To paraphrase the US Army, you’re a factory of one.
Stuff lands in your inbox, or on your desk, or is handed to you in a meeting — market research, budgets, trend forecasts, lots of venti soy half-caf pumpkin lattes — and out pops beautiful, creative, groundbreaking solutions. Answers to all the biggest questions your organization faces: should we expand into Latvia or Estonia? Should we extend our lobster bib product line by adding oyster bibs? How can we convince our CFO that we really need the Aeron chair “true black” colorway?
And if you’re a factory of one producing this stellar work, like any other factory, you should have a process.
But what I hear all the time is, “My work is too unpredictable to define a process.” Or, “My work is different. I’m not like the sales admin staff processing invoices, or the mail room guy whose job is just to send out letters. My work is creative.”
Of course it’s creative. But even so, you can define a process. In fact, I’ll go so far as to quote W. Edwards Deming:
If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you are doing.
Yeah, yeah, I know — you’re not a factory drone, stamping out widgets. But there’s a process, a system — standard work — for everything that’s done well. Even comedy.
Don’t believe me? Here’s Jon Stewart, explaining to Fresh Air’s Terry Gross how he and his team of writers produce their comedy:
You’d be incredibly surprised at how regimented our day is, and just how the infrastructure of the show is very much mechanized.
People always think “The Daily Show,” you guys probably just sit around and make jokes. We’ve instituted — to be able to sort of wean through all this material and synthesize it, and try and come up with things to do — we have a very, kind of strict day that we have to adhere to. And by doing that, that allows us to process everything, and gives us the freedom to sort of improvise.
I’m a real believer in that creativity comes from limits, not freedom. Freedom, I think you don’t know what to do with yourself. But when you have a structure, then you can improvise off it.
Get it? It’s a process. Even for something as creative as writing jokes, there’s a structure to follow. And by establishing that structure, they can unleash their comedy. Without it, they’d probably be a bunch of unfunny fat guys eating donuts and wondering why their show just got canceled.
Now, take another look at your work. Sure, you have to be creative. But whether you’d a doctor in an emergency department, the marketing director for a shoe company, or the coach of a professional football team, you can define a process. I’ll go even further: you can create standard work.
Of course there will be variability: the doctor never knows whose going to walk through the hospital doors, the marketer doesn’t know what customer will complain about an ad campaign, the coach doesn’t know which player will get injured (or in the case of the NY Jets, get arrested for stupidity). But these cases are the exceptions, not the rule.
If you try to manage your work for the exceptions, you’ll never get anything done. Jon Stewart said that it took him six years to write his first 45 minutes of material. Now, with a rigidly defined process (and, to be fair, a team of writers), he creates 30 minutes every single day. The structure, and the standard work you define, enable you to manage the unpredictable crises.
If something as evanescent as comic inspiration can be turned into a process, there’s no excuse for you to not create a process for your own work.