The Curse of Protocol


Every business starts with a simple goal - to bring something good into the world. You see a way to change the status quo, to make life better, to solve a problem. So why do most businesses fail? It seems to comes down to people, and more specifically the amount of people, in the organization.

Bring a new person Into your company, and you immediately find that nothing plays out exactly as planned. Humans are complex and non-linear. We don't always follow the script, and we can't always keep to the 10-step checklist that was handed out on the first day.

So why do organizations still expand with reckless abandon? I think many companies feel like having more hands on deck will somehow balance the load, when in fact it  often creates an ever-increasing communication and culture gap that eventually becomes impossible to reconcile.

So what are the two options we have as makers and creators?

Systems and protocol.

Systems create lasting change by mitigating the possibility of failure. These are the bumpers on the bowling lanes, the blinders on the horse, the padlocks on the door. Establish them, and you won't need to make any significant changes until a drastic new development comes along. There's no debate, no questions, the systems either work or they don't. Robust and well thought out systems allow managers to focus on more important matters, the things that require judgment and intuition, things that can't be programmed or automated. But even with systems in place, people can still stray from expected behavior. There's more work to be done to ensure compliance.

This is where protocols come in. They're designed to hold people in check when the systems aren't enough to guarantee success. These are the OSHA Guidelines in the workplace, the photographer's folder naming conventions and archival methods, the ground rules for your teenager to avoid being grounded. As one might imagine, protocols are much more difficult to enforce. People can stray from them and nothing will prevent then from doing so. When protocols are broken time and time again, new systems becomes the necessary. The time required to build the system becomes justifiable when enough time has been wasted on broken protocols. 

Technology is hard for most people because we're given so many choices and protocols that there's no system for our digital lives. There's hundreds of ways to read your email. There's no enforcement of desktop file management. There's no rules for how to manage our photos. We're handed a set of tools without a system in place to manage them. So we resort to protocols that we try to keep, unsuccessfully. It takes everything in us not to just throw it all away and start over.

Creating larger structures and ecosystems with more people, more protocol, and more tools does not solve anything. It creates more potential for failure.

To be thoughtful and selective in our choices means building the strongest and simplest systems possible BEFORE expanding and managing more people and more tools. In this way, the growth is a reward for your hard work, not an escape from your current state of disorganization.

Think harder about what you want to create, peel back the layers, and start simple, with only what you need. And when you inevitably grow from there, you'll have a strong foundation to stand on, with good systems as your pillars, and people as your support beams keeping you strong.


Robbie Klein