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Your procedures are dumb. The fact that you stick to them idiotic.

It’s somewhat of an understatement to say that I hate rules and procedures. The laughing sound you just heard was everyone who’s ever worked with me chuckling about that understatement. The reason for my dislike is easy: Rules and procedures usually assume that everyone’s an idiot. In my experience the only people who thrive in these environments usually are idiots.

I’ve been reminded of that while working together with a couple of agencies on the new website for a mutual client. The lead agency pitched their way of working to the client. It sounded like a good idea at the time. There would be a lot of communication, which is expensive but can reduce the overall costs. Everyone would use their project system, and they would take the lead.

I had the intention to rant about just the top things that went belly-up, but let me shorten that to: When you have people running things who consider the process the end point you end up with a giant turd. In this case the website was late and missed essential features. The process was followed to the letter, and even though it’s raison d’être is avoiding birthing an absolute shit show, it still ended up launching just that.

Procedures: Sounds good, doesn't work

The reason for that is pretty straight forward: when you put the process ahead of the actual outcome your outcome will always be worse off. Because while the tough ought to get going, their hands are bound by the way they ought to act. These sort of systems have a way of casting out people who can actually think. Don’t take my word for it. Here’s Reed Hastings of Netflix fame’s take on procedures:

The mistakes in Pure was that every time we had a significant error: Sales call didn’t go well, bugs in the code. We tried to think about it in terms of: what process could we put in place to ensure that this doesn’t happen again, thereby improving the company. And what we failed to understand is by dummy-proofing all the systems. That we would have a system where only dummies wanted to work there, which was exactly what happened.

How questions checklists can help

As the strategy dude at bakermen it’s my job to create a framework that allows everyone to get to their best work. We’ve kicked around all ideas between total freedom (chaos), and flowcharts (way too rigid). We ended up settling on a question & action checklist.

These consist of questions that ask about key items that we find important. They will always start with asking what the main objective is for this campaign. Everything that follows needs to have this objective as it’s north star.

We then run through a set of questions designed to get someone thinking about KPI’s. We want them to think about where performance is won and lost. Each question expands to show a few scenarios and how to deal with them. The point is to think about the north star, and how this item on the list helps us get there.

It’s our version of commander’s intent, a military technique used to increase your odds of success. You don’t tell a company how to conquer and defend a bridge. You show them how it can be conquered and where defending it fits into the bigger picture. When the company succeeds it can now help achieve the big picture goal more efficiently. When it fails it can improvise to achieve the same intent in a different way.

If you know what the big picture outcome should be, and you’re giving several options of getting there, you’ll find your way. Specific and rigid instructions get you lost when things don’t go to plan.