TWH#30: Process has a bad rap
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” — Leonardo da Vinci
In the frenzied world of startups, process is often absent. Things happen haphazardly, but it all somehow works out—when it does, anyway—because there’s not enough people for complexity to rear its head. If you’re lucky, your product gains traction, the investors’ money pours in and off to the races you go. It’s time to scale.
Great. So, process.
That unholy, first-degree cousin of “bureaucracy” at the altar of which rivers of creativity and humanity have come to rest. Shopify’s founder and CEO Tobi Lütke believes there’s three types of it:
“There’s a kind of process that makes things that were previously impossible to do, possible. That’s good. Then there’s a kind of process that makes something that was previously possible significantly simpler, which is also good. And then there’s everything else. I bet you 99.9% of all process that exists in corporate America is the third category, which is actually just telling people to behave slightly different from what common sense tells them to do.”
Why do so many processes tell people to “behave slightly different from what common sense tells them to do”? I suspect it’s, in part, because they’re often hijacked for purposes other than originally intended. Do any of these sound familiar?
OKRs are supposed to keep people aligned towards company objectives but degenerate into an individual performance management tool, or a fiefdom management system.
Retrospectives are supposed to be about actual learning but degenerate into following some framework no matter what (because “agile coaching”) yielding no value whatsoever.
Career ladders are supposed to be about individual development (maybe I’m being naïve), but degenerate into reducing human beings to a crisp number convenient for different HR purposes (e.g. titles and compensation).
If you’re leading your product or engineering organization, or even if you’re leading a single team, what can you do to prevent this? One approach is to create a lens through which to think about and design each process:
Purpose. What is this process supposed to make either possible or significantly simpler? Or does it help create a desirable, healthy habit? If none of the above, ask yourself if it’s really necessary.
Principles. What orients the design of this process towards its purpose? What is the specific approach that we’re choosing from the many we could take?
Practices. How is the process to be executed? What specific actions will embody the principles towards achieving the purpose?1
As an example, let’s look at individual growth and development—a critical aspect of scaling a company successfully. In many cases, what should be a simple, tight loop between a manager and a direct report ends up outsourced to some quarterly or even yearly “performance review”. In larger startups, these get wildly complicated with soul-draining “calibration” meetings, spreadsheets with every “performance category” boiled down to a number with two decimal places, leading to “performance review cycles” that suck everyone’s soul. I am not sure personal growth is on the other side of all this, or just plain dread about the next cycle. But it sure as hell is efficient at keeping managers (really) busy and at dishing out promotions and raises. Because “retention”, right?
Don’t get me wrong. Setting compensation, in as fair, unbiased and competitive way as possible, is critical. Helping people advance in their careers vis-à-vis the job market matters. But we should not pretend that it necessarily helps people grow. You are not your job title, and you are not your compensation. If you’re not adding expertise to experience, the music will eventually stop.
If individual growth and development really is the objective, can the framework above help address it and stay the course? Let’s give it a shot.
Grow each individual in a meaningful way that benefits both the individual and the company.
The manager should act as a coach by enabling the development framework and creating a discipline and cadence around it.
The individual should take the driver seat in leading their own growth within the framework, exercising autonomy and creativity.
The process should be simple to understand and execute, allowing the individual to focus on content over form.
The process should have the side effect of enhancing the working relationship between the individual and the manager.
At the beginning of each quarter, manager and individual co-define:
1-2 areas of improvement for the next 3 months.
2-3 drivers and/or initiatives that have the highest chance of positively impacting said areas of improvement.
Agree on what success realistically looks like (lagging indicators), and how to track progress in the short term (leading indicators).
In every subsequent 1:1, manager and individual reserve time to:
Review progress made since the last meeting.
Reflect on what’s been helpful and what’s been getting in the way.
Reflect on whether the plan should be revised and if so, how.
Repeat this loop each quarter, refining the areas of improvement as needed.
Note that the format isn’t overly prescriptive—it says nothing about what types of goals are acceptable, or how they should be measured. It only restricts their number (to concentrate effort) and that they should be measured somehow (to assess progress). It’s also not onerous, allowing manager and individual to focus on the substance. And by establishing a co-creative, regular feedback loop, it’s not only more likely the goals will be met, but also the working relationship will improve. Finally, there is nothing about the actual output besides the stated purpose—the individual’s growth.
In a recent coaching session, I suggested the above framework to one of my clients using the exact same example. The client immediately asked “how could this possibly work if I had 100 engineers?” When I pressed him to answer his own question, he realized there was in fact nothing preventing it from scaling well. Quite the contrary. It just didn’t feel elaborate or sophisticated enough.
In fast-growing startups and “scaleups”, with strong momentum, it’s easy to fall prey to unnecessary complexity. Nothing is really simple, but it almost always can be made simpler. As a leader, it’s your job to strive for that simplicity at all levels, when the default is otherwise. To fall in love with simplicity, not with complexity.
Leaders are often compared to gardeners, a metaphor I like. In this case, I like the idea of being a sculptor even more. Because as Saint-Exupéry once said, “perfection is achieved not when there’s nothing more to add, but when there’s nothing more to take away”.