Product Culture Marty Cagan

Scaling with Process vs. People

In my last article I provided an overview of the six major models of Product Ops that I have encountered (thus far), and I shared my views on each.  But while I highlighted the models that I consider dangerous or harmful, I didn’t elaborate on the root cause of the harmful models.

In this article I’d like to address what I believe is the root cause, as I think it is at the core of why so many companies, especially large companies, lose their product mojo, and end up prime targets for disruption.

I can think of few topics more important to the ongoing success of a tech-powered product company than the question of how you can continue innovating as you grow?

Recently, I wrote yet again about the dangers of process people.  At this point, most people know my views.  

But this is important enough that I’d like to take a moment to share with you some thoughts on this specific topic from several of the industry’s most successful product leaders:

Steve Blank

“As companies and agencies get larger, they start to value the importance of process over the product.  And by product, I mean the creation of new hardware, services, software, tools, operations, tradecraft, etc. People who manage processes are not the same people as those who create product. … Over time as organizations grow, they become risk averse. The process people dominate management, and the product people end up reporting to them.”

Jeff Bezos:

“As companies get larger and more complex, there’s a tendency to manage to proxies. This comes in many shapes and sizes, and it’s dangerous, subtle, and very Day 2….A common example is process as proxy. Good process serves you so you can serve customers. But if you’re not watchful, the process can become the thing. This can happen very easily in large organizations…The process is not the thing. It’s always worth asking, do we own the process or does the process own us?”

Steve Jobs:

“That’s what makes great products.  It’s not process; it’s content…The system is that there is no system. That doesn’t mean we don’t have process…But that’s not what it’s about.”

Elon Musk:

“The problem is that at a lot of big companies, process becomes a substitute for thinking. You’re encouraged to behave like a little gear in a complex machine.”

Reed Hastings:

“[The reason Netflix has been so successful is because it has] a culture that values people over process, emphasizes innovation over efficiency, and has very few controls. Our culture, which focuses on achieving top performance with talent density and leading employees with context not control, has allowed us to continually grow and change as the world, and our members’ needs, have likewise morphed around us.”

Steve Blank:

“Process is great when you live in a world where both the problem and solution are known. Process helps ensure that you can deliver solutions that scale without breaking other parts of the organization…These processes reduce risk to an overall organization, but each layer of process reduces the ability to be agile and lean and — most importantly — responsive to new opportunities and threats.”

I’ve long argued that the best companies work very differently from the rest.  And while the differences are many, it all starts with their approach to this question of how to continue to innovate as they grow.

At this point, most of the large companies I meet already believe that they need to transform, but they don’t usually appreciate just how deep into their organization and their culture the differences run.

I promise to spend more time writing about the nature of these differences.  But for now, I hope that the strong views expressed by these product leaders motivates you to consider viewing your organization through this lens of scaling with people rather than process.

NOTE: If you have not read my earlier Process People articles and are wondering what is the alternative to scaling with process, I wrote an entire book describing how strong product companies scale via people.