Results vs. Process

Jeff Havens
Contributing Writer
The Jeff Havens Company

There are hundreds of arguments that divide us. Soda vs. pop, potato vs. potato – that one makes more sense when you can hear it – red state vs. blue state, and I could go on. I myself have been involved in endless arguments with people about exactly which animal is the cutest one alive (the answer is sloth, by the way, and don’t even get me started on sea otters – yes they’re cute, but it’s not even close). But perhaps the argument that most commonly causes friction in the workplace is the argument between results vs. process. Some people want things done a certain way, others don’t really care how things get done as long as they get done, and these two types of people don’t always get along. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a clear answer to this one?

Well I’m going to argue that there is. Results matters more than process. I recognize some of my readers will instinctively disagree with me, and I’m OK with that and will be happy to hear your arguments in favor of your opinion. But here are mine.

First off, this isn’t entirely an either/or argument. Both of these things are important. Processes exist for several extremely good reasons – to provide structure, to streamline the process of onboarding new employees, and to keep things from devolving into total chaos. Large companies tend to have a lot more processes than smaller ones, but they didn’t start that way – they evolved in that direction because that’s what made the most sense. The “anything that works” philosophy of the typical start-up is fine when your entire company is 18 people and everyone is doing a little bit of everything; but as you grow and become a 100 or 500 or 25,000 person company, it would be madness to let everyone do everything however they want to. Not to mention that some ways of doing things are unethical, immoral, unsafe, or illegal, and you obviously need processes to prevent those approaches from becoming commonplace.

So yes, process certainly matters. But the second that processes become the most important part of doing work is the second that a person, team, or company stops growing. When process is more important than results, innovation grinds to a halt. When managers care more about how their employees work than that they are getting their work done, employees stop thinking and settle into whatever routine is being imposed upon them – and eventually they get frustrated by that constraint and become increasingly disengaged. Focusing on results implies a level of trust that is critical to the long-term health of any organization.

But my biggest argument in favor of results over process is the fact that manager and companies are all perfectly happy to change their processes when it suits them – or, in other words, when they have decided that they want different results. There was a time when pensions were a standard and inviolable part of American corporate culture, but that has certainly changed. Companies everywhere decided they didn’t like the results they were getting (read: pensions were too expensive), so they changed their process to obtain a different outcome. And anyone who has been through a merger or acquisition has seen long-standing processes thrown out the window in order to accommodate the new reality of their altered business.

In fact, probably the most painful part of business is the belief that processes are fixed and permanent when in fact they are anything but. People who have been encouraged to do things a certain way eventually get comfortable doing so – they’re not always happy about it, but they do usually get used to it – and are then shocked when those processes are changed or taken away from them. That’s why large companies tend to agonize over how to introduce major changes to their business, and it’s also why those changes tend to be met with significant resistance and a noticeable reduction in morale – because their focus on process over results has led to a situation where people have slowly forgotten that things are always fluid.

That’s why I favor a focus on results over process. There obviously needs to be some structure, but allowing people to get their work done in their own way will encourage independence and critical thinking. Periodically reviewing processes and asking, “Is this the best way for us to get the results we want?” will remind people that processes are a means to an end, rather than an end in themselves. And finally, but hardly least important, I simply don’t like people telling me exactly how to do every little thing, and I have a sneaking suspicion that I’m not alone.

There. I have put my foot down. Results matter more than process. Also, it’s ‘pop,’ not ‘soda.’ Your turn.


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