In his fantastic Tribes, Seth Godin takes the idea of systems & systemization to task, specifically targeting and refuting the ideas of Michael Gerber (The E-Myth).
One of the ideas that Gerber promotes is to make your business ‘franchise-able’; in other words, creating a complete list of processes and procedures that allow even the least talented (but still qualified) people to work within it. Gerbers idea is that if you have strong enough systems, you don’t need to rely on superstars to be successful.
Godin is (rightly, in my mind) quite offended at the notion that you should try to remove as much autonomy as possible from businesses, and asserts instead that by leading well, you can tap into the inner genius of your team.
Me? I’m going to argue that there’s a lot of middle ground between those two positions, and I tend to favor more systemization rather than less. I also think that it’s absolutely critical that you try to bring out the best in every member of your organization, and that you create an environment where people can experiment, personalize, and shine. Reconciling those two positions isn’t as outlandish as it might seem.
Flexible vs. Rigid Systems
The debate over systems usually gets derailed because those who are on either side are using very different operational definitions of the word system. For those in the anti-systems camp, it conjures up images of robotic telemarketers following their scripts to the letter and never deviating – after all, that’s the ‘system’ those companies have developed to sell their products and services.
Or, if they’re familiar with fast food restaurants, they may think about the ridiculous attention to detail given to every aspect of the restaurants operations (seriously, a step by step checklist and guide to cleaning the bathroom?). In other words, when they think system, they think ‘de-personalization.’
And indeed, that’s one kind of system. That’s the kind of system that’s being utilized when somebody’s trying to sell you useless junk while you’re sitting down for dinner, or the kind you hear when you call any place that’s outsourced it’s incoming calls.
There is another definition of system, though, which emphasizes ‘key points’ and ‘guidelines’, rather than micromanaging gone wild. This kind of system lays out the most important things that need to happen, in the order they need to happen. The exact details can and should be left up to each person, but the sequence of what’s covered and the end results should be well thought out long before.
Think about it like this – Imagine you’ve just hired a new employee. You have a few choices in how you can get the most out of them, especially during their first few months. You can simply say to them “I want you to take the next week and do whatever you think will bring the most value to the organization.” But that’s a pretty vague and ill-defined instruction set, and if you have an idea of deliverables you want at the end of the week, it’s very unlikely that you’re going to get them.
A second method would be to say “I want X, Y, and Z by the end of the week. Get moving.” That’s better, and you’re more likely to get what you wanted, but it’s still a bit of a craps shoot. After all, they may have a very different idea about what X, Y, and Z should look like.
If, on the other hand, you say to them “I want X, Y, and Z by the end of the week. Here are some examples of how that’s been done in the past. The critical elements are highlighted – make sure those are included in your version. If you want to add anything, or change the format, feel free, but make sure that these elements are included when it hits my desk.” You’re going to get a much better end product. It’s still not a system, but it’s much closer – you’ve given a much clearer outline of what you want.
Flexible systems are like that – they provide a great starting place, a useful outline, and a way for people to begin to be productive very quickly. They don’t say “This is the only way we do things here, so learn it and live it.” Instead, they say “Here’s a way to do this task; we’ve found it’s the most effective of all the ones we’ve tried. By all means experiment with it and see if you can improve on it, but if you find your results are lagging, move back to the system as it’s laid out to improve your performance.”