Just enough process to survive.

Can’t live with it, can’t live without it.

When something goes wrong (I mean properly wrong, like Fukashima nuclear plant or the Deepwater Horizon oil rig), we are told it is due to processes being inadequate or missing altogether. But we’re also told there is too much process, too much red tape, and it’s stifling initiative and innovation.

This ambivalence about process applies to me as an individual. The other day I was called out for being contradictory and inconsistent because I want to get rid of process to encourage innovation but put process in place to focus effort in the right areas. It seems sometimes I love it and sometimes I hate it, so let me explain.

I am not for or against process. I am for an appropriate  amount of process. And what’s appropriate depends on the situation. Too much will kill initiative, too little will cause chaos and failure. You need just enough to survive.

I’ve always seen process as a way of making sure I don’t have to visit a problem twice. Once I’ve figured out what has to get done, I create a process so that other people can deal with it. This is partly due to a desire for efficiency and partly because I get bored easily. It frees me up to go and find something else that’s interesting.

But I don’t ‘bake in’ processes. You build a process that can be quickly implemented, probably with the resources you have at hand, and will last for a reasonable amount of time. When it stops working effectively, you revisit the problem, which will have changed in nature and scale by then anyway. And then you come up with the next appropriate solution and create a new process.

This has always worked for me but more recently I have framed it in the language of the lean startup and customer discovery. At the point where you have figured out your business model and are ready to scale, process becomes really important. To be able to marshall your resources effectively and achieve the rate of growth that you need, you need to systemise.

But before then, process is just a servant to the activity of searching for the answer to your business model puzzle. Quick and dirty processes are the order of the day because they free up you and other resources to do the important work of discovery. If they aren’t terribly sophisticated or robust, it doesn’t matter. As long as they get the issue out of the way, they’re fine.

Many people have told me I’m good at process, which I always find surprising because it’s not a strength I recognise. However, I am really good at using just enough process to clear the way to work on the important stuff. Process must be the servant of purpose. Use it wisely and it will help you move faster. Use it badly and it will stop you in your tracks.

Process should be appropriate for the situation. Always.

Photo Credit: aussiegall via Compfight cc

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