Project Management Time: The Horizontal And The Vertical

As a Project Manager I both have to run processes, create processes, and get people do to them. It’s not as exciting as it sounds (and if the idea excites you then . . . well, we’re a lot a like).

The problem is that people don’t want to follow process for the most part. Who does like to fill out forms, do documentation, get the right boxes checked, etc.? People don’t enjoy this for the most part, and at best tolerate it.

Yet, at times, you’ll notice some processes do get done. Sometimes automatically, sometimes grudgingly. But they get done (and usually get done without coercion, or much of it).

So why does this happen? What is the difference between things that get done and things that don’t?

My answer is that there are Horizontal and Vertical Processes.

A Horizontal Process benefits the person doing it and/or the people they work with on the same “level.” Writing good and useful code comments, keeping records a team will use, etc. are Horizontal processes (though there’s usually not enough code comments for my taste).

Vertical Processes benefit people above or below the person doing them – the person doing them gets no direct benefit. Instead, the people below them or above them benefit. Status reports are a classic example of this, but some informational emails or wrap-ups fit the category as well.

So as you may guess, most people will do Horizontal Processes – and in fact may do so willingly as even if they don’t benefit, those they work with do. Vertical Processes are not as enthusiasm-creating because one sees no direct benefit from them. It’s hard to get worked up over things you don’t see a return for.  Also, the lower you are on the totem pole of work, the less benefit you see as the Vertical Processes just go UP (it’s a bit easier when your processes go down the chain as you’re more likely to see the benefits).

You’ll notice for people like, well, Project Managers, we do all sorts of Horizontal and Vertical Processes. That however is part of our job, we’re the kind of people who see the benefit in things that don’t immediately affect us. We do it because it’s what we do. We can’t exactly expect everyone to be as enthused as we are.

So how do we solve this?

First, make sure you make Horizontal Processes that work well so people get maximum benefit from them. These are the things people are most likely to do, so make them worth it.  Besides, good Horizontal Processes can reduce the need for Vertical Processes as things run well.

Secondly, make Vertical Processes as painless, as automated, and as easy to do as possible, and make sure people don’t have to do many of them. They’re not going to want to do them for the most part anyway – and keep in mind the lower they are on the great Ladder of Jobs, the less they’re likely going to want to do these.

Third, make processes that are both Horizontal and Vertical and use them as much as possible. An automated SCRUM board is a great example of this as it benefits people on any number of levels, from letting people know the work to do to mining data for statuses. I know Jira’s saved me hours of work.

Fourth, automate as much as possible. This includes mineable data, easy tools, and entering data once and only once, etc.

Fifth, explain to people why things are vital. If you can’t explain it well enough, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it.

I find the Horizontal and Vertical concepts are very helpful when I design processes. Try mapping your latest processes and tools to these concepts . . .

– Steven Savage

Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach.  He blogs on careers at http://www.fantopro.com/, nerd and geek culture at http://www.nerdcaliber.com/, and does a site of creative tools at http://www.seventhsanctum.com/. He can be reached at http://www.stevensavage.com/.