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Posted: 2 July 2020
By Alastair Lee

People over process

We talk a lot about process when describing what we do. But I believe the choice of the people, i.e. the team working on a project, is the single most important factor affecting success. In this post I explain why.

User-centred design, agile development, design thinking, scrum, kanban, journey mapping and all the rest. We are as guilty of using these words as much as any other consultancy working in the area. Frankly it’s because these words tick boxes in minds of potential clients and they expect to see them when deciding who to work with.

But because these words are out there, anyone can use them. Whether they really know what they mean or not. Branding agencies are now doing human-centred design. Technical teams are now doing discovery research.

Don’t get me wrong. The increased demand for teams using these practices really is a good thing. We are all for agile, user-centred approaches to product and service design.

But I am concerned that we maybe fetishising these approaches, putting too much emphasis on following the latest guidance on Medium, or using the latest tools. When in fact these processes are simply a way of getting a group of people to work together effectively and deliver value. They are only useful when people on the team don’t instinctively know what the best way to approach a challenge is. They are a recipe to be followed by cooks. Not a set of ingredients to be used by chefs.

I have been working in teams delivering digital products and services of one kind or another since the mid nineties. In that time I have worked with many designers, developers, technical architects and the rest, using one process or another.

And I have been left with the impression that it’s the people that really matter. It’s the skills they have, their ability to communicate and collaborate, and above all else their attitude that matters most. If you have a small team, with a mix of skills and knowledge, motivated by a common and clear goal, with the right access to tools and resources – it really doesn’t matter what process they use. They’ll figure it out.

That said, I do think principles are important. A belief that you can’t build successful products and services without engaging with the people who will use them for example. That’s important. As is a belief that it’s better to ship something that’s better than what’s there now, even if it’s not perfect, because a) it will improve the situation sooner and b) it will offer a chance for vital feedback from users. Having a team that agrees with these principles (truths?) is important.

There are also some meta-principles around how people on the team should behave to ensure that the team works well together. Being open, being respectful, listening, caring for each other. But to be honest if you have good people, this stuff usually comes with the package.

Panda teams are made up of these people. Senior, skilful people, with an instinct for what works and how to get things done with good humour. People who I’ve discovered over the last 20 years.

Yes, we do all the processes. And we love it. But the processes are not the most important thing. It’s the people. Always the people.

Designing Better

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