Death to Process

This article originally appeared in MISC Magazine.

I feel like I’ve written this article countless times. Still, apparently people keep being entertained and who knows – maybe I’m delusional and feel like I’m stuck in a perpetual loop but am actually evolving my thinking a little bit each time. Alas, as always, I digress.

Here we are again… the cliché’d farm-boy-engineer pitting his passionate, creative right brain against his regimented, anal-retentive left (yes, yes, we’re all aware of the fallacy of this ridiculous, outdated psycho-babble, but I’m trying to entertain you here… go with it). Yet terrible cliché or not, when it comes to the topic of process, my inner ranting anarchist can’t help but make a small appearance. Why you ask?

Because process is designed to let us be stupid.

Though don’t take my harsh words the wrong way, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, it’s still a reality. Process has a positive side. It affords us consistency, reliability, simplicity, repeatability, and repeatability. It allows us to take complex tasks and break them down into much simpler parts to be executed by specialists or even automated by machines. At an extreme, process takes the world we live in and quantizes it into easy to manage, binary decisions and actions – do or don’t do.

Ultimately, what it really affords us is efficiency. By optimizing each part of a process – though specialization, experience, and blind repetition – we can optimize the whole and create faster, bigger, stronger, better systems. Six Sigma Black Belts, Biz Process Gurus, Scrum Masters, Kaizen experts… these are our masters of process.

And these are the assholes that want you to be stupid.

The other effect of this optimized worldview is that it reduces cognitive load. By boiling a complex sequence down to a series of simple steps, the true efficiency comes in never having to question the world around you, but instead simply becoming a master of your small domain. Yes, we do become these specialists, experts, gurus, and masters, and by allowing our world to exist between the confines of our inflows and outputs, we slowly lose is our ability to think beyond our stations and ourselves. We turn the brilliance and inquisitive nature of the human mind into a simple cog to be plugged into someone’s process.

And because we’re lazy, we gladly bury our complications amongst the trust that those giants whose shoulders we stand upon were facing the right direction and pointing us the right way when they set our process. For the most part, they probably were. For the most part, you can feel comfort standing on those broad shoulders, gazing off into the great beyond to which their ancient, wise fingers point.

“For the most part” – you had to see this one coming.

The dawn of industrialization introduced more processes into our lives in the past 100 years than ever existed prior in the whole of human history. And yes, these processes have brought us massive efficiencies and vaulted our innovations forward exponentially during this time. However, who’s to say that these processes will continue to hold as the best way forward? What if they’re holding us back and our complacency and laziness is the only thing getting in the way of even greater breakthroughs and innovations? How often do we stop and take the time to step back and see the bigger picture; to truly evaluate what we’re doing in a context broader than what’s expected of us and to ask questions that might at first seem foolish?

One of the things I love about my job is the ability to attack a problem with a certain sense of foolish ignorance. As consultants, we’re expected to be able to take on nearly any problem thrown at us, however, this necessarily means that we’re doubtful to be experts at all or even some of it. Yet, it is in this blissful ignorance that I often find comes our greatest strengths: naïve curiosity and the ability to make non-intuitive connections between diverse problems.

We do this not by strictly following process, but in fact by intentionally breaking it.

Because it is in the breaking of process that we force ourselves to think. We remove the guardrails that act as quick decision-making tools and question the underlying assumptions surrounding the task at hand. And, if there is a serious problem with the task at hand, this is precisely the type of thinking that we need – curious not complacent, skeptical not safe, and exploratory not efficient. We break process not to simply find holes in it and patch or improve them, but to rethink it entirely to constantly and consistently find entirely newer and better ways of doing things.

Though this role is exhausting, the potential pitfalls of not questioning ourselves are the business equivalent of setting cruise control on your car, letting go the steering wheel and letting our imperfectly designed systems steer us into the unknown (that metaphor was a lot more compelling before self-driving cars became commonplace). You may drift along safely for a while, but eventually an inevitable swerve in the road will send you careening off a cliff.

So I say death to process. To hell with the black belts. Leave the process to those who wish to play with cookie cutters. I, for one, would much rather play the role of the foolish skeptic. And though it takes every ounce of my being to fight my inner engineer and businessman each time I play the fool, I’ll gladly spend the energy because I’d rather be exhausted from swimming upstream than continue blindly down a path of self-fulfilling validity… even if I am wrong. At the end of the day, I’d rather be an exhausted fool than a cog.

Shane Saunderson is the VP of IC/things at Idea Couture.