Do you care more about the process or about getting results?

I suspect most people would say “results”. Maybe not everyone, but my feeling is that most people care about the bottom line. I could be wrong, though.

In theory, these two things should be complementary.  If you have a good process, it will generate good results. Most processes get created for the purpose of getting better results.  And everyone lives happily ever after.

Except sometimes–especially in large, bureaucratic organizations–process takes precedence over results.  This is especially true in government, because the organization doesn’t have to worry about making money. In that setting, people will start to focus on implementing new processes mindlessly–just because it gives them something to do.

If you focus only on results, on the other hand, you can sometimes get extreme cases where people are willing to do anything to get results.  This can include doing illegal things. (This is why you see cheating in highly competitive fields–anything to get an edge.)  In fact, from a certain perspective, morality is a sort of process that people follow by social or religious custom, and that some people (criminals/politicians) ignore in order to achieve results.

Bottom line: in a good organization, processes exist and are followed, but only with the goal of ensuring good results. Good organizations do not implement new processes for their own sake; but only with the intention of getting better results.

These are two errors people make in all types of organizations.  They seem to be complete opposites, but in fact they stem from the same failure in logic.

“The Competition Is Doing It”: People in business, sports, politics etc. will often say this to justify doing something.  “We need to spend the big bucks on this.” “Why?” “Because the competitors spent big bucks on it–we don’t want to be left behind.”

The problem is, this makes you susceptible to fads and fashions.  If the other guys are doing it and it’s actually a bad idea, then you are copying their mistakes. It’s an advanced form of peer-pressure. People who don’t know what they are doing will just copy other people on the assumption they do.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see what the competition is doing–of course you should–but rather that the fact that they are doing something is not in itself a reason to copy them.  Only if it’s working for them is it a reason to copy them.

Of course, people sometimes make the complete opposite mistake…

Not Invented Here Syndrome“: This is where people are too concerned about keeping their own insular culture, and refuse to adopt new ideas. A variant is “we’ve always done it that way” as a justification for something.  People are too afraid to try something new and justify it by saying its not “who we are” or “how we do it”.

Now, on the surface, these errors are in complete opposite directions.  One is about taking ideas from the outside, the other is about refusing to do so.  But the common theme in both is that people are unwilling to do something no one else is doing. They are afraid of the risks involved with trying something no one else has tried.

So, how to avoid making either of these errors?  It seems like a delicate balancing act, where if you try too hard to avoid one, you end up making the other one.

The answer is to focus on what actually works. That way, when someone says, “The competitors are doing it”, you can say, “And is it working for them?” And when someone says, “We’ve always done it that way”, you can say, “And has it worked for us?”

The truth is, many screw-ups occur because someone was afraid to do the thing that they knew would work, either because no one else was doing it, or because they themselves had never done it.


In his memoir Where Else Would You Rather Be?, Hall of Fame football coach Marv Levy offered some advice to coaches on how to speak to the press. Levy recognized that offense wins games, but defense wins championships–but he also knew that sportswriters prefer to hear, and write, about offense.  So he advised the following:

Talk about offense. Talk about your aerial circus. Give it a signature name. Call it “The Coast-to-Coast Offense,” or announce, as an alternative, that it will be known–if your last name is Kappelmeier–by the appellation “Air Kappelmeier”. Talk about how innovative you are. Tell them you invented the spiral. Tell them that you like to roll the dice, that punting is for sissies, and that defense is for criminal lawyers. Use words like “razzle dazzle” and every synonymous term you can dredge up. Don’t talk about reverses; talk about triple reverses and fake reverses. Tell the world how you are going to go for it on fourth down, probably with a play-action pass. Say something catchy, such as, “Our offense will take no prisoners” or “Wait until you see our weapons of mass destruction.” And then–do what it takes to win. (p. 214)

Levy’s advice applies to other endeavors besides football.  More often than not, what people want to hear and what actually needs to be done to succeed are very different.

This is why the field of public relations exists. In theory, the job of a public relations person is to handle saying what people want to hear, while the rest of the organization handles doing what needs to be done.

Some people can do what Levy describes: they can wear their public relations hat and tell everyone what sounds good, and then take off that hat and resume doing their jobs. I’m no expert, but I get the sense that Steve Jobs was one of these people.

Where problems happen is if you get a P.R. person who believes their own P.R. pitch running the show.  If somebody who is great at telling people what they want to hear accidentally takes control of the behind-the-scenes stuff, it can lead to prolonged problems for an organization.  Worse yet, it’s hard to get rid of such a person, because he will keep telling people what they want to hear, and thus they will be sympathetic towards him and too willing to forgive failures.