Friday, July 11, 2008

People versus Process

Early in my career as a general manager I realized that business is about embracing chaos and driving process. My research as a mathematician in theory of chaos helped me with internalizing this embrace of chaos, and working on flexible processes that can be easily tuned with small perturbations so that the organization can adapt well to different market scenarios. This approach of embracing chaos, while driving process is often misunderstood. The root of the misunderstanding is that managers put too much emphasis on trying to create highly optimized efficient processes and the organization then becomes a victim of inflexible mechanization, thereby stifling entrepreneurship.
I do not subscribe to the school of thought that all problems are fixed by good processes. Intelligent, continuously evolving organizations with a bare minimum of processes are sustainable and successful. I encourage good people to achieve excellence by driving process where it makes sense or breaking processes when they do not make sense. We need to ensure that companies do not fall prey to their own processes.
I am a frequent traveler on Singapore Airlines, and have amassed more frequent flier miles than is probably good for me. Once when I was travelling with my wife and our twins to San Francisco we had an issue with a process. The twins were barely 9 months old. We had a one hour layover in Seoul. The airline staff refused to allow the unloading of the twin stroller in Seoul stating the process did not allow unloading of strollers for transit passengers. I finally spoke to a customer service person and asked her if the process that forces young parents to carry their children during a one hour layover where passengers are forced to leave the plane with their belongings makes any sense. She immediately understood the situation and instructed the ground staff that the process had to be ignored, and to allow the stroller to be brought out in Seoul for all passengers who needed it. No wonder why SIA is a favorite airline for many travelers, and one of the few consistently profitable airline companies.
In each of our organizations we should empower and encourage our employees to break processes that do not make sense. Having been in startup phases of launching products and of running start up phases of regional business within a larger company, and managing the growth of the teams, I have seen that even enterprising young teams tend to start overly relying on process as they grow bigger. The key challenge is growing leaders in the organization who can strike a balance between encouraging some minimum processes and avoiding the over reliance on process to drive growth.
I had a long discussion with Jim an employee of a company whose prime philosophy is that good process drives good business. The problem that Jim and his colleagues faced were that process soon became rules, and the rules became unquestionable. And his organization is trapped in a cycle of sharply declining innovation. The private equity firm that bought out the company likes the situation because in the short term, the perceived increase in efficiency makes it easier to make a quick profit from selling the company or parts of the company. But as a chief technologist for his organization Jim knows that in 2 years they will be overtaken by competition.
As I have mentioned in an earlier blog, many of the ideas that hit a lot of us as obvious has been well articulated before. Ross Mayfield in his blog entry “the end of process” does a good job of talking about this and a favorite quote that he states is from Clay Shirky “ process is an embedded reaction to prior stupidity”.

The point of this musing is to encourage PEOPLE in organizations to invest in the empowerment and encouragement of PEOPLE and not be ruled by PROCESS.