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September 17, 2003

Process is an embedded reaction to prior stupidity

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Posted by Clay Shirky

Ben Hyde upbraids me for overstating the case about process in my post about Wikis, Grafitti, and Process. Says Ben:

What pisses me off about Clay's note is that he's playing to people's most base instincts. First he's encouraging people to assume that process is a reaction to other people's stupidity. That's kind of thinking is toxic to community; it encourages people to label others rather than strive to find more functional processes.
He's right.

In writing that piece, I overstated the case. Process is an essential part of group work, and without it, groups would suffer paralysis. However, though I overstated the case, I didn't misstate it, and I stand by the core observation: Process is an embedded reaction to prior stupidity.

We are often glad of this, of course; it explains a lot of what's good about the world. Our knives come equipped with handles and our needles with pincushions, our outhouses are downwind of the main house, and our programs include dialog boxes that say "Are you sure you want to casually delete the last 3 hours of work?", all because of lessons learned from prior stupidity.

But. But not all stupidity is amenable to deflection by process, and even when it is, the overhead created by process is often not worth the savings in deflected stupidity. Stupidity is frequently a one-off, and a process designed to deflect it within an organization actually ends up embedding it as a negative shape. Like the outline of Wile E. Coyote just after he is catapaulted through a wall, making everyone fill out The Form Designed to Keep You From Doing The Stupid Thing That One Guy Did Three Years Ago actually emphasizes the sense memory of that stupid thing within the group. CAUTION: The beverage you are about to enjoy is extremely hot.

Regret is one of our most powerful emotions, and it is magnified in groups. When organizations overshoot, they tend to overshoot in the direction of minimizing regret rather than maximizing capability. This makes me less sanguine about the value of process than Ben is.

Process is the feature creep of organizations. In the same way software has to have features, groups have to have process. But like software, process creep in groups is insidious -- each additional check in or form seems to cost little and add much, but over time, the cumulative overhead of process can hamstring an organization, almost without their noticing.

Six or seven years ago, ATT asked me to spend some time helping them figure out their web hosting offerings, and after some preliminary work, it became clear that there would be no mainstream hosting business, because the cost to the customer would be too high to be competitive. This was not because ATT was buying expensive hardware; it was because their minimum hosting processes imagined layers and layers of dev, stage, and live servers, and a complex array of user management interfaces. When ATT asked how the existing hosting companies could provide their services so cheaply, I said that the competition was simply offering shell access, and that people could FTP anything they liked to the server or telnet in and write stuff directly on a live box.

ATT was aghast, of course, at such laxity, but in fact, it was this kind of simple, process-lite attitude that helped the net spread generally, and it was ATT's "Quality of Service" attitude that marginalized them.

This is many stories, of course, hundreds of stories, thousands of stories. It's why Berners-Lee succeeded while Nelson failed, it's why markets work better than central planning, because central planning is process made supreme, and it's even why Open Source works though it has less process than commercial firms. This is not to say that there is not a process to Open Source efforts, but rather that it is considerably simpler than the process adopted by Serious Commercial Software Firms®, who for years misunderstood Open Source, because they assumed no one could build software with that little process.

More importantly for me, it is the story of all sorts of interesting experimentation in doing things with less process, much less process, so much less process, in fact, that the competition doesn't even recognize the new kids on the block. Newspapers did not see eBay as competition, because they didn't understand how little process you needed to sell things, comparied to classified ads. Other than Sam Ruby and Martin Wattenberg, I'm not sure IBM gets that Wikis are competition for Lotus. I'm certain Vignette doesn't understand that Ben and Mena Trott are a bigger threat than BEA. And so on.

All of these things have in common a radical reduction in process. I respect Ben Hyde mightily, and given that he was right about my overstating the case, and that he points to the same process overshoot -- he says "None of this is to say that institutions don't accumulate vestigal organs who's cost totally overwhelms their benefit" -- I could trot out the Grandmother Answer: we're both right. But that would be false consensus, where there is some genuine disagreement. I think in general that organizations overshoot on process, and that over time, they lose the ability to remove or even identify anachronistic or harmful processes. I als think that a set of meta-processes like "To add a new rule, you have to remove an old one" or "No processes will be implemented until 30 days after the event that precipitated them", would in general do a world of good.

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1. Abe on September 17, 2003 9:24 PM writes...

Out of curiosity Clay, have you read any DeLanda or Deleuze?

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Process, Work Practices from Collaborative Thinking
Ross Mayfield ignited a debate with a bold statementIf a knowledge worker has the organization's information in a social context at their finger tips, and the organization is sufficiently connected to tap experts and form groups instantly to resolve ex... [Read More]

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