Choose Your Destiny
Would you prefer your business to be a pleasant, fulfilling place to work – well, most of the time – or do you want an environment where you’re the prison guard bringing down the baton on the slightest show of individuality?
Ask any business owner or manager and they’ll tell you they prefer the Happyland option. Hey, it’s right there on their About Us page : Our People Are Our Greatest Asset.
But when it’s time for actions, they often swing into full San Quentin supermax mode, out of fear that the peasantry might start getting uppity ideas.
It’s your choice, and we’ll return to it after we deal with this ad that just went up near one of our offices.
The Road To Happiness
There’s a bit to unpack in this ad.
First the good bit: top marks for keeping to three words. Outdoor ads are still important – hell, even Facebook used tons of outdoor for last year’s “we’re trying to look sorry” campaign.
Outdoor is not the place to roll out your boardroom PowerPoint. You’re talking to distracted people in a hurry and if you need more than five words forget it.
But sorry, you lost me at operationalise. It’s like starting a meal by necking a mug of dry breadcrumbs. It’s the sort of word beloved of corporate creeps who truly believe that happiness can be guaranteed using the right process. Happiness they’ll measure by endless email customer satisfaction spam and zero human contact.
If they said Plan For Customer Happiness you’d think: good, that’s the role of a CRM and businesses should do that in an organised way.
But when you talk about happiness with words like operationalise, it’s a dead giveaway that you care far less for customers than you do for the sweet cost cuts of your new robot service army.
Opening Time At The Nong Factory
Process is a choice you face as you grow your business. The textbooks say it’s all about documented processes to guide your obedient underlings. Have those and you can grow indefinitely and have a business you can sell. In many situations that’s true. If you’re running airline maintenance, hospitals, or staging events using a huge pool of once-a-year casual labor, you need all the documented processes in the world or everything will end up on fire.
A lot of businesses, particularly services, don’t need as much process as your MBA would have you believe. If you hire good people, they do good work. They don’t need a ton of process. If you hire nongs*, you need processes so tight they can barely move their eyeballs of their own free will.
But good people don’t want to work in a system designed for nongs. They will leave, and you will end up with a nong factory.
It’s your choice. You can have:
A. An endlessly stimulating environment where your people are constantly surprising you with how good their work is, where you genuinely enjoy talking to them, where you feel a genuine sense of pride in what all of you have created together.
B. A well-behaved army of drones following your every instruction, none of them going above and beyond, all doing exactly their job and no more, where you’re always thinking: “What new mistakes will they make that I must correct via updated processes?”
Either is a legitimate choice. You can grow a larger business with Option B. And it will certainly be easier to sell to private equity because they’ll want to scale it up ASAP. But I can vouch from experience that Option A is more fun, and more profitable in percentage terms.
It’s a very different cultural feel. Option B is easier if you’re a nervous business owner. And it’s easy to say hire good people, but it’s not something you can do overnight. For some thoughts on how to do it: Managers, Stand Up For Your Staff.
You have to give people the freedom to make mistakes. But most business owners can’t bear the thought of a short-term loss and will jump in and fix it themselves, like you do with your child’s craft project. That’s counter-productive in the long term.
The McGyver Principle
Of course you need some processes. You’ll get nowhere unless your people are keen to work out better ways to do the repetitive stuff and pass that knowledge on. Our people spend hours working out how to shave a few minutes off a given task and that’s big money over a year. They love discovering new ways to make technical processes more reliable, given that our screw-ups are in front of large audiences and might end up in the media, which is not cool.
But great people get excited when something turns up that’s completely outside the process matrix so they can deal with it like McGyver.
You can’t imprison good people inside fixed lists of behavior. There will always be voodoo areas. New product ideas. The message side of marketing. Building relationships with your staff and clients, and selling them on your thrilling vision. Areas where touchy-feely skills are essential.
It’s especially true of marketing, where the entire point is to make yourself different to your competitors. So there’s no guaranteed process to get there, because if there was, everyone would do it. Then there’d still be no competitive advantage and you’d have to start the process all over again like a never-ending Escher 3D maze.
Anyone who promises guaranteed results from their secret marketing method is a straight-up liar.
Of course, there is a certain amount of process involved: talk to customers, look for gaps in the grid and so forth. But the final steps on that journey, the ones that will set you apart from everyone else, are pure witchcraft. Which is fine because if your witchcraft skills are low, you can hire voodoo people by the hour.
Is Process A Competitive Advantage?
Don’t interpret all this as all process is bad. It’s only bad when it makes your customers bend to the will of your internal list-tickers, rather than the other way around (read the full rant on containing your in-house operational Nazis here). Process will get you up to a certain level of reliability, and will stop you pissing customers off with your incompetence. But doing what you do from a list isn’t some amazing competitive advantage in 2019.
The competitive advantage comes not from what you do, but the way you do it. That’s much a harder trick to pull off. We’ll come back to it in more detail another time, or this post will turn into a novel and I’ve got a plane to catch.
* How good a word is nong? For our international readers:
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