Minimal Viable Processes

Most processes are built to hit the brakes, not the accelerator

In Stop Sabotaging Your Workforce, Steve Glaveski has a number of great recommendations for businesses to get out of the way so that people can get more done, such as shifting to asynchronous communications and cutting back on meetings, emails, chat, and calls. But best of all he suggests cutting back on the dead-weight of processes that centralize and slow decision making.

Minimal Viable Processes

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Process is supposed to serve us, to help us deliver and minimize risk. But, taken too far, it sabotages competitiveness, growth, productivity, and employee morale.

In his famous 1997 Amazon shareholder letter, Jeff Bezos illustrated the difference between Type 1 and Type 2 decisions:

  • Type 1 decisions are high stakes, costly, and irreversible.

  • Type 2 decisions are low cost and reversible.

    Most decisions are Type 2 decisions, and should be made quickly, but when we treat almost all decisions as Type 1 decisions, our cadence grinds to a halt.

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In that shareholder letter, Bezos referred to type 1 decisions as one-way doors, and type 2 as two-way doors:

Some decisions are consequential and irreversible or nearly irreversible – one-way doors – and these decisions must be made methodically, carefully, slowly, with great deliberation and consultation. If you walk through and don’t like what you see on the other side, you can’t get back to where you were before. We can call these Type 1 decisions. But most decisions aren’t like that – they are changeable, reversible – they’re two-way doors. If you’ve made a suboptimal Type 2 decision, you don’t have to live with the consequences for that long. You can reopen the door and go back through. Type 2 decisions can and should be made quickly by high judgment individuals or small groups.

As organizations get larger, there seems to be a tendency to use the heavy-weight Type 1 decision-making process on most decisions, including many Type 2 decisions. The end result of this is slowness, unthoughtful risk aversion, failure to experiment sufficiently, and consequently diminished invention.

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Glaveski lays out what companies should do as a result of this thinking: less process, less reporting, greater autonomy, and more two-way door experiments.

Such cultural pitfalls are encoded into many governance procedures, such as delegations of authority and approvals, which mitigate Type 2 mistakes at the expense of long-term growth.

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  • Empower employees to make Type 2 decisions on their own.

  • Scale back key processes to the minimum level required to support both innovation and risk management.

  • Decrease both the number of steps required to get things done and the frequency of events such as reporting and meetings.

As I wrote in Minimum Viable Work,

Minimum viable work means operating with the greatest degree of individual autonomy, the lowest degree of managerial overhead, and the highest levels of cooperation without coercion.

That lines up very closely with Glaveski’s recommendations, which is no surprise, especially when meetings and processes are put into the category of managerial overhead.

So companies that want to lower managerial overhead should actively trim meetings to the absolute minimum — shifting to asynchronous communication tools, like long-form shared documents — and trim processes ruthlessly so that only essential processes are required, and those have as few steps — particularly approval steps — as possible. Think of this as the ‘more less, and less more’ rule of thumb.



The Minimum Viable Work Series

Minimum Viable Work | The way we’re working isn't working

Minimum Viable Work Means Less Work | And zero bullshit from management

It's Bosses All The Way Down | A response to 'No boss? No thanks. Why managers are more important than ever.'

The Ideal Worker Is All Work, All The Time | Is 'Love Your Work' Just Propaganda?

Emergent Culture and Minimum Viable Management | A less-is-more approach to leadership