Process, results, and a round of golf

Not too long ago I had a boss who, not unlike many leaders in organizations, had an established set of operating guidelines for the organization he was responsible for. Among the list of about 10-12 general principles was: Process is important, but it is results that matter. Which got me thinking about what “results” means.

In this particular case, results meant something along the lines of, “Get done what needs to get done now.” There was little or no emphasis on any of the hallmarks of process, such as repeatability, standardization, improvement over time. Every time a task came up, it was as if it were the first time. Though there were projects, they were managed more on a task by task basis than an overall project basis. Your status was measured not on your past project success, but whether you were able to complete the most recent task.

Worse, to my mind, was that these short term results were chased with incredible vigor with very little concern for future requirements or the big picture of an overall project. While achieving a specific result can be (and usually is) a good thing, if that result is achieved at a large cost relative to the overall importance of the task in the big picture it is definitely a bad thing. The more resources you expend on achieving a specific short term result, the fewer resources you have available for the rest of the project. I hadn’t thought about this situation for several months, until last night when I came across my favorite golf movie, Tin Cup with Kevin Costner, on one of the movie channels.

[Spoilers ahead] To make a long story short, a driving range golf pro (Roy McAvoy) with a tendency to “lose it” in the big events works hard to overcome this tendency and qualifies to compete in the US Open. The par 5 18th hole presents an interesting, hard to resist challenge: get to the green in 2 shots. The problem, of course, is that the green seems to be just out of reach with a water hazard in play for any that come up short.

In the first three rounds, Roy tries and fails to make it across the water and onto the green. With his newly found calm head, he accepts this small defeat in pursuit of the US Open title, takes the “drop”, and finishes out the hole with a decent score. In the fourth and final round, Roy finds himself in the same situation. This time, however, there is an important difference: All he needs is par to tie, birdy to win, which he could do easily if he took the easy way and didn’t go for the green in two.

As you may have guessed (if you haven’t seen the movie), Roy goes for it. But unlike the previous three rounds, when the ball ends up in the water Roy does not take the drop but instead insists on hitting the ball again from where he is. The next, and the next, ball goes into the water until Roy only has one ball left in his bag. If this one goes in the water, he is disqualified and can not turn in his score card.

The goal, the project, in this case was to win the US Open. Achieving this goal required the adequate completion of 72 individual tasks, getting the ball in the hole in the fewest number of strokes possible. Unfortunately for Roy, he lost track of the big picture goal and focused on a short term goal related to a single task. While he eventually got the ball in the hole (in a very dramatic way), he used up more resources than he could afford on this one hole and failed to achieve the original goal, victory at the US Open.

Back to my original point: Results are important, but you need to have a process in place in which these results make sense. While achieving short term results may have short term benefit and gratification, it may not help the big picture and may in fact hurt.