Better Teams and Gardens

Picking the right process isn’t always about picking the best process.

Chris and I wrapped up an ongoing team-building exercise yesterday. Because R. Alliance is an awesome (and green) company, we built a garden outside of our corporate headquarters, where Chris plans to grow vegetables next year. I plan on not having much part in that (except for the eating bit), because I have very little patience for anything that takes longer than 4 minutes to show results.

We learned a few things during this project, such as:photo credit: Chris Dawson

  1. I don’t much care for dirt. Like sand, it seems to get EVERYWHERE.
  2. It’s much harder than one might think to dig a shallow trench in the earth of a wooded plot here in the Richmond area. It’s not so much the digging that is problematic per se, but tree roots that seem to be miles away from the nearest tree. They slow things down. Considerably.
  3. There’s more than one right way to do something, and when picking an approach from two, you first have to decide if one is actually better than the other, or if they are both equally right. This is especially hard when two people come up with two different ways to do the same thing at the same time.

I don’t know if I can stretch the first two points into a lesson about People and Process, so it’s the last one that I want to focus on for a moment. I had this particular insight when we were laying the foundation for the garden. We had measured and cut the 4 pieces of wood that make up the base of the garden, and were carrying them over to the trench we had dug to lay and level them. As I lugged mine over, I eyed the trench and decided where it was going to go. Chris had other thoughts.

She communicated her intent to me as I was moving my board into place. Our plans conflicted, but not horribly. It was literally a matter of me planning to start on the south side of the plot, she on the north. My first reaction to her instructions was to say “why don’t we start over here instead?”

Something that you should know about Chris and I is we both have the tendency to be, let’s say, strong-willed. There’s a lot of Irish and German blood in both of us. We’re both Alpha personalities, and we both have a lot of confidence in our plans, in our work, and in ourselves. This can lead to lengthy debates about who is more right, and discussions about which detail is more important to consider. Usually, we end up realizing that we were completely aligned the whole time, except, perhaps, in terminology.

Wanting to avoid getting into a long discussion while holding a moderately heavy piece of wood in my hands, I asked myself: “Is my way any different than hers? Is my way better for any reason?”

And that’s when it hit me.

My approach was – quite literally – equally as good as hers. I realized that my plan felt better to me simply because I was more invested in it. Because it was mine. I had already spent mental energy on working several steps ahead, already knowing what we were to do next, and after that, and after that. Chris had no idea at the time, but by proposing her plan to me, she was asking me to unravel that work and start over.

This insight struck me, and I immediately started writing this blog post in my head. You see, R. Alliance has been spending a lot of time lately developing new ways of working. We’ve been talking quite a bit about how to choose Process that People can become engaged in, and how to engage People in a Process that, for whatever reason, has to be the way it is and doesn’t afford the participants much flexibility.

A lot of the time, when a Process is developed and put into place, those creating it assume that it is the de-facto right plan. We’ve spent a lot of time creating it, we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it, and it works for us. What we tend to forget, sometimes, is that other people have their own preferred ways of working, which might not line up exactly with ours. They may have an equally viable plan, one that accomplishes the same results in the same time at the same cost, but looks different than ours.

Process comes in many shapes and sizes, from a full on Software Development strategy to a plan for tackling one specific business requirement. On a business team of any kind, it’s important for each member to be consistent in approach, but it’s also important to give people the leeway they need to work in a way that is comfortable for them.

What I realized, holding that 12 foot railroad tie in my hands, was that we also have to give a little leeway back to the Process. At least, we do when our Process isn’t any better than someone else’s, save for that it is our own. Picking the right process for the job isn’t always about finding the best process overall, but the one that works best for everyone in the given situation. Sometimes that means compromising or letting someone else take the lead for a minute.

Chris and I took turns being General Contractor for the garden box, and at least for me, the journey was more rewarding than the result. And so it will remain, until next year sometime when the first jalapeno or cucumber starts to grow, or we make that first Caprese salad with fresh tomatoes and basil right from the garden.

Don’t you love it when insight strikes you? Capture them all and keep them close by at

Originally published on October 20, 2011

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