I heard a speech today that included a reference as follows: “this organization needs to be more results-oriented and less process oriented”. That phrase resonated with me for some time thereafter for a few reasons: 1. I have heard this phrase many times before in the industry. 2. It is usually a great excuse to go back to “cowboy tactics” that often lead to mistakes and quality issues, 3. This kind of thinking takes an organization backward in terms of process evolution, 4. I know exactly where this sentiment is coming from, and I can sympathize.
Organizations, like people, go through a natural evolution: Early in the development of an organization, like a startup, process is hard to find and usually is not well embraced. Process is an impediment but on the other hand results are also sporadic and inconsistent. Startups revolve around a cowboy culture of heroes that go to herculean lengths to get something done. There is usually no concern with efficiency or quality or reliability since the imbedded base of users is small and the legacy is short or non existent. After all, this isn’t life or death, right?
Over time, as small wins become big wins, the base of users grows. The expectations expand to meet the ever expanding needs of the users and the situations may, in some cases, become life or death. Look at Facebook, we have all read about life or death situations on Facebook including now the latest situation with political ads influencing elections and fake news being published on Facebook. Facebook no longer has the luxury of running like a cowboy culture of a startup. Process must become an integral part of how they get their job done. When you have been in business awhile, success is no longer a function of merely making users smile every once in a while with some cool feature, it is about consistently making your clients happy (or delighted) with the product or service . You cant afford to let your user base down.
While process is great at helping create consistent outputs and quality deliverables, over time, too much process can lead to cultural stagnation, a culture of bureaucracy and a culture where “no” is the prevalent answer. A culture of “it cant be done” starts to prevail. This is why, in part, the CEO of a large company is often looking for “can do” and “make it happen” people to promote into leadership roles. While the CEO of a large company wants to hear how things can get done, the renegades that work outside of the process often fail to deliver as they don’t understand the processes that make things happen inside the organization.
In the ideal, you have people, in a mature organization, who both know how to get things done and also know how to best follow the process. Designing flexibility and agility into the process is a key to success in large mature organizations. Knowing where in the organization innovation and creativity is needed and where process adherence and compliance is needed is part of the challenge of designing today’s robust organization. There is a place for the divergent thinkers, the creative ones and there is a place for the convergent thinkers, the ideal organization assigns the right type of person to the right project at the ideal time.
Ultimately it is a false choice to choose between process and results. Process was always intended to help guarantee results, that is why we have process. If we have process for other reasons, perhaps political or bureaucratic, then process exists for the wrong reasons and should be dismantled. Like a surgeon however, it is not usually a good idea to make blanket assumptions about the process vs results continuum. Each case, and each individual in the process needs careful review before major changes are put in place. Processes need to be tailored carefully, usually with a scalpel rather than an axe. This too is a skill that maturing organizations need to develop. A role that a robust engineering manager can help fulfil.