Seeing how the sausage is made

I talk to people a lot about process and, depending on the issue at hand, often talk about “seeing how the sausage is made”, particularly in relation to external stakeholders. Sometimes it’s “we don’t want to show (our external stakeholders) how the sausage is made” and sometimes it’s “people (outside our team) don’t want to see how the sausage is made”.

People generally agree with this. If there is too much visibility of our processes those stakeholders can start to ask distracting questions and (though they are not software development experts or knowledgeable about our teams) perhaps even start suggesting how things might be done. Before long we’re boxed into introducing process changes of their choice, while we are responsible for the (delivery) consequences.

Once I was speaking to a delivery manager who was concerned about inconsistencies in our internal processes. There were two or three teams that worked in different ways, and he said it posed problems for conversations with external stakeholders. I asked why that mattered if people don’t want to know how the sausage is made. “It’s because they hear one explanation from one person, and a different explanation about something very similar from someone else,” he said. “It confuses them, and it shakes their confidence us”.

He was right. The quirks of our internal processes do have tangible external consequences, as much as we would like to think otherwise. Sometimes these are big, leading to Conway’s Law, by which our product designs reflect our internal organisational patterns. Sometimes these are small, such as stakeholders getting inconsistent messages about timescales or what progress updates look like. This then causes them to worry we may not be as organised as we’d like to think, and they ask difficult questions. They may be right, too. Perhaps we aren’t.

It’s true that people don’t want to know how the sausage is made. But if their sausage arrives in torn packaging, or if they find their sausage contains half a spider, then they may start to ask some difficult and legitimate questions. We need to make sure our processes stand up to scrutiny.

Photo by Tim Green