Process is important for scale, but when wielded wrong, it kills teams

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Process isn’t a bad thing by any means. In fact, most business experts would tell you it’s a main way you scale. You need to do things in a repeatable, predictable way to get to a place where enough peeps are using your product/service to get the money really rolling in. No doubt. Hopefully we all know that.

So in sum: process is good.

Well, most of the time.

See, process in the hands of bad managers — and there are many bad managers — often becomes a bad thing. One of the cornerstone examples of this is “process for the sake of process.”

I’ll set this one up for you, because you’ve all lived through it. “Process for the sake of process” means, well, let’s say some deliverable was missed. A ball was dropped. Some manager creates a 10:30am Monday meeting so that everyone can “get on the same page.” This becomes one of those utterly pointless meetings where everyone just goes around saying their to-do list, even though Danny’s to-do list and Bobby’s to-do list have no context with each other. This meeting has no utility at Week 3. What really needed to happen was a transparent discussion about the ball that was dropped and how the process there could be better. Instead, this meeting will last six months — if not longer — and sap truly productive morning time from 10 different employees.

That’s “process for the sake of process.” It’s the same thing where 18 people need to line-edit tweets during a trade show (seen that), or SVPs are making line-edits in Google Documents (ditto). Some of this is micromanagement or unclear priorities, sure. Those are also common enemies of true workplace productivity. But it’s all the same ecosystem. Bad processes, micromanagement, and shitty priorities are all tied together. If nothing else, they’re cousins.

The coaching analogy

Dudes love war and sports — how’s that for a generalization, eh? — and as a result, they love to compare themselves to coaches and shit when they become managers. Hate to break this one to you, Marty Middle Manager, but there is absolutely no comparison between you and Bill Belichick.

Think I am throwing shade here? I am. But I don’t dislike Marty. He’s probably a revenue drain on his company, sure, but he’s got a tough job in that he needs to manage both up and down, and most people in an organization don’t need to do both of those things.

But this is the real difference between a professional sports coach of some success and a so-so middle manager: adjustment.

See, you may think Belichick runs the same deal every year because Brady is there, and it’s usually a no-name running back, and the defense is decent, OL is good, etc. No, though. Belichick changes stuff every week, every year, etc. He tweaks to the people he has, because that’s what good coaches do.

Look at Coach K. He ran a totally different, four-year-driven program a decade or so ago. Now it’s more one-and-done and he’s still largely getting results. You adjust to the times and to the people.

But this is where process becomes a problem.

Process stops adjustment, often

Process is about getting people into pens, and doing like-minded things that we gussy up as “repeatable” or “scalable.”

In reality, this is what process is: the execs want to talk about the financials at their level, and don’t want to manage human beings. That’s no fun. Discussing money is fun. So to avoid managing people, lots of “processes” are created so that people are supposed to know what to do in a given situation as opposed to asking a higher-up for help.

If you’ve spent four minutes and 27 seconds in any office, you know this never works, but we keep doing it anyway, because we’re either gluttons for punishment or we have no idea how to design effective work. Probably the latter.

Process thus often prevents adjustment. If someone wants to weave — do something more related to their talents — they get slapped on the wrist. “That’s not our process here, Billy.” If another person wants to zig or zag — “Hey, maybe this would be a better approach!” — some Project Manager Level II idiot who’s been at that level since 1987 will tell them “You need to follow the processes we have here. They are there for a reason.”

Adjustment is how you fend off disruption and adjustment is how good coaches win year-in and year-out. Religious adherence to process — or, worse yet, an inability to deviate from a clearly-failing road map — is honestly just holding your business back.

TL:DR — Process matters, yes, but it needs to be evaluated frequently, especially in the hands of ineffective managers (who ironically often do nothing resembling coaching anyway).

Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money:

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