Why Are Systematic?
Bootstrapping methodological maturity through simple, repeatable, outcome-based processes.
This post was updated on 3rd September 2021 with a new final section.
Are you also a fan of the NPR podcast How I Built This with Guy Raz?
I’m currently working my way through the back-catalogue for the second time. There’s something I find so utterly compelling about the process of starting something. Defining your own little patch of civil society through a company culture.
To be honest, I forget most of the episodes fairly quickly (which I suppose is why I can listen through for a second time without becoming bored), but there is one that has remained lodged in the back of my mind and resurfaces frequently.
Patagonia’s company culture is really quite amazing. Outcomes are prioritised over controls. Employees are encouraged to leave the office and surf. It’s something of a cultural nirvana.
But Yvon’s advice to anyone from an established company looking to replicate their model?
Forget it. It’ll fail… you have to start with the very first person you hire.
To put it another way, organisational change becomes exponentially more difficult (and expensive) the longer you wait and the larger you grow.
Startup as you mean to go on
As a startup we’re acutely aware of this, in terms of culture and other integral aspects of how the company works. Vision, purpose, values, ways of working: all become harder to change the longer you wait.
“Well I wouldn’t start from here.”
— Apocryphal response to request for directions
This is the basis of disruption: new upstarts start up and dethrone established players overnight, because it’s harder to change than it is to simply start right.
So, in the early months of this year we’ve been doing a lot of thinking. Thinking about who we are, what we want to do, how we’ll do it and why.
Because it’s easy and cheap to change your mind. Much harder and more costly to change established ways of working.
What do mature business processes look like?
A while ago I sketched out a model to measure the maturity of business processes and methods. Part stolen, part simplified from the Capability Maturity Model Integration (CMMI).
The labels often change, but it looks something like this:
The four stages on the scale are as follows:
Stage 1: None
This is where you are if you have no capability in a particular area. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing unless the process is core to your offering.
For example, we’re a digitial product design agency. We have no capability in beekeeping. And that’s just fine.
In fact, a good strategy is as much about what you don’t or won’t do rather than what you will. Strategy is about choosing between good options. Identify what you need to be capable in, and leave the rest in none where it belongs.
Stage 2: Individual heroics
Usually, when a business wants to start a new service or process, they do this by hiring or partnering with a specialist. This brings them into individual heroics.
In this stage, your capability is entirely reliant on people, their skill and their memory. It could be one person, or it could be whole teams. But lose those people, and the capability goes with them.
This leads to interesting effects: as with jazz you can mix different people to create different outcomes and ‘flavours’ of work. One hero leaves, they can be replaced by another and introduce new combinations with new and sometimes innovative results.
The quality is often very high, but the maturity is low. The business capability is no greater than a function of it’s parts, and a lot more energy must be expended on recruiting great people to replace leavers or scale your output.
Agencies in particular tend to get stuck in individual heroics, like a spider in the bath.
Stage 3: Procedural
Procedural can be a paradox (and I do love a paradox), as quality can sometimes dip despite the maturity being higher. Quality of output depends entirely on the quality of the documented process.
Once you start writing things down, defining your processes and models, you’re in stage 3. Congratulations!
Provided your teams are working to a playbook, you’re in a position to scale. And crucially, you have some organisational memory: you aren’t approaching every problem as if its the first time you’ve tackled it.
The benefits include economies of scale, lower cost base, faster output, the ability to hire more entry level positions.
But really, this isn’t where you want to be. The factory-line production style doesn’t appeal to the heart in the same way as individual heroics (another reason agencies tend to get stuck at stage 2). So better move on.
Stage 4: Optimising
I would argue this is where all companies (should) want to be.
In stage 4, your organisation not only has memory, but the ability to self-improve. You’ve created a learning organisation.
Here, your methods are not static, they are designed to evolve and improve with each use. In this mode, you can efficiently incorporate new methods and tools and adapt quickly to your market or competitive landscape, whilst remaining process driven.
Learning organisations like this actively promote improvement. They hold retrospectives, hack days and knowledge shares. Their playbooks and internal wikis are open for suggestions and improvements. Learning is a stage in the process. Not a separate process, department or other external force attempting to effect change from outside the tent.
We Are Systematic
“If you can’t describe what you’re doing as a process, you don’t know what you’re doing.”
— W. Edwards Deming
So our goal is to bootstrap the maturity scale and build an optimising, learning organisation from the start.
The name of our company is We Are Systematic, because we want to put a methodical approach at the heart of our brand. It’s also very much a ‘We’. Everyone has a role to play and contributes to our organisational memory and learning.
We follow processes, we adopt best practice methods and define better ones. We work in six week cycles to bake iteration into our method. Our internal playbook is open for anyone to edit and contribute to. In fact, it’s not finished yet. We still have lots to learn.
To us, systematic means methodical, consistent and reliable. But we’re aware to others it can also mean boring, box-ticking and bureaucratic.
How to stay away from the dark side?
I imagine this will be an ongoing challenge — the need to stay on the right side of this line proves the need for the human element that we never want to lose.
Focus on outcomes
Today, we do this by defining a process as a series of outcomes, not steps. We timebox tasks based on our appetite: defining points A and B but allowing free choice of route between them.
This allows for flexibility and invention whilst controlling quality, time and cost. We want our designers to feel free to approach a problem in their own way, whilst providing clarity and confidence to our clients.
Processes don’t need to be long or arduous, they just need to be repeatable. Occam’s Razor applies: the simpler the better.
My favourite example of a simple, repeatable, outcome-based process is Netflix’s vacation policy:
— Netflix vacation policy
This section added 3rd September 2021
After originally posting these thoughts I talked more about the Netflix approach with others. I’ve realised that whilst I’ve (I still think rightly) hailed it as a great example of the simple, repeatably, outcome-based approach I’m advocating, there is a clear and fair critique to be made regarding the outcome itself.
I will probably get around to a full post on this topic at some point, but I thought it worth reflecting my first thoughts here in context.
Outcomes are integral to this approach, and so you have to carefully critique the process you propose to ensure the outcomes match your intentions. We’re all probably well aware of issues with good intentions and unintended consequences.
To take this example: ‘Take vacation” may well be successful in ensuring that your colleagues take a “more than zero” amount of leave. But will it ensure they are taking enough time out to stay fresh, rested and avoid burnout?
The implied lack of an upper limit on vacation time appears to be progressive, but is probably more accurately described as libertarian. The amount of time taken is left up to the “market”.
How do you make sure your colleagues actually take enough time off? How do you ensure that other cultural influences don’t lead people to match each others appetites rather than genuinely taking time off to their own needs?
For example, if the median person at your company takes significantly under what would be considered normal vacation time, how do you prevent this becoming the norm through implicit peer pressure?
Whilst the traditional model of a defined number of days leave is imperfect in placing an arbitrary maximum on what might be the optimal time off for any particular person, the achoring effect of setting an expectation of how much leave will be taken could be beneficial in achieving healthy minimums.
Overworking and presenteeism are not virtues: well rested and relaxed people produce better work.
So, whilst Netflix’s process is a wonderful example of simpicity and repeatability, we can and should critique the outcome it produces.