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30 Jan 2012

Process vs. Flexibility: The Tradeoff

We often overlook the downside of processes in our businesses because we enjoy how they allow us to scale and reduce labor costs. However, they often become the infrastructure that retards flexibility and adaptability as people’s self-interest and comfort zones become wedded to the processes.

The November 2010 issue of the Harvard Business Review, which focused on leadership lessons from the military, Boris Groysberg, Andrew Hill and Toby Johnson wrote about the tradeoffs between process and flexibility. Their article, “The Different Ways Military Experience Prepares Managers for Leadership,” discussed the tradeoffs that each of the four branches of the U.S. Military made and how they influenced leadership styles.

Their research showed that CEO’s who had military experience in the Navy and Air Force tended to “take a process-driven approach to management; personnel are expected to follow standard procedures without any deviation.” This allowed them to excel “in highly regulated industries and, perhaps surprisingly, in innovative sectors.”

Conversely, those with an Army and Marine Corps experience tended to “embrace flexibility and empower people to act on their vision.” They were able to excel “in small firms, where they are better able to communicate a clear direction and identify capable subordinates to execute accordingly.”

Throughout the article, the authors contrasted the process orientation of the Navy and Air Force with the adaptive one of the Army and Marine Corps, the important point being that there is a tradeoff between the two. Even though they justified why each branch had the orientation it did, they still contrasted the two orientations as a trade-off. In simple terms, it’s hard to have both.

Therefore, when we rush toward processes to create standardized, consistent and repeatable outcomes, we need to leave room for adaptation. After all, life never duplicates itself in exactly the same way.


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