Irrational Exuberance!

Defining policy, process and programs.

December 30, 2018. Filed under management

I'm working on a presentation for the SFELC Summit 2019 on the topic of designing effective process. There is so much worth saying here that I initially had some trouble narrowing it down. I think the best piece I've written on this topic is Work the policy, not the exception, but hey, that's about policy not process.

Those are different, right?

Approaching the problem from a different perspective, I started to write down the most interesting examples I've worked on over the last year or two, and the first few things that came to mind were a structured approach to selecting project leads, introducing new roles like SRE or TPM, and nurturing an internal community of learning.

Selecting leads and introducing new roles both seem like process, but then deciding when to apply those processes seems like policy. However, running a learning community doesn't seem like either of those, I think it's instead a program. A fifteen minute presentation works better for communicating a focused idea than promulgating a unified theory, so I decided to define these concepts a bit:

  • A process is a series of steps or decisions applied to accomplish a kind of task. Some examples are team sprints, company planning, interviewing, hiring, promotions, performance reviews, and the mechanics of introducing a new role at your company.
  • A policy is structured guidance on how to make a kind of decision. Some examples are selecting project leads, approving conference attendance, travel expenses, and deciding to introduce a new role at your company.
  • A program is the repeated application of one or more processes towards a stated goal. Some examples are on-call, incident reviews, and learning groups.
  • Bonus definition: a norm is an informal policy enforced through precedent, and without explicit enforcement mechanisms. The distinction between a policy and a norm is whether it's informal or formal enforcement, so norms at some companies will be polices at others, and vice-versa. Some examples that are often handled via norms are trading on-call shifts, negotiating cross-team commitments, and escalating concerns beyond your direct manager.

These aren't innovative definitions, but they were quite helpful for me to tease apart the subject matter to narrow my talk onto something I can cover successfully in a quarter hour.