Lovingly building processes to last

As you might expect from an architect who numbers paper and old beer crates among his preferred materials, the Japanese architect Shigeru Ban has some interesting things to say about buildings and maintenance. [via City of Sound]

“The lifespan of a building has nothing to do with the materials. It depends on what people do with it. If a building is loved, then it becomes permanent. When it is not loved, even a concrete building can be temporary. And the strength of the material has nothing to do with the strength of the building. It depends on the structural design. Buildings made of concrete are easily destroyed by earthquakes, but paper-tube buildings can survive without damage.”

One of Shigeru Ban’s emphases seems to be maintenance, or sustainability to give it a more fashionable take. Stability and permanence of a building includes amongst other things the idea that it can be easily looked after and repaired. Damaged paper tubes can be easily replaced by a new one, for example. There’s are obvious tie-ins with the lessons social software enthusiasts can learn from architecture, e.g intimacy gradients or lesser thoughts, and even urban design, such as whether it’s crimogenic or not.

Perhaps more tantalising, though, are the lessons we can’t, (or at least shouldn’t) learn?

Again via City of Sound, I came across Peter Lindberg’s notes on Stewart Brand’s book “How Buildings Learn” [There’s a review here]. Peter comments that

“According to Brand, brick-and-mortar architecture itself is in a state of illusion, having lost the knowledge of how to successfully build functioning, adaptable houses.”

This struck me as very similar to the discussion going on over at Ross Mayfield’s blog after his excellent post on the death of process. Specifically, Euan‘s comment that:

Process is the sort of word that grown ups in suits use to throw their weight around and to convince others that they know what is going on and that it makes sense.

And Jon Husband’s remark about ERP

pouring “electronic concrete” over a newly-designed process that almost certainly is fated to begin changing relatively quickly

I’m not sure yet what I think about all this. I know that focusing solely on Process (capital P) is blinkered, and to be fair, I think many organisational architects understand this (see e.g. McKinsey’s 7S model or Burke-Litwin). What is harder, perhaps, is finding the equivalent of those little paper tubes, the strong (but not necessarily rigid) structures or processes (small p) and the materials to support people in organisations. “Love and resilience” is a bizarrely hard sell on its own.

Looking at a recent Forbes article, though, Google’s processes, seem some way to getting to those little paper tubes. You even get that in the title, “Google thinks small”. Taking a few selected quotes, you begin to feel that, while there’s no big P process, there are some definite small p’s, mostly geared to keeping interesting, productive conversations going.

Conversational process

“this company loves to talk it out, jettisoning hierarchy, business silos and layers of management for a flatter, “networked” structure where the guy with the best data wins.”

One key rule:You can’t call any idea “stupid.”

One true god rules at Google:data … “Often differences of opinion between smart people are differences of data,” says Marissa Mayer, director of consumer products … In some meetings people aren’t allowed to say “I think … ” but instead must say “The data suggest … ”

Work process

Every Google employee starts the week writing five lines on what he or she did the week before. They are posted on an internal Web site for all to see. New product ideas circulate among thousands of engineers on an “ideas mailing list.”

Workers are asked to spend 20% of their time on something that interests them, away from their main jobs. Companywide a full 10% of time is spent dreaming up blue-sky projects.

Hiring process

applicants may start with one of Google’s famous–and ridiculously difficult–exams. (Sample:”Find the first ten-digit prime number in the mathematical constant called ‘e’.”) Prospects endure eight or more interviews. Each interviewer ranks them on a 1-to-4 scale; a 4 means “I would hire this person, and I will argue why,” while a 3 means “Inclined to hire, but can be argued out of it.” A panel of eight Googlers reviews the scores. Later annual regression analyses compare performance with initial ratings.

And there are, I’d guess, a number of different project processes. Underpinning all these are small p’s are two things: community and failure. People tend to share cubicles, however brilliant they are, and however brilliant you are you won’t get hired if a background checks shows you to be difficult to work with. And failure, or rather the acceptance of it, is built in.

Hundreds of projects go on at the same time. Most teams throw out new software in six weeks or less and look at how users respond hours later … One success in ten tries is okay; one in five is superb. Everyone from a failed venture moves to another urgent project.

Community and failure, then. Or love and resilience in other words.

3 comments on “Lovingly building processes to last”

  1. “Love and resilience” is a bizarrely hard sell on its own.

    The first question is who needs to love whom (or what). If we look at the architectural analogy, the point is that business processes – the architecture of the business – will survive and endure if people love them.

    The question then is how managers can make that happen. Not, I would suggest, by demanding it. (Someone I know recently had a mandatory ‘capability maturity model’ interview, along with most other employees in the same function. My friend’s interview was over in 45 minutes, but other people weren’t so lucky – the interview went on until you gave the right answers. McKinsey, meet Mao.)

    People love architecture because it meets their needs – basic, well-down-the-Maslowian-hierarchy needs – and does so with an added element of beauty or grace. The requirements for emotional investment in business processes probably aren’t very different. (Which means that some businesses will probably have to stick with the re-education approach.)

  2. Spot on, Phil. I suppose I’d add that, as well as meeting their basic needs (as a one off), processes may need to be updatable by them. THe bigger the “P” the harder that is. But that may be my being influenced by Changing Rooms and Grand Designs😉

    Anyway, my sympathies to your friend – CMM is fine for assessing what level you’re at but not so great for telling you anything useful like how to get to the next level up.

  3. i suspect (tho’ there’s a good chance I am wrong) thatthe equivalent to the little paper tubes are well-worn but often ignored *work design principles* inextricably interwoven with the kind of healthy and inquisitve and responsive organizational culture that effective leadership can create, sustain and breed .. the technologies and the *maps* of workflow will, I believe be everchanging .. tho’ the paths through the grass across the courtyard (Kenichi Ohmae of McKinsey, if I remember correctly) will eventually become more trodden than the paving stones, if the process designs are not responsive enough. I posted a bit more about this on my blog yesterday (30th), in case it is of interest.

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