The Null Process
April 08, 2015
A former coworker of mine was responding to customer support tickets one day. He was gathering information about a customer issue in order to figure out what was wrong. At some point during this process, his boss intervened and corrected the way he was responding to the support tickets. As a result of his struggles, at the next team meeting my coworker suggested we clarify our process for dealing with support tickets and customer issues. The response he was given, by the very boss who had intervened and corrected his behavior, was: "We don't want to introduce any unnecessary process."
I remember sitting in this meeting, watching his face fall, thinking that there probably couldn't be a worse response from a manager. His boss had, in one fell swoop, invalidated his experience by not acknowledging the problem and implied that he was trying to introduce "unnecessary process," which doesn't sound like a good thing. My coworker had encountered a genuine issue with our process for responding to support tickets and he wanted to improve it for the entire team. Instead of his input being welcomed, he was rebuked.
Our fear of "unnecessary process" has created workplaces with something worse than bad process: no process. I call these types of processes "null processes," and they are rampant at startups and technology companies. In this article, I explain the concept of the null process, how it can hurt companies, how it can hurt diversity, and ideas for putting in place good process.
What is a Null Process?
A null process—which takes its name from the concept of null pointers—is what happens when no formal process is put in place. A pointer in computer programming is an object that points to a location in computer memory with meaningful information; it could point to a number, a letter, or even another pointer. A null pointer "points definitively nowhere" [1
]. A null pointer is an apt analogy because while it points nowhere, you still have the pointer object which, if used incorrectly, can crash your program.
When people say they don't want process, what they're really saying is they don't want formalized process. There is really no such thing as "no process." A process is simply the steps it takes to complete a task, so if a task is completed then by definition a process was used. Without formalized process everyone does things their own way, and there is no documentation for how problems are solved. This informal, undocumented process is the "null process," and, if used incorrectly, the null process can have major implications for a company.
How is the null process bad for companies?
The biggest danger with a null process is that it creates an environment of unspoken expectations. Most of the time, people have expectations about how a task should be completed. In the introductory story, when my coworker was responding to support tickets it became clear that there was an expected way that he should complete the task. His boss intervened to correct what he was doing, yet my coworker and the rest of the team was unaware that there was an expected way to respond to support tickets.
Managing with unspoken expectations is dangerous. How can employees perform to a manager's standards if they don't know what's expected of them? Saying these expectations out loud in a one-off situation means that some people might know what's expected and others don't. How can you compare the job performance between employees who know the unspoken processes and those who don't? Additionally, the more time an employee spends getting their boss to tell them all the unspoken processes for their job, the more likely they are to be successful at the company. But that seems like an inefficient use of the employee and the manager's time. A lot of companies end up with null process because they're afraid of bad process. There is this myth that having no process is liberating and that it frees people up to solve problems the best way possible. While that might be true on a very small, flexible, early-stage team, as a company grows the null process quickly becomes a hindrance. Undocumented process is extremely difficult to teach to new employees, making onboarding and team growth more expensive. The null process can easily transform into unspoken expectations that things are done a certain way, even though the company has not documented the implicitly understood process for completing a task. As Jo Freeman says in her famous essay The Tyranny of Structurelessness
, "For everyone to have the opportunity to be involved in a given group and to participate in its activities the structure must be explicit, not implicit" [2
]. By relying on implicit processes, companies are creating environments with unspoken expectations that can make it difficult for employees to succeed at their jobs.
How is the null process bad for diversity?
A lawsuit was recently filed against the fast-growing tech company, Twitter. Tina Huang, a software engineer there from 2009 to 2014, alleges that Twitter's lack of formalized promotion process created an unfair advantage for men. She was passed over for promotion twice without explanation, and despite the fact that she had excellent references, a proven track record, and an absence of criticism or disciplinary actions. Her complaint states that “[t]he company’s promotion system creates a glass ceiling for women that cannot be explained or justified by any reasonable business purpose, because Twitter has no meaningful promotion process for these jobs: no published promotion criteria, nor any internal hiring, advancement, or application processes for employees” [3
It is almost impossible to evaluate bias in a null process. In Twitter's case, the lack of a formal process for promotion is left-over from their startup days. By not having a process for promotion, a company can inadvertently let subconscious biases run rampant. Everyone has unconscious biases and expectations
, whether we mean to or not, and these biases can harm our perception of people's credibility. Unconscious biases are thought to be the source of a lot of the gender and race discrimination that happens at companies. By not clarifying what criteria people need for a promotion, Twitter may have inadvertently created an informal promotion process that favored men.
How do we solve it?
Improving process at a company doesn't mean you have to add a bunch of cumbersome, unnecessary process. A process doesn't have to be this terrible beast where people fill out 4 forms to complete some small part of their job. Good process is light-weight and includes just enough information to help people understand how to do a task correctly. Processes can be flexible, reasonable for the task and the size of the company, and even kind of fun. Engineers actually love process—Github is an entire website dedicated to engineering processes, after all. Here are a couple of ways you can start implementing reasonable, good process at your company.
Checklists might seem like a trivial or silly solution to process related problems, but historically checklists have had a powerful impact in a lot of fields. It was checklists that made the unflyable B-17 bomber flyable. Checklists that reduced line infections in the Johns Hopkins ICU from 11% to 0%. And many, many checklists that make building incredibly complicated skyscrapers and hospitals possible. As Atul Gawande says in his book The Checklist Manifesto:
"Checklists seem to provide protection against [certain] failures. They remind us of the minimum necessary steps and make them explicit. They not only offer the possibility of verification but also instill a kind of discipline of higher performance" [
I am a huge proponent of automating process whenever possible. Automation is a natural follow-on to checklists, as well. A process can start out as an informal checklist, which can later be automated when the process has become more concrete. Create internal tools that automate and minimize process so that computers are in charge of remembering the steps to complete a task instead of humans. A great example is one-click deploy. If companies can automate code deploy so that shipping new code only requires the click of a button, it reduces the overhead needed to train new employees. It also reduces the chance that an employee will make a mistake when executing a complex set of command line instructions to deploy code.
Process is a necessary and crucial part of any organization. Our fear of bad and unnecessary process has led many companies to reject process altogether. But null processes are just a subcategory of bad processes, and they can lead to problems with communication, unspoken expectations, and discrimination. Instead, companies should aim for good process. Good process is light-weight, responsive, and serves to inform people of the minimum number of steps needed to do a task correctly. The pursuit of good process can be creative, flexible, and iterative, and employees should feel empowered to change and improve processes they deal with every day. The null process is a dangerous trap for organizations, and companies should work to collaboratively pursue good process and create a better work environment for employees and diversity.
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