Outcome or Process: Lessons from Amazon, Silicon Valley, and the DMV

Outcome over process

The DMV completely disrupted my plans today. I walked in, notebook and laptop under arm, expecting to spend an hour writing while waiting. But after just 15 minutes I was done!

Now, I’m not complaining. Indeed, the experience was bizarrely appropriate given the topic of the blog I was preparing to write: what happens when your organization starts to worship process over outcomes?

The DMV used to put process over outcomes. Then they woke up, and transformed.

If you understand the tradeoff between process and outcomes, you too can ensure you remain a vibrant, relevant company. Understanding this tradeoff is central to large companies that remain agile, like Amazon. As Jeff Bezos put it recently, “Good process serves you so can serve customers. But if you’re not watchful, the process can become the thing. … Its always worth asking, do we own the process or does the process own us?”

As it turns out, two years ago the Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) realized it was worshiping process over outcomes. It need to change. Lines had grown too long, citizen satisfaction too low, and customer experience too clunky. A new commissioner, Michael Bzdyra, took over and framed the challenge succinctly:

  • “The department has clearly faced many challenges in the last several months.”
  • “[We need to] make the changes necessary to create a consumer-oriented culture.”
  • “Quicker, faster or more efficient.”

He partnered with Judeen Wrinn, the former COO for Voya Financial’s retirement business, who has also worked at ING and Aetna. The results have been remarkable, as my 15-minute visit today evidences. But the underlying strategic lesson is more profound. It explains why some companies congeal into incompetent bureaucracies, why others fizzle out in flashes of inconsistency, and how to avoid either fate.

Great innovators understand and carefully manage the process-outcome dilemma.

Consider HP Michelet. HP is an entrepreneur as well as the executive chairman of Energy Recovery, the world’s leading manufacturer of energy recovery devices. He was previously the director of Delphi Asset Management, where he helped turn the company into one of the fastest-growing Norwegian asset management companies.

I met HP when I delivered a speech to a room full of board members of public technology companies. HP sits on a few of those boards.

Few people have as much experience as HP does navigating the worlds of start-ups and large companies, of navigating the tension between the “innovativeness” that fuels small companies and the process-heavy consistency that success as a large company, particularly in energy, demands.

HP likes the term “adjacent inventions” to describe what he does. He seeks to create a context in which process and creativity can work together.

He explained to me that you need process because without it:

  • You cannot consistently repeat what works. We have all experienced great service in one restaurant only to be let down by the experience of another location.
  • You fail to capture best practices and end up relearning constantly, which is inefficient.
  • You cannot scale your business because you cannot effectively teach what works to others and thereby grow.

This is one reason at Outthinker we have been focusing on the Outthinker Process. Rather than look for people who think in a particular way or build a culture that informally transmits a way of thinking, we have, for over a decade, sought to refine a way of thinking into a process.

But HP warns that there comes a point at which a company may start prioritizing process over outcomes. Their efforts start turning inward, toward ensuring people comply with the established process. They stop looking for improvements to the process. The system, in a way, seeks to preserve itself and forgets why it deserves to exist at all.

Jeff Bezos explains it this way: “This can happen very easily in large organizations. The process becomes the proxy for the result you want. You stop looking at outcomes and just make sure you’re doing the process right. Gulp. It’s not that rare to hear a junior leader defend a bad outcome with something like ‘Well, we followed the process.’”

Never invest in or work for a company that puts process over outcome.

Your process is a tool to achieve a goal. If a new process does that better, and you stick to your current process, nature will eventually select someone to replace you.

To manage the tension between process and outcomes, ask yourself:

  1. What outcome(s) is your organization committed to deliver?
  2. What best practice approaches enable you to deliver these outcomes? Are they captured in a process your people follow?
  3. Where have people started putting process ahead of outcomes? If you redesigned those areas’ processes, would you have a better outcome?




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