Kill Innovation with Process
This is my site Written by Alora on November 2, 2010 – 11:40 am

Once again, Martin Zwilling of Startup Professionals Musings managed to hit the nail on a head with something I’ve been noticing more and more lately: the shifting pendulum within business, swinging back from many of the most recent ‘hot trends’ in business.

The big one of these, of course, is the hot button topic for business: “process.”

Back in 2007 and 2008, you couldn’t go a single day without seeing, hearing, reading or discussing the importance of business “process” with someone. Everything was about process: building it, documenting it, automating it, measuring it, monitoring it, auditing it, and then when that was all done, starting over and starting again.

Of course, there are good reasons for that: inefficient processes can destroy an otherwise good business. The best example in my career came from the Valentine’s Day blizzard in New York City in 2007, while I was working at JetBlue Airways.

While the storm itself was on Valentine’s Day, the chaos in the airline lasted from then all the way through President’s Day Weekend. Why? Process. As an organization, many of our core operational processes were still manual, and the wide-spread impact of the storm itself (combined with an operational philosophy that made more sense for a small airline, but which we’d really outgrown by that point) created an domino effect throughout the entire business.

While our competitors were able to bounce back from the storm within a day and return to normal operations, it took us five days to untangle the mess and get things back to normal. And we infuriated more than a few customers over that highly traveled holiday weekend.

And once the dust settled, there were only two words on everyone’s lips: “process improvement.”

So, of course, process efficiency is important. But there is a downside to a single-minded process focus, and it’s one that I often see inadvertantly choking startups: too much process can quickly become a hinderance to innovation and execution.

The real danger, in this quagmire, though, is a matter of degrees. How far do you drive the development and improvement (and, where possible, the automation) of process, before you start resembling Mel Brooks’ satire “The Twelve Chairs“?

(And, in honor of “process running amok” a classic clip, courtesy of Mr. Charlie Chaplin.)

In the early days of my career, chaotic startup environments (pre-bubble burst) were notorious for being process black holes. It wasn’t uncommon to hear corporate types scoff in distain about the unsustainable immaturity of startups, because it was taken for granted that structured process was a prerequisite for success.

Naturally, there is some truth to that. Sound process is at the heart of critical success factors such as “scalability” and “reliability” — two words which, while not necessarily sexy, are vitally important, especially to your customers and invetors. (See JetBlue reference above.)

Our current recession, however, has shown me the other side of the coin: displaced career long corporate warriors — well steeped in the virtues of structure and process — taking the opportunity of being laid off to start a new venture. And I have watched more than a few of them struggle with how to be successful in a startup world, where decisions are often made in an instant and change can happen over a cup of coffee.

I once made the mistake of hiring a person to join my startup’s IT Operations team who came from a solidly enterprise-centric, big business background. She was obsessed with not working more than 8 hours per day. If circumstances required that she log any extra time, she would keep a tally of it to trade for a comp day once she’d hit 8 hours. Legalities of this aside (IANAL: “I am not a lawyer”), this was devestating to the morale of the team, because we were in a culture where — like it or not — no one else worked less than 55-75 hours per week.

For some people this transition is not a big deal: over time, our preferences change. What seemed like a great foundation of structural support at one time, can feel like crushing suffocation a few years later. Former career-long enterprise professionals who leave their cushy, well-paid gig at a Fortune 100 for a major pay-cut with insane hours to go to a startup often do it for this reason: a lack of predetermined process and structure leaves the door open for having a more significant impact.

Over time I’ve developed a heightened sensitivity to the maturation lifecycle of startups, and what I now understand is that the degree of process necessary in an organization is directly related to disposition of the clients, the demands of the market, the stability of the technology and the maturity of the organization itself.

There are points in time when a startup is better off with a wild-eyed gun-slinger mentality; and other times when discretion, caution and deliberate consideration make the difference between astronomical success and crushing defeat.

The key is walking the line, and over the years, I’ve found that the line is actually easier to find than most people think. Almost every employee engagement survey in modern times says the same thing: autonomy is one of the most coveted traints that a person looks for in a job. People who feel that sense of autonomy are more highly engaged, stay in their roles longer, and out-perform their peers.

So the question to ask yourself is this: how much process can I put in place to build stability, while leaving enough fluidity so that my team maintains their sense of autonomy?

The tricky part, of course, is that line is different for everyone. The solution isn’t tricky at all, though: talk to you people and ask them. If they really believe that you are looking to make sure that they are happy (and, truly, any boss who doesn’t actively try to find ways to keep their employees happy in their job is asking to lose their employees, no matter what condition the economy is in), most of them will tell you. Just be sure that when they do, you are listening.