Comedian David Mitchell once offered this truth on the British game show Would I Lie To You?:
One of the codes I live my life by is that my appearance should be in no way noteworthy. But then again, not so unnoteworthy to be in itself noteworthy.
David explained with the example of a person wearing a gray tie that’s so colorless, so unnoteworthy, that the person who wears it becomes noteworthy because of it.
I thought of this code last week after someone sent me an Inc. article that pitted “content” (and people who focus on content regardless of process) against processes (and the people who follow them).
I’ll explain how that ties to Mitchell’s life code. But first, rant ahead.
Content vs. process
The Inc. article warns organizations not to overlook their “hyper performers.” OK, who would argue differently?
But what prompted my rant is the mischaracterization of hyper performers based on a quote from a mid-1990s interview with Steve Jobs:
I found that the best people are the ones that really understand the content. (By “content,” think what truly drives results in your business.)
And they’re a pain in the butt to manage. But you put up with it because they’re so great at the content. And that’s what makes great products. It’s not process. It’s content.
Jobs recounted how Apple’s engineering team told him the mouse would take five years to develop, and each one would cost $300 to build. So he hired an outside firm that developed one in 90 days that cost $15 to make.
A remarkable achievement. But he’s wrong to use that example to imply that process gets in the way of innovation as he does here:
Companies get confused. They want to replicate initial success, and a lot of them think somehow there’s some magic in the process. So they try to institutionalize processes, and before long, people get confused that the process is the content.
Process and content must be in balance for either one to achieve remarkable results. Whether we are talking about the contents of a product or the experiential content that marketers focus on, “remarkable content” is built on standardized, repeatable processes.
Jobs recognized the need for an innovative way to develop the mouse because Apple’s standard, well-understood processes informed its engineers that the kind of mouse Jobs wanted would take five years and cost $300.
Finding a firm to design one inexpensive mouse in 90 days was just step one. Success came because Apple developed that mouse quickly and then created a repeatable process that set a new standard for producing mice. The creative solution and the repeatable process made it work.
Why content and marketing need both
Most organizations have at least a few hyper performers in content – creative or subject matter expert stars who bust their butts to create remarkable content products, often with no content standards or processes to follow. That makes it hard for the company to recognize their value because there is no standard operating process to establish what “remarkable” looks like.
Let’s say you’re the new content leader at a company where the product marketing team, brand team, and PR teams all produce thought leadership, with no visibility into each other’s plans. As a result, the content often conflicts.
You might conclude that there’s no hope for changing the way these iconoclastic content-focused hyper performers work – so why create a process? That would be a mistake.
Without a standard way of doing things (a process), the business can’t determine which content should be prioritized or eliminated from contention. Everybody gets to decide what “remarkable content” looks like from an individual or team lens. When someone says, “that sucks” or “that’s awesome,” they’re all right – because no standard exists.
Someone might say, “Let the performance data decide.” But, with no standard process, the data isn’t enough. For example, you can’t determine whether the content performed well or poorly unless each piece followed an established distribution and promotion process. You won’t know if the success or failure had more to do with the content itself or the promotion of it. Did it fail because it didn’t get promoted effectively, or did it succeed only because of an extensive promotional campaign?
As Taiichi Ohno, who pioneered the Toyota Production System, once said, “With no standard, there can be no improvement.”
That’s why the push for remarkable content must strike a balance with the process. Some of the most hyper-performing professionals I’ve met are managers who created a company-wide method for developing creative endeavors. It is the process, the standard, and the business-as-usual approach that enables you even to see the possibility for innovation.
It’s easy to see the value in the innovative superstar who doesn’t want to conform to the process but frequently creates incredibly valuable things. But the reason it’s easy is that you can only see how remarkable the results are by comparing them to the results from content created consistently and at scale.
Process and content must work together symbiotically.
Welcome process disruptions
I’d bet money that the Apple engineers weren’t a bunch of dullards who didn’t get it. They were probably competent people who looked at the existing situation and said, “This is what it currently takes.” Would they have been open to investigating ways to improve the process? Jobs doesn’t say.
If they weren’t, then Jobs makes a good point about taking process to an extreme. A process is only as strong as its ability to evolve and improve.
This is where David Mitchell’s “code” plays so brilliantly. Your process should be in no way noteworthy but not so unnoteworthy to be in itself noteworthy.
A great process is like excellent plumbing: invisible and adaptable. It should foster improvisation and innovation by allowing for the integration of remarkable exceptions.
And that brings me to my ultimate defense of the process person vs. content person. An innovative process is (or can be) content (i.e., the contents of a great strategy). Remarkable, standardized processes need the unique, out-of-the-box thinking, design, and execution associated with great products.
The teams responsible for the process are no less valuable or innovative than those who think up the things that will be produced from it.
Your business won’t create remarkable content every day. But on the days you do, your process will help you recognize, repeat, and improve on it.
It’s your story. Tell it well.