People over Process: a Universal Law


Despite the progress we made in software engineering in the last two decades, some people still believe that processes can be more important than people. Sure, they have a more "balanced" view these days, claiming that people and processes are both important, and that you have to consider the business domain to see which one "trumps" the other. But they refuse to believe that People over Process is a universal principle.

Well, they are wrong.

Consider the Law of Requisite Variety:

"Only variety in a system itself can successfully counter a variety of disturbances in the environment." or "Any effective control system must be as complex as the system it controls."

What does that mean? It says that a complex system can only be managed and controlled by a system that is at least as complex. Well, people are very complex. And creativity, which is an essential part of software development, makes people an essential part of every software project. And it follows logically that a system is at least as complex as the parts that it contains. Therefore, software projects themselves are also very complex, as they contain creative people.

And there you have it… Processes can never properly manage or control a software project, because processes do not have the same complexity as the software projects do. Therefore processes cannot trump people. Processes are just a tool. All creative people have tools to improve the quality of their work. But the tools can never outdo their masters. Without people, tools and processes are useless.

It's a universal Law!

It doesn't matter whether you're building a SharePoint web site or a navigation box for a spacecraft, though some people might think that they have examples of the contrary. Some have seen cases where people were replaced on projects and the processes held everything together. So the processes were more important than the people! Bbzzzzt… wrong answer!! The processes are simply there to assist people getting up to speed. It's the people doing the real work.

People have been saying for thousands of years that the world was flat. "I KNOW it's flat. I can SEE it with my own eyes! I have twenty years of practice walking around, so I should know!" Well sorry, it takes only one theorist to prove you wrong. The Law of Requisite Variety proves that People over Process is a universal principle. It's a Law.

Note: This post is published automatically while I'm enjoying a caribbean dinner in Cuba. I will respond to any replies and comments, but it might take a while.

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