down and move it for you. Probably two days later.

Since then I’ve worked in companies from two people in size to 75,000 and those companies have had very different approaches to process. At a two-person standup, the idea of adhering to some sort of heavyweight process (rather than JFDI) is laughable – we were always flying by the seats of our pants, just about getting things done as quickly as possible, nothing documented, done differently every time, code being shipped without testing, marketing copy being finished and sent out minutes before the deadline. Terrifying – or exciting, depending on the outcome!

But the point of this post is not to argue for one way or the other. It’s obvious that in a larger organisation, there is a need for process. And in a startup it’s neither possible nor desirable to spend time creating much process.

What I have found however, and have always found this, is that people seem to have an innate bias towards more process or against. And, like the war hawks and doves, there’s really not a whole lot you can do to change that innate bias. We can certainly have arguments in a specific situation – should we apply a new process to fix a given problem, or just get on with the job? And hopefully everyone will be swayed by the evidence – but this is always a fight against one’s own internal biases. I tend to think of those that prefer the JFDI approach as hawks (perhaps an association with a more cavalier, devil-may-care approach), and the process fans as doves (an association with meekness, and a desire for peace and order, perhaps?).

(In contrast to my views on war!), I’m quite a hawk when it comes to process. I struggle with, what I perceive as, treacle, oozing through a company and slowing down progress. Particularly in the world of marketing, which for me is about inspiration, excitement, ideas, all mixed with a bit of science, marketing is an area where for me, process can slow down and kill the sort of ideas and innovation needed for great work to be done.

But here I am, of course, exhibiting my internal bias! I believe it comes from working at startups (which made more of an impression on me than BA ever did), though maybe I’ve always been that way inclined. So I have to fight my own internal bias in discussions on bias and make sure my prejudices don’t colour my judgement.

And, thinking more widely, I think this extends to many other areas of working life – we all have biases, whether it’s towards process or against, towards short-termism or long-termism, towards a more or less scientific approach to marketing, towards argumentative or inclusive management methods, towards talking or doing – but it’s important to be self-aware of what our biases are, and to adjust our arguments accordingly. What I often find is that spending time listening to the opposite point of view can really help making sure you’re not letting your prejudices override others’ views. It’s not always easy, but I think it can really help to keep yourself in check and, at least try, to come to some sort of evidence-based approach to debate and argument.

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