When your processes fail: The hard truth behind the fluff.

A few weeks ago, I did a quick demo for a product designer in a large tech company in L.A. After we finished chatting about the product, we spent some time talking about his company and a couple of things he had observed in product teams with which he had worked in the past.

The whole conversation started when he said something like this “I am not sure how product managers become product managers.” With a cheeky smile, he continued, “More often than not they lack training in psychology and research and yet they are making all these decisions based on human behaviour.” He said it with a bit of bitterness in his voice. Since he had been formally trained as a researcher and designer, he probably felt that he was more qualified to be a product manager than his peers, he just didn’t like that job.

The conversation left me thinking about the actual skills and type of thinking we need in order to understand customers. Skills and experience that go beyond learning how to write customer development questions or build empathy maps.

When jobs have a significant amount of human interaction, we tend to heavily rely on methodologies to help us cope with the uncertainty attached to dealing with these tasks. Humans are messy, complex and unpredictable, and the business world often clashes with that reality, especially when we are pursuing scalability, repeatability and predictability.

I’ve always found it fascinating that businesses of all sizes tend to invest enormous efforts in building processes but often overlook the fact that processes and methodologies are only as effective as the people who execute them. It is what people know, their experience and how they feel what makes a difference.

Businesses prefer to send people to agile courses or growth hacking conferences, rather than sending them to creativity workshops or soft-skills training. The latter feels like fluff — but is it? We want people to be creative and empathic, to come up with amazing growth strategies and visionary product roadmaps, but instead we build incentives around structure, processes and tactics.

Processes and methodologies are fundamental parts of scaling any business, but the experience, skills, and commitment of those who make them happen are equally important.

When good processes fail

Good process + bad people = crappy outcome.

You can go to any Chipotle in town and enjoy the exact same beef burrito you would expect in any other Chipotle location. However, your overall experience can be completely different in each place based on who takes your order. Maybe the person taking your order woke up that morning feeling rested and optimistic, or she woke up realizing the rent was due and she didn’t have the money, she is stressed, but she needs to take orders all day from people who can eat baby-sized beef burritos. She may not be happy about it. Either way, you will get a slightly different experience.

Chipotle wants to offer a great beef burritos with a “personal touch”. The problem is that “personal touch” goes out with friends, gets too many beers and goes back to work with a hangover. You can’t control “personal touch”.

While the product designer in L.A felt that product managers needed to be knowledgeable about research techniques and deeply understand human behaviour, some people believe product managers need to be more technical. Regardless of what you think the requirements are, if your job is understanding humans, you need to invest in those skills. You can’t rely on processes and methodologies to guarantee a great outcome. That reminds me of this old school quote from Richard Buetow, an executive with Motorola, about ISO 9000:

“With ISO 9000 you can still have terrible processes and products. You can certify a manufacturer that makes life jackets from concrete, as long as those jackets are made according to the documented procedures and the company provides the next of kin with instructions on how to complain about defects.”

When bad processes win

Bad process + good people = better outcome.

A great example of this principle is a LinkedIn update I found floating on my feed a few months ago. It was from Thomas Case, an HR manager proudly sharing his way of welcoming new employees to the organization.

The post had 10,322 comments and 55,686 likes. I was definitely late to the party. I personally don’t know Thomas Case but the numbers made me curious so I started reading the comments, suddenly, I realised that most of the comments were either praising him for his dedication or criticizing him for not making sure that the office had a window, the carpets were nicer or that he forgot a detail here or there.

It didn’t matter. Maybe his process and check lists were not perfect. Maybe he didn’t account for all the potential needs a new employee could have, but the outcome of his onboarding process is most likely to be great, a new team member feeling welcomed, a more productive first week, all thanks to the ‘personal touch’ of a good person running a slightly crappy process.

When good processes win

Good process + good people = great outcome.

When a great process is run by great people, it sometimes feels as if there is no process. People have the freedom to change the rules because they feel empowered and accepted. They know their team trust them, they believe in the business and they are happy. Creativity flows naturally. Although there is a tacit understanding that some level of structure is necessary to ensure the growth of the business, the structure is never allowed to stop the growth itself.

There are many companies running great processes with great people. I personally admire those that can keep doing this consistently. An example that comes to mind is MailChimp. Over the years I’ve seen multiple teams at MailChimp ship a number of initiatives that show the power of customer centric processes run by great people. For example, What’s in Store initiative, is about Meg, a team member in their marketing department, launching an e-commerce store from scratch and documenting every step behind starting a business so they can understand what is like to be one of its own users. Another great example is UX connected an initiative led by Aarron Walter, Director of User Experience, in which he coordinated efforts across the entire organisation to make data, especially qualitative data, available to everybody, accelerating their understanding of customers and enabling better collaboration across departments. These are just a few examples but it all comes back to the investment they make in people.

From their about page:

“We help our team members grow in their current roles and dream about what’s next. MailChimp employees are encouraged to attend events, share what they do, and take time off to volunteer or learn new skills.
All of our employees participate in MailChimp University, an MBA-style program taught by Emory University professors. We also have an apprenticeship program, which gives people without prior experience the opportunity to try out technical roles.
MailChimp also hosts writers, designers, comedians, artists, and other interesting folks at our weekly Coffee Hour series, so we stay inspired by people in different industries”

The processes behind these initiatives are likely to be great, but even if they weren’t, the people running them are able to destroy them and rebuild them in order to fulfil their mission in the organisation.

Even great processes run by great people fail. They do because they try new stuff, they dare to be creative, they know the goal is not to create a better processes but get a better outcome. Living in a space of constant experimentation requires a lot of soft skills. It requires all the fluff you can get.

Don’t wait for the next round of funding

You can start very small. If you can’t design your own employee university, you surely can spend $20 a month gifting great books to your team members, or paying for the random meet-up, or creating a channel in your internal chat tool that is dedicated to sharing learning resources or articles. For this things to work, people need to feel comfortable with the idea of continuous learning, and this means, leaving their egos outside the room.

You need to be able to have conversations that include words like I’m scared, stressed, insecure, unsure, uncomfortable, nervous. Your team many not mention those words in the middle of the sprint planning but they still feel them and when they can’t express them, they focus on the process, regardless if it is a good one or not.

If you have to start with something, don’t start with the process, start with the people.

Sofia.