Process Goldilocks

Not too little, not too much

I’m working on a couple of all-new articles that will be ready to publish in the coming weeks. For now, enjoy this early effort from when I first went into startup land (originally published on LinkedIn).

When I first went from Google to a fairly early-stage startup, it was quite a culture shock. Everything was different to what I was used to. In particular, it was a lot more chaotic than I had expected, and it made me nervous. I tried to put my preconceptions aside, and figure out what was really happening. Eventually, I felt comfortable enough to share my early observations about the software development process at the company. One of the slides had this diagram:

What I had seen was that every company is on a journey, and for every step on that journey there is a "right" amount of process to have in place. Good processes (e.g. documenting what you do, or having approval checklists for product launches) allow your organisation to operate at a larger scale, build higher-quality and more complex systems, reduce risk, and increase predictability. Well-considered and well-implemented processes support teams and individuals in doing their jobs. However, processes come at a cost in terms of raw productivity and throughput, and in the early stages of a startup many of them are too expensive to implement or are simply unnecessary.

When you're two ramen-fuelled developers in a basement, the right amount of process is "not much". When you're a globe-straddling mega-corporation, the right amount of process is "quite a lot". And of course, when you're starting out then "not much" is a natural default.

If you're growing, then, generally the actual amount of process you have in place is going to trail the amount of process you need. I suspect the diagram above describes a large majority of successfully-growing startups. This "process lag" generally manifests in a certain degree of chaos, communication breakdowns, and dropped balls. This is often characterised as "growing pains".

If you're in a role that is responsible for scaling and growing an organisation, what this means is that you're in the business of adding and refining process. Ideally, you get the red ball in the diagram to catch up with the green ball, and then to keep up with it as your organisation goes on its journey. Knowing about good processes is something most experienced managers should not have too much trouble with. The art of it, and one that I look forward to learning, is how to roll them out at just the right pace that they are always supportive, never stifling.