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Process Addiction: A Business’s Silent Killer

October 31, 2014 - Business Psychology, Startups - , , , ,
By: Chris Riley

In psychological terms, a process addiction is a condition similar to substance addiction—without the substance. Often referred to as an “invisible addiction,” there are usually no outward signs the person is suffering. But just because the person is addicted to an activity rather than chemically dependent on a drug does not make the addiction any less damaging. Compulsive gambling, eating disorders, chronic overspending and even work are the most well-known of this type of addiction, but scientists believe that any activity that stimulates the release of dopamine transmitters in the brain can become addictive. This means internet, video games and exercise addictions fall under the umbrella of process addiction as well. This type of addiction impacts neurotransmitters exactly the same way as substances and is just as powerful.


How Does This Relate to Business?

A business addicted to their processes suffers just as much damage as a person. When a business is so entrenched in its standard procedures that it fails to notice they are no longer working, this is a process addiction. Although the damage will manifest itself differently than for an individual, the negative consequences will most certainly come. Startups can capitalize on the inertia of an established competitor and overpower them in the market, but they are not immune from process addiction.

Identifying Process Addiction

It may be difficult to tell from the outside that a company is experiencing process addiction. Just like with any addict, the problems are usually hidden until they become unmanageable. For a company, that can mean decreased profits or even bankruptcy. But a company that employs top-heavy decision-making, has an inability to be proactive and relies on outdated technology or business practices, is most likely in the throes of process addiction.

If a company, no matter how small, concentrates the decision-making process at the top of the org chart, this is almost certainly indicative of deeper problems. Refusing to empower managers and employees demonstrates fear of the market and prevents any kind of agility in event response. By forcing the company into a position where it can only react, any kind of forward movement or expansion is stunted, leading to stagnation and, ultimately, failure.

On a department level, process addiction is found in unnecessary and over-documentation. For the marketing team, an example is creating unnecessary layers of planning for releasing content rather than engaging in the actual content creation. For an IT team, this may mean focusing attention on documenting systems, cataloging hardware, creating project plans, collecting white papers, creating governance plans, etc… most of which will never be used. The team is so mired in paperwork and following outdated business practices dictated from the top they have no time to address real problems. They end up handling difficulties as they present rather than performing preventive maintenance.

Addressing the Issues

This is not to say policies and procedures are not necessary. All companies, large or small, must have systems in place to manage relationships between departments, clients and outside vendors. And every organization will struggle to find the balance between which procedures should be managed through a complex process and which should have the freedom of responsiveness. The problem comes when a procedure is left in place long after its usefulness has expired. Simply put, when something ceases to add any real value to the business, it needs to be removed or replaced.


Chris Riley (@HoardingInfo) is a technologist who has spent 12 years helping organizations transition from traditional development practices to a modern set of culture, processes and tooling. In addition to being a research analyst, he is an O’Reilly author, regular speaker, and subject matter expert in the areas of DevOps strategy and culture. Chris believes the biggest challenges faced in the tech market are not tools, but rather people and planning.

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