Process is about raising floors and removing ceilings

I’ll admit it: I’m obsessed with creating processes. Whenever it looks like I’m going to do something more than once, I start creating a process. It’s nothing big – I just write down what I plan to do before I do it. Viola! A process.

Processes can take many different forms and names: a checklist, a plan, a recipe, a playbook, a workflow, etc. They are all processes. The dictionary defines process as “a series of actions or steps taken in order to achieve a particular end.

Often the very act of writing down the steps highlights a few things I might have missed. Once I’m done, I can update it based on what actually happened, and the next time I do it, I’ll make fewer mistakes and do so in less time.

This is even more the case at a startup.

Some people cringe when they encounter a process. “It’s onerous!” they worry, “it’ll slow us down and we’re moving fast!” It might slow you down a bit. But it shouldn’t slow you down too much — otherwise, it should be reviewed and streamlined — and it might prevent you from making a mistake that will slow you down a lot more. And the next time you do it, you’ll go much faster.

Another way of looking at it is as an easy way to avoid dumb mistakes, especially in high-pressure, rushed situations, which is basically all the time in a startup. An even better way of looking at it is as a way to spend less time thinking about easy things and more time thinking about hard things. When you don’t need to spend time thinking about the little things, because you have a checklist, you can think about the big things. How can we do this better? Is this even something we want to do?

Processes are especially helpful even it comes to creative work.

At Loud Dog (the creative agency I ran), we had a process for almost everything. Some things were more logistics than anything, and these are obvious process candidates: launching a website, building a server, collecting client information, etc. But we had a process for creative things as well: creating logos, website designs, videos, developing names.

Often clients were excited about our well-defined processes. These were usually the ones that had been around the block before and seen what not having a process looked like. Other clients were reticent – mostly concerned about time and cost. “Do you really need to take all that time to generate one simple thing? I heard that the Nike logo was created over a weekend by a college student. Can’t you just do the same thing?”

This misunderstands creativity. The process doesn’t guarantee amazing. What it does is protect against downright bad. Without a process, creativity is hit-and-miss. Sometimes inspiration hits and it’s AMAZING. Other times, it’s not. A good process avoids this, grants a higher likelihood of amazing, and ensures good. There’s plenty of bad out there. When you need to generate results, not just the possibility of results, you need a process.

Well-defined processes help organizations scale.

Beyond ensuring good quality, good processes codify and distribute knowledge, ensuring consistent quality as an organization grows.

Every organization engages in repeated activities, from finding and hiring new employees, to designing new features, to marketing, selling, and servicing customers. The more of these repeated activities an organization is able to identify and codify, the more they will maintain quality as they scale, and the faster they’ll be able to scale.

Ad hoc efforts are the enemy of scale.

When a team fails to introduce process to their work, they end up relying on ad hoc efforts – one-time efforts designed specially for the task at hand. Although sometimes ad hoc efforts are necessary, they often rely on the heroic – and siloed – efforts of individuals. And individuals are not scalable. Processes are the opposite of ad hoc efforts.

At the end of the day, processes ensure consistent quality and allow organizations to scale. Creating good process is challenging and hard work, but well worth it in the long run. Relying on ad hoc efforts can create good short-term results, but you end up relying on heroic individual contributions that aren’t always duplicable and are never scalable.

A few recent articles on steriods

My position on steroids in sports is pretty well established, but I know how much you all love hearing more about it. So here are a few recent articles.

Lance Armstrong: Victim?

This sounds like a review of the USADA’s prosecution of Lance Armstrong, but really an examination of their power and their role as a quasi-governmental agency that operates without the oversight and Constitutional constraints that a government agency would have.

Roid Age: steroids in sport and the paradox of pharmacological puritanism

Here’s a long and somewhat academic article that goes even deeper into the history of steroids and the ironies of their use. The author concludes:

The irony is that we punish severely the people who could use steroids the most, the athletes who have the most legitimate need for them if they are to recover and perform at the levels we like to watch on television and in stadiums. Using steroids because we no longer get the same erections we once had, or because a middle-aged man has less energy than he did at twenty (or a woman has less libido than considered ideal), is increasingly considered normal, while the list of substances banned for people like Mark McGwire grows longer and longer, the invasive tests intended to expose any transgression more and more extensive. As a society, we suffer from a paradoxical pharamacological puritanism, expecting medical technology to change our lives and yet demanding that it not change our games.


Lightbulbs and patent trolls

I’m always searching for good analogies that highlight what’s wrong with software patents. I don’t remember where I saw this, but I like it.

We all know the story of how Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb. He knew the basics of what he needed to invent: something that would glow consistently when a current was applied to it, but wouldn’t burn up too quickly. The idea for this had been around for fifty years, but no one had been able to make it work practically. He and his assistants tried some 3,000 different ways of making it work, and finally figured out how. And thus the modern lightbulb was born, with Edison as its inventor.

Flash forward to modern software patents. Edison isn’t the inventor, and doesn’t receive the patent or any accolades. Instead, some guy fifty years earlier has the idea for an incandescent lightbulb and describes it without having any practical way of making it work, and just sits back and waits for Edison to come make it a reality. Welcome to the modern patent troll.

Traditional patents are granted for the method by which an invention accomplishes something – the specific filament, for example, or a machine that works in a particular way to do something. Software patents are granted for the concept that the software accomplishes, not the actual code that accomplishes is (that code is still protected by trademark). Amazon’s (in)famous one-click patent doesn’t cover the actual code written to make one-click happen (there are many ways one could write that code), but covers the idea of writing code to make that happen.

If we applied modern patent practices a hundred years ago, Eli Whitney wouldn’t have patented his actual cotton gin, but the idea of using a machine to separate cotton fibers from seeds, regardless of how the machine was designed or built. Edison wouldn’t have had to spend time figuring out how to build a working lightbulb, or patenting the specific method – the vague idea would have been enough.

Edison famously said that invention was 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Today’s software (and many hardware) patents are awarded for inspiration, not perspiration.

I’m posting stuff on Tumblr

Maybe you’ve noticed that I haven’t posted much on this blog in a while. Actually, I’ve never posted on this blog very often. Regardless, I’ve started posting things over on my Tumblr blog. It’s mostly funny stuff, so if you’re into that sort of thing, go check it out.

One challenge I’ve always run into with this blog is the desire to write very long, comprehensive and considered posts. Almost articles. They are difficult for me to write. So I have a whole list of half-complete draft posts and very few completed posts. Things with titles like “Who make the decisions?” and “What I don’t like about DRM” and “A conservative argument for progressive taxes.” Maybe I’ll write them at some point. Maybe I’ll get better about writing long posts.

Regardless, Tumblr is more about quick funny posts. I’m trying to be better about updating it. At some point in the future, you will see it integrated into, or maybe even taking over We will see. Until then, it’s over there.