Fail, Create Process, Fail Worse.

Matt Casey

Written by Matt Casey. Co-founder of DoThings. I mostly think and say stuff.  Follow me on Twitter.

January 30, 2020

So hey, do you want to hear about a phone call I had with an energy provider in extremely specific detail? Nothing bad happens in it, nothing good happens in it, pretty much nothing happens in it. It was - in every way imaginable - boring.

I am the best at blog posts.

OK, let’s dive in. I had called my energy provider to cancel my account with them. The guy I spoke to was named David. David was helpful and polite and extremely efficient. There was nothing about the call that I need to tell you about. There was no hilarious attempt to prevent me cancelling, no ridiculous transferring between departments. There was nothing of note. David just closed my account when I asked him to close my account. I am sure David did everything exactly the way he was supposed to do it. David performed flawlessly. Go David.

When it was time for me to go, we had this exchange:

“Thanks for your help man, that’s all I need”
“You’re welcome Mr Casey, is there anything else I can help you with today?”
“No, that’s all I need. Thanks again”
“Thank you for calling”

I know. The horror.

Believe it or not, in this interaction I see almost everything that’s wrong with team management today. I see staff not being trusted to make decisions themselves, I see managers lazily deferring to data, and above all I see aiming not to fail.

What’s clear from this interaction is that David has been told what he has to say and when. He is required to end a call with “Is there anything else I can help you with today?” no matter what I say before that. He is required to call me Mr Casey no matter how relaxed and casual I have been with him. Regardless of what happens on the call, David must say the same things. He isn’t trusted - the person they’ve chosen to speak to their customers isn’t trusted - to determine how to best interact with those customers. This might seem minor, but think about the effort that must have gone into ensuring David didn’t have to think about what to say to me. How many people were involved in making the perfect script? How much data did they pour over? How many meetings, how many arguments, how many alterations, training courses and feedback sessions? All to land on the blandest way possible to talk to a customer.

From the moment I introduced myself to David my tone was friendly, casual and self-deprecating. I had waited too long to notify them of my move and I was making fun of myself for being disorganised. David remained staunchly professional in the face of my goofiness. Our interaction was clearly not the interaction I wanted. I’m sure David was more than capable of having the interaction I wanted - in fact he probably would have preferred to have the interaction I wanted - but his company had implemented policies that forced him to ensure we had an interaction I didn’t want. The systems of control the company put in place to ensure this call wasn’t a bad experience also prevented it from ever being a good one. It was a boring impersonal experience that lacked any charm or fun.

I compare this to an experience I had not too long ago with the customer service team for a SaaS product I used. I’d messed something up and it was definitely my fault. I jumped on their live chat and we had this interaction:

“Help! My dashboard isn’t showing the correct data anymore. I’m not sure what’s wrong, but I’m pretty sure it’s all my fault”
“Yeah, it usually is ;) What did you do!?”

I immediately loved dealing with this company. This guy was actually responding to me based on what I was saying, not what he was supposed to say. Again, this may seem minor, but the outcome was significant. I was immediately put in a good mood by this and wish all my customer service interactions could be like the one I had here. I have gone on to recommend this company to other people countless times. This interaction was great, and it came about because they were willing to allow their staff to risk it being bad. He could have misjudged my tone completely and I could have reacted badly. I might have complained, I might have posted on social media about how unprofessional he was. The door was open for a bad thing to happen - but because that door was open, great things could happen too.

This leads me somewhat clumsily into the point of this post. Process. Processes are born in response to failures, at the expense of successes. Allow me to hypothetically manage that customer service team for a moment. One day, the exact scenario I describe above plays out - the customer service rep misreads the tone of a customer, makes playful fun of them, and the customer blows up. As the manager, I have to deal with the fall out. When I do, I just look into this one incident, and I think “Wow, he really shouldn’t have said that. I know…I’ll make some rules about what everyone can and can’t say to make sure that doesn’t happen again”. I’ll ignore all the times the freedom everyone had to communicate the way they felt was best generated great results, and I’ll just focus on the one time it went wrong and create a policy and a process that stops anything other than the mundane ever happening again. I’ll just close the door. Keep the bad things out. I’ve locked out all the non-bland experiences, the good and the bad.

This is how big organisations end up drowning themselves in process. They never make the conscious choice to do it, it’s just a gradual erosion of freewill, like waves hitting a beach. Each time one person makes a mistake, a policy is applied to every single person to ensure nobody makes that mistake in future. Pretty soon nobody can do anything in case that thing is wrong. Imagine a group of children playing in a park, and each time one of them hurts themselves on a ride none of the children is allowed back on that ride. How long until you have a park with zero accidents, and nobody playing? Is that really succeeding?

The interactions I described above are customer service based, but I see the same thinking everywhere. We control the decisions of almost all our employees because we’re worried about what goes wrong if we don’t. I believe the biggest driver of this behaviour is the traditional management structure. When we work in a way that means one person is responsible for the outcomes of actions another person takes, it will always happen. This is why I believe management has to change. Excessively controlling processes will always emerge otherwise, even when we don’t want them to.

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