There is no process. It will be painful.
Criticisms of Replicator reveal a dangerous worship of process over content
The Department of Defense’s bold, new Replicator initiative is under criticism from industry and government for a lack of details on the process to implement the effort. Now is a good time to zoom out and ask: what is the role of process?
The release of Rob Copeland’s book The Fund (2023) has me thinking a lot about what, if anything, can be systematized without destroying the very thing being systematized. The book is about the unique hedge fund Bridgewater and its founder, Ray Dalio1. Before The Principles was a book, it was a PDF hung awkwardly off the bridgewater.com website. A younger Shyam was enamored with the Principles, which carry great wisdom and are worth reflecting on (to use a Bridgewater-ism). I printed them out and bound them into books at Kinkos for reference and as a party favor.
But painfully and empirically, I’ve come to realize that the fetish of scaling through structure, process, and legibility are opioids, not medicines, for success. It is comforting to believe that the durability of our work will not depend on the unpredictable humans that come after us but rather on the predictable levers we have agency over to codify the continuity of our creations. Ironically, if success depends on institutional infrastructure and not individuals, it seems more likely to continue working. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
There are two truths that are not widely acknowledged:
(1) There is only content.
(2) When you are doing it right, it is very painful.
Content, not process, is the eternal substance. The artist may be ephemeral, but the art is enduring. I used to cherish systems thinking as a path to conceive of the scalable, systematized solutions that would reliably work far into the future and operate like a perpetual motion machine. It would in fact be better if they did operate like perpetual motion machines, which is to say, not at all, since it would decisively shatter the illusion. Instead, systematized solutions operate more like zombies. Process begets more process. Before you know it, the failed process is all that is left. Instead of working for the content, it sought to be the content2.
We make this mistake because when you are doing it right, it is very painful. We all want to believe that while it might be painful right now, tomorrow it will be less painful. One day, maybe it will be pain free! And the way to achieve this nirvana is to take uncertainty out of the equation and replace the agony with process. Employees clamor for legibility and predictability to waste less time and make the incomprehensible make more sense. People yearn for agency and seek to protect it through process.
A mandate to simply “do epic shit” is wrought with ambiguity and ripe for interpersonal conflict… but it might actually work. A mandate to “oversee TPS reports” is ideally suited for peaceful irrelevance. General Somervell's instructions to Captain Clarence Renshaw for constructing the world's largest building (the Pentagon) were terrifyingly simple: "You've got to build it in a hurry, I'm not going to tell you how to do it." That's as close to "do epic shit" as it gets.
There is no meaningful process-fix to Defense acquisition because the very problem is the elevation of process over content. So let’s do PPBE reform, but let’s keep in mind that this too is not the content. Process is not how Bill Knudsen mobilized America during World War II. It’s not how John Boyd revolutionized doctrine or how Kelly Johnson pumped out a ungodly number of aircraft in a career. This is exactly why the critiques of Replicator are wrong. Creative, Zero-to-One efforts are going to be marked by seeming chaos and disorder. When President Trump first announced intentions to create the Space Force, it caught most of the DoD by surprise, including the Secretary of the Air Force. However, it was this forceful announcement - light on details at first - that helped DoD overcome almost 20 years of inertia concerning the need for an independent Space Force3.
We do have historical examples of rigorous process implemented on wildly successful government programs. During the late 1950s, the Navy invented the Program Evaluation Review Technique (PERT) system while building submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) for the Polaris program:
PERT was a complex R&D planning and scheduling tool that calculates the probabilistic distribution of the expected time for completing critical program activities, using data from bench engineers as inputs. PERT checked all the right boxes for a fancy management system that would impress bureaucrats and outsiders: it was created by Booz Allen Hamilton and included a custom formula invented by a mathematics PhD. Almost as soon as PERT was announced to the public, it was “hailed as the first breakthrough of management science in a decade (pg 111).” It wowed everyone from Harvard Business School to the Secretary of the Navy and gained the reputation as the primary cause of success of the Polaris program.
The only problem? It didn’t work.
Much as a magician uses misdirection to distract an audience, so Admiral Raborn used PERT to distract comptrollers and auditors from looking too closely at how SPO was actually operating Polaris.
