I’ve never really worked at a big company, but I have to imagine that one of the reasons people dislike them so much is because of the disproportionate focus on process and format over content.
And yet, I’m surprised by how much people (at all companies, including startups of all sizes) trick themselves into thinking that process and format is content. It happens a lot more than I think I expected and to a lot more people than I expected (arrogantly, myself included).
What’s that mean?
Let’s say we’re at a 200-person startup investigating a new product or adjacent market entry strategy - the operating questions are “What product should we build?” and “Should we enter this market?”.
These are big, hairy questions that take a lot of time to think about. How do you decide how to tackle these questions? Are there frameworks out there that we could rely on? Or are we in a special situation that requires us to think up a new approach? Most importantly, are we missing anything that we should be thinking about?
Plus, there are also no clear right answers. We could work on these for a whole year and come out with no confidence that what we decide on is really going to work.
So we start to outline a three-month spike to dig deeper into the problem. Our objective is to come out of that 3 months with our best answer that we can find. We won’t commit to that answer, but we believe that that milestone is both a good forcing function for us to do productive work and a reference point that we can react to with more time.
We assemble a team of six across the organization: product, engineering, business operations, sales, marketing, and finance. One of us suggests we break down the timeline a little more and talk about the check-in meetings we’ll have. We turn everything into a slide deck, covering what we’re doing, who’s working on it, how we’ll approach it.
Two weeks later, one of the six sends around a slide deck. It’s the old one, with a few changes. “I thought it’d be better if we were to meet every week instead of every other week. So here’s the new timeline.”
Separately, another person sends out a document via email. “Here’s the agenda we’ll use during our check-in meetings. Please see attached and send me any comments directly. Happy to review live.”
With raised eyebrows, we entertain the changes and the agenda.
Another two weeks go by. The first person sends around another deck. It’s the same one again. “I got feedback that the timeline wasn’t proportional and it was confusing some people. So I changed it.”
At this point, we should be pretty annoyed. We’re now a full month into a 6-month project, and we’ve made fully zero progress towards our objective. It’s pretty easy to tell: if forced to give and justify an answer to the question, we would answer the same way and for the same reasons.
Instead, we’ve spent a whole month (!) flipping around a slide deck and coming up with an agenda for a meeting that will be well-run but meaningless if we don’t spend time on the actual question at hand.
That’s process and format vs. content.
Focusing too much on process means too much focus on how we’ll do the work - how we’ll communicate, who we’ll talk to, what order things will fall in.
Focusing too much on format means too much focus on what work “looks like” - what does the slide deck look like, how we’ll organize information, how we’ll present information.
If process is how we’ll do the work and format is what the work will look like, content is the actual work itself; excessive process and format are fake work masking as real work.
Do actual work.
There’s a time and place for everything
I’m certainly not saying that we shouldn’t spend time on process and format at all. Each one can certainly be very important.
Process is about repeatability. Making sure that good work gets done all the time, no matter which person is producing it or when.
It can also be used for guarding against risk, an attempt to reduce the chance that something bad happens. That’s seems like a very big company thing to do, based on my interactions with people who work there - introduce a lot of checkpoints into the process so that everyone who could potentially spot risk can help defray it.
If you don’t have the right process, you could have things flying off the rails at any given moment. You could have confusion when people don’t know what to do next or who to talk to about what. You could actually get burned by that risk - it’s not unimaginable that someone moves too quickly and makes a really bad decision without knowing it.
Same with format. Format is about selling the idea, making sure it gets understood and adopted in the right way.
Good format helps people communicate about what’s going on. I’ve learned that you should always start documents with some background of what you’re trying to communicate and the previous history of it, so people can spend more time on what you need them to spend time on instead of digging up questions that have already been answered or were previously deemed not important.
You need enough of both of these things.
But I think it’s important to watch out for moments where there’s too much focus on these things for where you’re at. And it probably happens more often than you think it does.
You don’t need a 50-page slide deck to explain something to a 6-person team. You don’t need 5 meetings to decide if your weekly update emails should include a new section on recent hires.
Get just enough down so that you can focus on doing actual work.
Focusing on the right things
I’ve observed a few reasons why people spend too much time on process and format:
- Solving the problem is a particularly ambiguous and complex task
- Management improperly emphasized process and format in previous projects
- People can’t actually tell the difference between process/format and content
If you think you’ve seen this problem within your teams, it’s important to recognize which factor underpins the behavior.
If it’s the first, maybe we need to talk more about how to break down the problem. Or we need to reframe the question with more specifics. Or we need to scope the entire problem down and choose to forgo some portions for now. Or we need to spend more time structuring the answer.
If it’s the second, maybe we need to share this feedback with more people across the organization. Or we need to do some more digging as to why they focus so much on process and format. Did something break previously? Is everyone just reacting to a small comment the CEO made?
If it’s the third, maybe we need to say it directly. We need to break people out of that and start to think more critically about the work they’re doing - is it actually moving us forward or is it moving us around?
I feel a huge difference when working with people who can focus on content vs. working with people who can’t or don’t. I feel an even bigger difference when people who typically focus on process/format start to instead focus on content. It’s remarkable. Things are much more well thought out, projects move much faster, and people feel like they are being more impactful.
Anyways, it’s something I’ve paid attention to recently. Looking forward to how my perception of this changes, if at all, as we grow and as I trade more stories with other startup folks.