Soar with turkeys

Flickr’s Paul Hammond made a comment in his panel at SXSW that’s resonating a bit with a colleague or two.

Process is an antidote to working with stupid people.

It is an understandly resonant phrase at a conference like SXSW where the predominant vibe is entrepreneurial and innovative and all about small-scale Getting Real-inspired business models.

Truth is, I couldn’t agree more. When not everyone is at the same skill or knowledge level (i.e., when they are “idiots” compared to you) a common methodology enables collaboration where sheer similarity of perspective can’t.

But the statement has stuck with me and I think now that it might not be as simple as that. I do, of course, work in a gigantic, process-laden company where there are many arguments for following a common process. Quality assurance is one, presenting a unified approach and brand to customers is another. But both of those could legitimately be accomplished with a small team of non-idiots.

The real value of process comes from the inherent inability of small, smart teams to scale. When your team is based solely on shared perspective (whether of educational background, skill set, or job experience) there are only so many people you can add before that perspective will fray. I don’t know what the limit is, but I imagine it can’t be more than maybe 20 people. At this size some sort of common process needs to be implemented if for no other reason than to allow everyone to speak the same language.

Now, many small companies, especially in tech, recognize this and find it to be no limitation at all. They don’t want to scale beyond their current size. And that’s just fine. Note that I’m not referring to the scale of a project that can be undertaken or the scale of customers that can be served. Small teams can do this as effectively as large companies in many instances.

But if you do want to make your company larger — or if you actively seek diversity of perspective — then having some common framework for working is really the only way to do it. For instance when working on international projects, I find that process, in some cases rigid process, is the only way to work together. In the absence of cultural or language understanding it is sometimes the only common platform from which to work.

Too much process, the wrong process, sometimes any process at all can kill creativity. I see it all the time. And, in truth, I’m lucky to have worked with some of the smartest people in my field for the last seven years. I rarely encounter the need for process. But I do recognize the need and can see where it might usefully be applied with nary an idiot in sight.

One response to “Soar with turkeys”

  1. Bryce says :

    That number is closer to 13 than 20. Christopher Allen calls it the ‘Judas Number’: