Process Entropy and the Habit Loop

High-performing teams need processes to function well but often have high entropy. Here are six ways you can ensure processes serve your team.

Process Entropy and the Habit Loop
Time has a funny way of creating entropy for our processes

Issue No. 20

This is a project by Jeremy Brown. I write about topics that I care about, such as building high-performing teams that make great products, culture, leadership and technology.
As I'm building this newsletter (and a podcast and YouTube channel) in the open, you will get updates on this project here from time to time.

This week's newsletter is coming out a little late as we are recovering from a bout of flu in our house.

I've also updated my website with new pages for my consulting and mentoring services and a new addition to the member-only area: open office hours!

Now, onwards to this week's post!

I recently shared this funny clip from Ismo with my partner.

She blames me for things that I have never done!

đŸ¤Ŗ It had me laughing out loud, doubly so, because it rang true for a recent conversation!

Side note: Ismo is one of my favourite comedians, partly because his dry Finnish humour connects me to my mother's homeland).

As you can guess, I might be the messier person in our house. Sometimes, I don't see the mess, or my brain doesn't register it like it does for my partner. We humans are funny like that!

Maintaining harmony in the household is a priority, so I've had to develop ways to ensure I leave less of a mess behind me.

Honestly, if I resolve to be "less messy," I usually fail. However, I can be less messy if I construct processes and then try to turn those into habits through the habit loop. The habit loop is composed of a cue, which should trigger the habit and then a reward.

Processes for Efficiency and Success

I rarely have that stressful moment where I can't find my keys when I leave the house. This is because I keep particular objects, like the keys to the house, in the same place in the house and the same pocket in my coat or bag.

Habits like these are crucial to my sanity (and marital harmony).

Similarly, the processes in our organisations keep us all aligned and working well together.

Managers and Process

Managers are often responsible for setting up processes and ensuring they are followed. Depending on your seniority, that might be across the whole company in a department or at the team level.

As managers and leaders, we aim to embed processes to be followed automatically and provide mechanisms for continuous improvement.

Process Entropy

The challenge is to create systems that work within a team without management constantly supporting them, allowing the team to be autonomous in following and changing processes.

At the team level, especially in software development, the manager or tech lead often ensures the process works. They are the ones keeping entropy at bay, holding the system together.

Entropy in systems and processes often occurs when managers and management responsible for maintaining these processes change or leave. This can lead to the entire system falling apart or a slow decay.

This happens because the team members have not internalised the processes as a habit.

When an organisation changes a senior leader, such as a VP of Engineering, CTO or CPO, existing processes can rapidly deteriorate in the transition. The incoming leader will either try to re-establish the current processes or, more usually, change them altogether based on their own opinions.

This is just one of many reasons organisational processes experience change and entropy.

What can we do about this?

Theory X and Theory Y Approaches to Process

I wrote about Theory X and Theory Y in my last post. The brief version is that Theory X believes that people are lazy and need external motivation to get anything done (think carrot and stick). Theory Y believes the opposite, that people need to work and want to take an interest in it and that if we create the right conditions for them, they will be self-motivated, thrive, and be productive, and creativity will burst out of them.

In a Theory X world, it is unimaginable not to have a manager, as people are conditioned to rely on them for guidance and adherence to processes. Managers ensure "compliance". Managers are also trained to behave and act this way.

In a Theory Y world, there is a different approach. Managers are still required. However, "how" they operate is very different.

Theory Y managers must use a different approach because we expect folks and their teams to be self-organising and autonomous. They involve their team from the start in the creation of the processes, and as the processes are put in place, they need to take on a life of their own as the team is empowered to improve and adapt how they work constantly.

Won't This Create a "Wild West" of Process Chaos?

Suppose every team in an organisation can constantly "improve and adapt" how they work. Won't it eventually result in every team following different divergent processes and leave the whole organisation feeling like a Wild West of process chaos?

Yes, it could. This is why standardisation is vital, especially in a self-organising organisation. Just enough standardisation with clear interfaces in how teams and groups of teams interact is vital for the smooth functioning of the whole.

Approaching the topic of standardisation with a Theory Y mindset means having teams work together to define these interfaces and standards and putting in place mechanisms for them to evolve.

6 Characteristics of Good Processes

Here are some characteristics of good processes that are more likely to "stick" with a group of people:

1. Good Process Stick Because We All Know "Why" We Are Doing Them

Understanding the "why" behind a process is crucial for team members to embrace and follow it fully. When people understand the purpose of a process and the problem it aims to solve, they are more likely to see its value and commit to it. This understanding also helps them to better adapt the process to changing circumstances and contribute to its continuous improvement, as they can see the connection between the process and the desired outcome.

If the reason behind a process doesn't make sense to the people involved in creating or following it, the results will be far from ideal. They might be downright disappointing.

2. Good Processes Are Built Together

Involving the people following a process in its creation fosters a sense of ownership and commitment (the Ikea Effect). When team members have a say in the design and implementation of a process, they are more likely to understand its purpose and value, leading to increased buy-in and adherence. This collaborative approach also allows for diverse perspectives and experiences to be considered, resulting in more effective and efficient processes tailored to the team's needs and strengths.

3. Good Processes Work Like Habits

When a team is setting up their process, it's essential to approach it similarly to how individuals build habits. A habit loop consisting of a cue, habit, and reward can lead to a more effective and efficient workflow.

The habit loop begins with a cue, a trigger that initiates the habit. In a team setting, this could be a specific time of day, a meeting, or an event that signals it's time to start a particular task.

Next comes the habit itself, which is the action or series of actions the team takes in response to the cue. This could include updating project management tools, holding a daily stand-up meeting, or collaborating on a shared document.

Finally, the reward is the positive reinforcement that motivates the team to continue performing the habit. This could be something as simple as a sense of accomplishment from completing a task, recognition from team members, or even a tiny celebration after reaching a milestone.

By incorporating the habit loop into their processes, teams can create a more organised and efficient working environment, ultimately leading to better results and a happier, more cohesive group.

4. Good Processes Depend on Team Competency

There are two aspects to competency here.

  • Having the experience, knowledge and skills to develop and improve a process.
  • And being able to follow the process itself.

Training and education on the process can help encourage team members to internalise it. This could involve providing training sessions or workshops on the process or assigning a mentor to guide new employees until they become familiar with it.

My favourite approach is to encourage mobbing and pairing inside the team to avoid a single point of failure where only one person knows how to do something.

5. Good Processes have built-in Feedback Mechanisms

A feedback mechanism for team members is vital for engagement and continuous improvement.

Identifying areas for improvement is crucial in maintaining efficient processes. One way to do this is by soliciting feedback from team members about what they think could be improved during team or organisation retrospectives.

Industry best practices change, new techniques or tools emerge, and it's crucial for teams to be able to experiment and adapt to stay ahead of the curve and continuously improve how they work.

6. Good Processes Work Because Leaders Lead by Example

Leaders should lead by example when it comes to following processes themselves. Team members won't value or follow a process if their leader doesn't. At best, they will go through the motions and play lip service to it.

Take a simple example: turning up to meetings on time. It is unlikely that people in an organisation will turn up on time to meetings if their leader is constantly late.

Wrapping Up

Avoiding process entropy is not easy. The approaches outlined here might help you keep it at bay in your organisation.

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đŸ’Ŧ As I said, I struggled to articulate my thoughts on this one, so if you had some thoughts while reading this, please reply, comment, or take a second and use the 👍 or 👎 to give me some quick feedback.