On process design

Here are some of my considerations and thoughts I was planning to post before a I hosted the Cookbook on “Relationship Design: Choose your own adventure“. Life ensued, and it happened already. Since the write-up will take a few days longer, I am going to post this in any case.

The inspiration comes from several conversations, involving what tools we took from project management, agile, design thinking, and the rest, and used on our own life and relationships, their uses, advantages, problems, and failure modes.

First of all, a shout out to Designing your Life, a book applying concepts from design and engineering to our own life. As a geek and engineer, I really appreciated the idea of applying measuring where you are, getting ideas, and prototyping to your own life. And to Designer Relationships, that I have not yet read.

I admit I became a bit of a process geek. I wasn’t always like this: it is the (current) end result of a discovery journey that started from the first Relationship Cookbooks that I tried to organize, and other experiences that made me realize that getting people together to have a meaningful and productive exchange of idea does not just happen, even if you tell them “just have a meaningful and productive exchange of idea”.
Even if you ask them, and say please a lot.
I started looking for inspirations, and I found them in: unconferences, hackathons, Nowhere and other burns (Burning Man inspired co-created events, don’t call them festivals), the agile mindset, and more. I got the chance to experiment with many formats myself, from organizing ice breakers, facilitating, co-creating communities, co-organizing retreats and other events.

What I realized is that the format of events, the processes involved, shape our experience, and the way we participate and behave. I admit it even sounds silly to write it: did I ever think they would not?
Isn’t our experience when we join a work meeting different to the one when we go to a club, when we go to a house party, a dinner party, to a library?
Of course it is. Of course, if you had asked me, I would have known.

In a way, it is obvious that we take the shape the event, the process offers.

What I did not realize is that we can have a choice in the shape. We have also some choice in what to accept, or not, but that involves going again the grain.

How does this apply to life, and relationships?

Well, habits, routines, rituals, processes offer a shape. If we, the participants, tend to take the shape of the container, our best bet is to select the containers that give us the shape we want. If we do not know what we prefer, we can try different things, considering them as experiments, as a way to gather information:
did this work? Does this make me better? If yes, stick to it, and expand. If not, change.

In theory, easy. In practice, from the inside, not so much. At least for me.
It is hard to know what worked because there was a process in place, what would have worked anyway, what happened by magic because of the people there.

A way to find out is to try again, changing the process. Taking a page from the scientific method, changing as little as possible: if I change 15 things, and it stops working, how the heck am I supposed to know what was important?

In any case: the process matters. A lot.

What I learned from the Cookbook, and unconferences in general, and the agile mindset, is that if it is important to be result agnostic, it is much better to hold a process steady. At least for a while. Or, see above, change one (small) thing at a time.

In the Cookbook, we do not change the format while it happens.
The format is my contract with the participants:

  • we choose the topics together
  • every conversation will be timeboxed
  • everyone can share and participate
  • the facilitation is (mostly) shared.
  • it will practical, and people will be nice to each other

I do not know in advance what we will discuss about, the topics, and the content. If I wanted to control that, I would hold a workshop, a lecture, I would give a speech.

I see the same for our own life, and for our own relationships.

Some principles I gathered during the years of experimentation and observation:

  • the process should be as light as possible, but not lighter
    • agile, not bureaucracy
    • with too little process, we revert to implicit processes. They are not always appropriate, eg: “talking with friends”, “agreeing with the group and the leader”, “negativity bias”…
  • the process is a contract: once we agree for a time span, we keep it
    • I’ve been in events where the organizers (or other people) would propose “should we change the schedule” during the event. Unless something really, really important happened (eg: “the building is on fire, should we go out?”), I really, really do not like it.
  • if we want to be result agnostic, it is quite important to stick to a process
    • an example: we can change the software we use, or we can do something with it (eg: writing an article). Changing the software while we use makes everything harder
  • we use the process to “go against entropy”, to avoid common, automatic directions, that we do not like:
    • as an example, I do not need a habit of “not brushing your teeth and flossing every night”. Not flossing is easy. I spent years not flossing. I need a habit, a process, to make sure I do not do the easy thing, if I do not like where the easy thing brings me.
    • we need a process for what is not easy: meditating every morning, solving conflicts, changing direction, having people share ideas and opinions that they are afraid won’t be popular, and so on.
    • Some more examples:
      • ice breakers before an event (don’t get me wrong, I had bad ice breakers as much as the next person. Good ones, on the other hand, are amazing)
      • emerging potential conflicts before they explode
      • conflict resolution
      • time boxing, to avoid going on forever
      • kanban boards and other way to see what is being done, by whom, and what needs doing
      • regular check ins
      • retrospectives, post mortems, planning moments
      • ways to emerge common knowledge

There will be more in the write-up from the cookbook, and I am pretty sure I will cover a lot of what I touched above, more in details, in the future.

For now: what processes do you already follow, without knowing? Do they work? What could you change? What could do with more process? What could do with less? How do you agree with someone else “let’s give this a try”? What’s the process to establish a shared process?

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