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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

Procedure Is Not an Answer

Procedure Is Not an Answer post image

I’m constantly getting frustrated whenever I see this behavior: people trying to set up some rules or procedures which tell everyone what to do in such and such hypothetical or unlikely situation. Who should tell me what to do when support engineer gets sick and can’t pick up the phone? Who is responsible for sorting our priorities when emergency screws our plan up? What should I do when another ash cloud hits our project.

Well, I know what the wrong answer is. The wrong answer is: let’s write a procedure, or set up a rule, which tells us what to do so no one really needs to use their brains to find it out. Let’s write darn checklist for everything so we can tell that project couldn’t possibly have been screwed because we have a nice column of ticks on the list. It couldn’t have been, even when the only things we see at the moment are a totally pissed off client and burning brothel which we used to call “a project.”

You just can’t have a rule for everything.

Um, after a second thought, you actually can.

The rule is: just follow damn common sense!

Don’t know what to do? Find it out. Talk with people. Share your problem. Actively look for a solution. Take responsibility for sorting out the mess. As long as you solve the puzzle it doesn’t really matter whether you followed rules or whether there even were any rules in the first place.

If you’re kind of a prophet and you know exactly what kind of issues you’ll be facing on October 4th, or any other date in future, go set up rules which will help you deal with these problems. However if you’re like normal people without hugely overgrown ego, let’s just agree that it isn’t possible to predict all the issues we might face.

Let’s agree that we all are professionals who are willing to work hard, hand to hand with each other, on solving any shit we’ve got into. Let’s just agree we don’t need procedures or rules to deal with every single situation the future brings.

Unless the only thing you look for is to deal the blame among others, that is.

in: project management

5 comments… add one

  • podly ryszard May 26, 2011, 6:16 am


    generally I agree that projects are unpredictable and not everything can /should be written down in a procedure. However, let’s not mix procedures with risk response plans, because imho they are very different in nature. The former describe what should be done when handling routine (expected) situations while to latter is all about something that may come as a surprise.
    Even when dealing with unexpected issues some sort of generic procedure might be useful as: let the project manager know about this. As I wrote on twitter, people are different and different solutions make sense to them. Even if good will is assumed, different team members may have different perspectives and may implement solutions that seem logical and best for them but not necessarily for the whole project.
    Of course getting together and talking about solutions should be effective but (1) it’s a form a procedure: “if X happens, call a meeting or talk to Y about it” (2) for highly probable risks, having a response plan ready my save time/money. One additional note. There’s always a question of cost/benefit ratio. If the cost of preparing risk responses exceeds the the impact of a risk, there’s no point in doing it.

    To sum things up, I’d say, moderation is the key :-)

  • Pawel Brodzinski May 26, 2011, 8:24 am

    We can probably discuss definitions. If a procedure goes “when something goes wrong with X go discuss the issue with a person responsible for X, who is Mr Y” that’s perfectly fine.

    The thing which frustrates me is expectation to have recipes like “do this, this and that so your job is done and a hot potato is passed somewhere.”

    Then it’s not about risk management; it’s about responsibility avoidance. And the latter is something I definitely don’t want to see among PMs.

  • Prashant Ladha June 4, 2011, 10:10 pm

    Good Article.
    I had similar opinion like podly.
    common sense to one might be uncommon to another. So it would be better to have some common sense steps documented in form of procedure. Definitely, the procedure should not be mis-used to pass the hot potato over to other person.

  • Marjorie June 9, 2011, 5:28 am

    Personally, I like rules. Rules are created in order to avoid chaotic scenarios. Just imagine a workplace where there are no specific rules regarding work management in case someone becomes sick. It could result to people pointing fingers particularly when the work to be done is difficult. What I do not want though are rules that are inflexible, and people who are rigid in following the rules. What I’m saying is, there should be rules but they must allow room for flexibility and creativity when called for.

  • Pawel Brodzinski June 9, 2011, 6:39 am

    @Marjorie – You can’t avoid rules, that’s obvious. However, you can’t have a rule, or even worse — a procedure, for every potential situation you might face.

    Personally I tend to make decisions basing on similar patterns. You can call it an informal rule if you want. However I also challenge my rules every now and then. That’s why “rule” may not be the most appropriate word here.

    Anyway the main reason to introduce a rule is keeping decision consistent and not constraining options you consider. As long as you keep such attitude you probably won’t get it wrong.

    Unfortunately, very often we see different behavior — setting rules so I don’t actually have to think what to do because I can apply a rule or a procedure. And this is totally flawed.

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