Does a process driven culture stifle creativity?

As great as process is for business improvement, is it also a double-edged sword where process can be detrimental on company culture, particularly creativity? Can we process to guide teams to perform activities in the best way we know, but also let them stay creative and innovative?

This is my second blog in response to Netflix CEO Reed Hasting's great presentation that challenged traditional thinking towards core values and company culture. As well as being a thought provoking article on core values, Hastings raises some warning flags with regard to process management.

The second risk that Hastings raises (the first is in this post - Process improvement. Have we been wrong all along?) is the rise of the ‘bad process’ in response to growth in size and complexity of an organisation, and the detrimental impact this can have on company culture. Hastings uses examples of how we seek to control the chaos that emerges as a company grows and increases in complexity, i.e. multiple pre-approvals before spending $5,000, three people needed to approve a banner ad and a multi-level approvals process for every project.

We’ve all experienced bad process. It can be infuriating as a customer, but in some ways it’s worse when you’re actually a part of a bad process. Those over-controlled processes laden with preventative controls and multiple approvals were a classic response to the growth of the 80’s and 90’s - think the traditional ignored procedures manual, and the third signature on a cheque. Yes they can be slow, costly, demoralizing… all this, and they often didn’t even achieve their intended outcomes.

So is he right? Is it better to stay fast and loose like a start-up with a bit of innovative flair, rather than morph into the lumbering step-by-step bureaucracy we see in bloated corporates?

Unfortunately the ‘trust me I know what I’m doing’ approach doesn’t work beyond a small team scenario. From a customer’s perspective, unconstrained innovation and personal ownership can just feel like inconsistent service, inconsistent products, unexpected delays. For many processes, a different way is just a kinder way of saying plain wrong, with problems that need to be fixed later.

So how can we guide teams to perform activities in the best way we know, but also let them stay creative and innovative.

It’s all in the right approach for the right process, which can be different for every team in every organisation. We need to give clear simple guidance on the parts of the process that need to be performed in a certain way and also be clear on the parts that we can leave to the creative know-how of the team. I wish I could explain how to paint a masterpiece… but I can’t. I can however give a step-by-step explanation of how to mount a canvas on a frame in the correct way. This is the part of the process we can’t vary and our instructions can be clear on that.

In my experience, creative teams and talented workers can sometimes be reluctant to admit the work they perform is even part of a process. Part of this is the confidence that breeds innovation, part of it is just the arrogance of talent. Don’t tell me what to do, I’m an expert.

As process practitioners we need to help our teams realize that, as Hastings put it, ‘good process actually helps creative people get more done’. A healthy process culture provides a platform for creativity and innovation. Teams can challenge established ways, and be confident of the boundaries of where to apply their own creativity, and where they can’t. Not only that, a good process base also gives us a platform to continually challenge the ways in which we work. If you can think of a better way to mount that canvas - speak up!

The problem with trying to hang on to the maverick days of the start-up, is that trying to sustain success through that chaos of growth doesn’t work without some structure. Success depends on culture and process working in harmony, with teams working together to innovate, to improve, and to deliver a great customer experience every time.

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