Why We Can’t Get Anything Done

When you put a group of skilled people in a room together and task them with a project relevent to their talents, great—or a the very least, better than good—things should emerge. But often they don’t. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately.

My thoughts on why this happens were mostly amorphous and generally nagging before. But I stumbled on a few blog posts this week, and things suddenly started to crystalize.

So without further adieu, let’s start with Rands in Repose:

The more you grow, the more things you have, and the more you need people whose job is simply to coordinate the increasingly interdependent building activities. These people, called managers, don’t create product, they create process.

Ah yes, managers and process. Necessary evils in most organizations of a given size, but anathema to creativity and creative problem solving. (For clarity’s sake, I’m not actaully implying that process-implementing managers are inherently evil people. Moving on…)

And now, from Seth Godin:

Why isn’t it better?

  • Perhaps you don’t know enough
  • Perhaps you don’t care enough, or
  • Perhaps you’re unable to execute because of committees, the status quo and fear

Creative, skilled people usually like to solve problems. Not impossible problems or boring problems (hat-tip Merlin Mann), but intesting problems. Too often, management and process necessitate that these people spend most of their time working on the former.

You probably don’t know enough (and will never know enough) to solve an impossible problem, and you’re not going to care enough to solve boring problems over and over again. Meanwhile, committees, status quo, and fear—produced as the inevitable by-products of management and process—result in even more impossible and boring problems in need of solving, and fearfully water-down inspired solutions to the few interesting problems skilled people actually have the opportunity (and time) to solve.

And here’s the real lunacy of it all. When process stifles the production of “better than good” work, managers may try to layer more process on top to fix the problem.

To articulate the fundamental issue with this fool’s errand, we have Cennydd Bowles for The Pastry Box Project:

Skilled people without a process will always find a way to get things done. Skill begets process. But process doesn’t beget skill. Following a recipe won’t make you a great chef – it just means you can make a competent bolognese. Great chefs don’t need cookery books. They know their medium and their ingredients so well that they can find excellent combinations as they go. The recipe becomes a natural by-product of their work.

So in sum, here’s what we have. When an organization reaches a particular size, it seems natural to add managers who implement processes to keep things on track. But the intial success that brought the organization to that point was more than likely the product of the creative contributions of skilled individuals whose personalities/habits/etc. clash with this way of working.

The resulting burearucracy produces new problems that derail these individuals from doing the work that they care about. They feel deflated. They get grumpy. Then, when it comes time to solve a problem that is for once neither impossible nor boring, even remotely inspired solutions end up being diluted from higher up out of fear. And when organizations realize they’re not producing the results they once were, or at least believe they should be capable of producing, what’s the answer? “Let’s strike a subcommittee.”

Of course, this may all seem a bit reductionist, and as I said these thoughts are still rough around the edges. But I find myself continually going back to Bowles. If you give a recipe to someone who has never cooked before and tell them to follow it step-by-step, they will probably produce something edible. If you give a professional chef the same recipe and tell them to follow it step-by-step (and they don’t first storm out of the room insulted), they will probably produce something lacklustre in comparison to expectations. Process, politics, and asinine rules can’t manufacture intelligent, creative outcomes.

And I don’t know what the solution is for reconciling bureaucracy with creative work either. But what I do know is when an organization operates like it has something to lose—and merely pays lip-service to value of the work that its skilled employees have the potential to create—it does lose.

Let's talk this out, shall we?