Introduce process only as a last resort

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how organizations love process. Having systems and process can be very important. Without them, lines can be blurred, slopes become slippery, and maintaining consistency becomes very difficult. That being said, process is also toxic and dangerous to startups, especially at the early stages. When rules & process are introduced, you limit people’s autonomy, and chip away at the critical thinking and common sense that is required of them everyday.

I’m not advocating anarchy, or trying to say that all process is bad. The problem is too much process, which erodes the effectiveness of the truly necessary process. Often times, startup founders find themselves in the position of being The Boss for the first time in their careers. Giddy with the excitement of being able to wield their new power, they implement lots of new process, thinking themselves wise beyond their years. This results in small startups that have complex and heavily regulated systems that are completely unnecessary.

Before introducing new process, ask yourself and those in your organization, what is the problem we’re trying to solve? Is there any way we can solve this problem without creating a new system? Even something as simple as a basic rule can subvert a team member’s intrinsic motivation. Think of it this way: if you hand fed someone everyday of their life, this individual would be reliant on you feeding them to survive. They would not have discovered that they need to find a food source 3+ times a day in order to survive. They might eventually figure it out, but it would be a challenging transition. It would require a much more conscious effort to stay satiated and able to focus on other goals.

Death by 1000 paper pushing rules

As the team grows, and the organization becomes more complex, all of the process introduced along the way will build up. It will erode the meaning of each process, and will hinder the ability of even the most well intentioned agents of the organization to follow all of the existing process.

For these reasons, a mantra that I enacted at one of the startups I cofounded, Zen99, was “Introduce process only as a last resort.” Keeping things simple makes life easier and more fun for everyone, and prevents work from feeling like work. It empowers the agents of the organization to do their best work, in the way they best see fit.

Of course, when you do see a place where things are breaking down, then it might be wise to introduce process. Before you do, force yourself and your team to deeply understand the problem you are trying to solve, and make sure that it is a real issue. Introduce the simplest possible process to solve it, and make sure there is definitively no other way to fix the problem.

The easy to see cost of process

  • Enacting the process: Determining the process, detailing it’s implementation
  • Implementing the process: Training existing employees
  • Teaching new employees about this process (as part of onboarding or otherwise)
  • Enforcing & Maintaining this process
  • Updating this process as needs change

The less obvious costs of process

  • Reduced capacity for employees to think about the core functions of their job
  • Stifled empowerment of your employees, less engagement, less autonomy
  • Reduced organizational agility: It becomes harder for the organization to react quickly to change
  • Organizational distraction: The process detracts from the organization’s core mission
  • Weakens effectiveness of all other processes
  • That Initech feeling

For even a simple process, think seriously about how much time will be spent of all of these things. Some of them are easy to put a price tag on (in man hours, at least). Others are hidden costs which will quietly sap the life force of the organization. Is the cost of not implementing this process going to outweigh these burdens?

Process will often help the bad and hurt the good

Reducing the rules and process in your organization will also make it easier to spot individuals who are not a great fit and lack the right motivation. With lots of rules and process, it makes it easy for bad actors to fly under the radar. Much to the chagrin of well intentioned stakeholders who implement process, these bad actors thrive in organizations that are bogged down with process. It is easy for them to hide, to do the bare minimum and slip between the cracks, because it is easy for them to optimize their performance for the things that are measured. Short of a dictatorship like North Korea, the organization can never fully control its agents, and those with negative intentions will out maneuver and subvert the textbook implementation intended by the organization’s process.

Crappy Middle Managers love your rules

Without process everywhere, it makes the lives of management harder. This is one of the reasons middle managers love process. However, the goal of an organization should not to be to provide cushy jobs for middle managers. This job should be hard, and it is not for everyone. It requires people skills, leadership, and an almost super human ability to stay in tune with a team. It is very hard to find good leaders who can do this job well. In all honesty, I’ve worked with very few patently great managers in my career (but I’ve worked with enough to know that they are out there). Because it’s so hard to find the right people for this job, most organizations result to settling for terrible middle managers. It’s hard to blame them, as there are so few good managers out there, and so many bad ones, many folks have had very few experiences with great managers and do not know how to pick the select few who are great at management. Bad middle managers can utilize the burdensome process to their advantage just as easily as bad actors on the front lines. Great leaders do not need rules or process. Those who follow them do so willingly, and do amazing things with their autonomy. They relay the right information back from the front lines, good or bad, and make key suggestions which often make or break the outcome of battles.

Fight the introduction of process at all costs. Empower your employees and your fellow team members by avoiding it. Believe in the people around you, and if they fail, keep the safety net just harsh enough that a lesson will be learned. Counter intuitively, less process will help your organization run smoother, and ensure it is filled with the right kind of people.