Ad hoc-racy in Design

Just reading a great book – Peopleware, by Lister and DeMarco. They are talking about how to manage dev teams but I would like to take a quote of theirs entirely out of context and celebrate it as a best practice for designing workflow systems:

“if the system has a sufficient degree of natural ad hoc-racy, it’s a mistake to automate it”.
Lister & DeMarco.

There is a great tendency in organisations to over prescribe workflow through technical means. I think this is very often a mistake. Publishing has such broken workflows that I used to say they are in need of optimisation and then radicalisation. However, using another term from Lister and DeMarco’s book Peopleware, the workflow also has to be self-healing.

In other words, it is the people and not the machine that is going to work out the better way to do things. Whether it is optimising an existing workflow or scrubbing down the decks and starting again, we need people to see the error and imagine the improvement. Those same people then need to be able to easily change the environment to effect change. Overly deterministic, prescriptive, technical systems don’t allow for that. We must instead leave gaps in the machine’s innards so humans can ‘be the re-wiring’.

Ad-hocracy is a necessary part of a self-healing system. Humans do it very well, machines don’t do it at all. If you want your workflow to improve, then design a system that allows for the ad hoc. Design a system that allows for the human.

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