Formalism Sucks Unless Your Form Blows
Over the last few years I've been known to wax poetic on my loathing of formalism. My favorite by far is a skewering of the top 10 tip lists that litter the online landscape (it's one of my most popular articles and a good read if you haven't seen it). The usage of process as sword and shield throughout corporate America is rampant. 

Looking at the most celebrated business authors of today, they all agree, the bias for process in corporate America has gotten out of control. We've come to believe it's an inextricable nature of the beast problem with big enterprises. But let's put that aside for a minute and talk about the other side of the coin.

Where Have All The Craftsmen Gone?

I can't bring myself to believe that Etsy has a monopoly on people who have an ethic of craft. At the same time, I can't help but admit that I have had a hard time finding people who want to truly develop within their chosen discipline by learning their craft in depth as a path to greatness. They do exist here and there, but they seem to be outnumbered, outmanned and outgunned by people who eschew any and all best practices along the way to slinging untested code, ungrounded designs and uninspired strategies.

It seems in almost every discipline I work with, I come across large segments of callow youths and old dogs who surprisingly enough have one big thing in common; a belief that there isn't any time to do things the right way. No time for detailed tech designs, no time for code reviews, no time for dry runs of presentations, no time for getting feedback on estimates, no time for refactoring, no time for scripting repetitive tasks, no time for respectful communication, and on and on it goes.

Sometimes it feels that there are so many people espousing contempt for craft that I feel like I have to take time to teach them the intrinsic value of doing things well; and then I come back to the same principle that I share with them when they claim they don't have enough time: "It's not that I don't have enough time to teach people the ethic of craft. The truth is that I don't have time not to!"

First Pants, Then Your Shoes

There is this very strange idea that just keeps going on and on and on. People actually believe that they can save time by engaging in industry "worst-practices," like somehow they will be immune to the pitfalls that have inevitably befallen all the other practitioners who have come before them. In stark contrast to the scientific research on motivation and engagement made popular in Dan Pink's Drive, people seem to be motivated not by mastery but by the illusory short-cut to mastery.


Just like in Gary Larsen's classic Far Side comic, it seems like the industry needs signs nailed up everywhere with instructions for the most basic of tasks in order to combat the rampant overconfidence and inflated sense of mastery that is endemic amongst contributors in medium and large enterprises.

The Discipline of Self-Discipline

Many people (including myself) will point to Jim Collins' masterpiece Good to Great, where he astutely points out that enterprise processes are designed for people who don't really know how to make good decisions on their own, as a call to rid their enterprise of lowest-common-denominator organizational artifacts. If you are one of the many looking to trim these back, you cannot forget Collins' requirement: You must have the discipline to rinse your cottage cheese.

The cottage cheese metaphor comes from Dave Scott, a six time Ironman Triathlon winner with enough discipline to "rinse his cottage cheese" in a war to get extra fat off despite the fact that he had a training schedule that would burn at least 5,000 calories per day. World class practitioners do indeed throw the book of rules away; but only because they have grokked and embraced the principles behind the rules to the point where they are muscle memory.

Show me "Sand the Floor"!

Students in martial arts, and fans of the Karate Kid, are familiar with the concept of kata. Kata is a Japanese word describing detailed choreographed patterns of movements to be practiced. By practicing a kata (or form) in a repetitive manner the learner develops the ability to execute those techniques and movements in a natural, reflex-like manner. The repetitive practice is not intended to have the learner execute the kata in an absolute and rigid way regardless of context. The goal in the practice is to deeply understand the movements and techniques of a kata to enable fluid execution and adaptation under different circumstances, without thought or hesitation.


We have a plethora of students who believe they are masters and a corporate culture that venerates constructive feedback but does next to nothing to teach managers and architects the basics of teaching the ethic of craft to others. "Ethic" in engineering is almost unheard of as a concept. "Ethic" in design is only practiced by and spoken about by a sparse few. When it comes to lack of ethics, Government no longer holds the monopoly. In engineering, the ethic of "does it work" is now believed to be sufficient. In design, the ethics of "is it usable" and "is it pretty" are now believed to be sufficient.

While many of us are shooting for greatness, we are relegating the next generation to a career of producing, I'm sorry to say it, crap. I still believe that formalism sucks, but it's better than your form blowing.

Title image courtesy of ARZTSAMUI (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Interested in reading more from Stephen's fight against mediocrity? See his Leadership How to: Applying the Lesson of Autonomy