And how was Polaris actually operating? With deep uncertainty and a laser focus on the content. It worked. It might not have, but the process-driven approach certainly would have failed.
Greg LeMond said about cycling that as you get better, “it never gets easier, you just go faster.” Turns out that excellence is painful. Avoiding the pain is avoiding excellence. Much of the process constrains us to mediocre (at best) outcomes. Steve Jobs articulates this in a relatively unknown interview on process versus content:
People get confused. Companies get confused. When they start getting bigger they want to replicate their original success. And they start to think that somehow there is some magic in the process of how that success was created. So they start to institutionalize the process across the company. But before very long people get confused and think that the process is the content. And that was ultimately the downfall of IBM. IBM had the best process people in the world but they forgot about the content. And that’s what happened a little bit at Apple too. We had a lot of people who were great at management process and they didn’t have a clue as to the content. And in my career I found that the best people are the ones who understand the content. They are a pain the butt to manage. You put up with it because they are so great in the content. And that’s what makes a great product. It is not process. It is content.’
Once we accept that Hard things are Hard, we can transcend it. We can abandon the search for opioids and instead focus on what truly matters: Doing the things. Metabolizing the pain into content. Without process we face much more variance - results could be amazing or a flaming failure. But that too is good, authentic, and forces us to learn and evolve.
Jobs practiced what he preached. On the eve of the (now obviously mega-successful) Apple Store launch, Ron Johnson, the executive in charge, told Steve Jobs that it was all wrong. Johnson told him this moments before Jobs was going to take the stage at a large executive meeting. Jobs was understandably very grumpy at Ron’s comments. When Jobs got on stage, he said (paraphrasing), “Ron thinks the Apple Store is all wrong. And you know what, he’s right.” They delayed and launched with a fresh concept that powered them to near tech hegemony. The market cap of Apple is now greater than all publicly listed equities in France combined. Cost, schedule, performance were not the Content. American exceptionality is built on the intuitive and eternal substance of content.
And this is why talent spotting eats everything (e.g., culture, strategy, etc.) for breakfast. The talent generates the content that determines the rest. Here’s Palantir CEO Alex Karp back in 2012 on what this looks like in practice:
Companies typically look for well-rounded people. They want an A-plus in every category. We tend to think it’s better to have an A-triple-plus in one area, which presupposes an F in other areas. So maybe we end up with someone who solves problems very creatively but can’t interact with people. We look for people within uneven IQs, then we build a role around their strengths. I like to meet candidates with no data about them: no résumé, no preliminary discussions or job description, just the candidate and me in a room. I ask a fairly random question, one that is orthogonal to anything they would be doing at Palantir. I then watch how they disaggregate the question, if they appreciate how many different ways there are to see the same thing. I like to keep interviews short, about 10 minutes. Otherwise, people move into their learned responses and you don’t get a sense of who they really are.
The entire hiring setup focuses on the generation and evaluation of content and the elimination of process.
U.S. experiences at the end of WWII illustrate this dramatically. Even before the fall of Berlin, the U.S. had two efforts to incorporate advanced Nazi technology. The first was the Field Information Agency Technical (FIAT), which focused on capturing technical data from sites across Germany. The second was Operation Overcast (and its successor, Operation Paperclip), which sought to capture and repatriate the most important Nazi scientists.
Paperclip was a smashing success with 1,600 German scientists relocating to the U.S. and making fundamental contributions to our nation’s defense. FIAT proved of almost no value, and the operation was considered a failure. This tells us an enormous amount about the nature of content. It does not live in the technical drawing and documents, and it cannot be understood simply by reading it— the exhaust of process. It is only possible to access this content through the humans who possess it.
It has become unfashionable to talk about great people who are uniquely able. But maybe that’s exactly what Ray Dalio is, and what we should all aspire to be. The only thing I can promise you is that if you are doing it right, it is still going to be painful.
There is no process to pioneering.
I wouldn’t take this book at face value and would exercise caution on the reporter’s agenda. Bridgewater is full of brilliant and interesting humans.
Process can only be valuble when it serves content (and then it is very valuable). The pathology arises from assuming process can exist independent of the specific context of the content. When the content changes, the process needs to change too. The right process is a consequence and downstream of the right content. Too often it instead acts as the headless inertia that blocks the right content.