NUGGET: Processes can add immense value for the enterprise. But it still takes people to make them work.  It matters how you implement and sustain them

After many years working with people across industries, countries, and levels I’ve come to what may seem like a blindingly obvious conclusion: people resist processes:  step-by-step procedures, checklists, guidelines, creative problem solving, structured approaches to planning, goal setting, reviews, meetings.

This is true even though many processes, when we follow them, noticeably improve output quality, save time and money, and lead to better team interactions.  Think, for example, of the many (interminable) meetings we drudge through – multi-tasking, rambling, leaving unclear about what next.  There are good processes for running efficient, effective meetings where there is meaningful participation, appropriate decisiveness, deep creative exploration, and great follow through.  But few people use them.  Meetings continue to drone on, made worse for virtual teams by problems with technology, time differences….  And this is only one example of failed process.

Why don’t we use the processes, procedures, checklists, guidelines we know can make our lives easier and our decisions more effective and widely supported?

Here are some of the reasons I’ve observed:

  • Many managers and technical people are primarily action-focused. It is easier (and perhaps more fun) to fix problems than it is to anticipate and prevent them (something that good process is often designed to do)
  • It is easier to be conceptually lazy. It takes effort and planning to haul out a process, introduce it and get people aligned to use it, and then to actually use it.
  • Some processes are just too detail oriented and constraining. They become the ends rather than the means.  We spend more time and energy “doing it right” than doing the right thing.
  • Nobody wants to take on the process facilitator/leader role. Of course, this role can shift among members of a group.  But I think individuals are reluctant to take on process leadership for fear of being viewed as authoritarian or rigid.  They are not clear about the difference between dominating conversation and ensuring that there is a working process.
  • People are not skilled enough to use the process as a road to higher-level outcomes. The skills underlying important processes go beyond understanding the steps and tools.  Real success often requires higher level thinking and interaction skills.  After all, processes and procedures are often supposed to free people from the routine (and dangerous) so that they can be more creative and thoughtful.
  • Related to the previous point, there is a misunderstanding about process and procedures. We often adopt them hoping that they will now do the work for us.   The reality is that, while processes do “automate” our approaches, it is a big mistake to think that it stops there.  Any process or procedure we put in place must receive continual energy to keep it alive.  Processes, checklists, procedures can very quickly go into a kind of rigor mortis.  Instead of unleashing higher thinking and creativity, they often have the opposite effect, lulling us into automatic behavior.  We become less rather than more effective.  This has happened with countless performance management systems, budget processes, meeting procedures.  We follow the form without the benefit of the function.

What to do?  Here is a Checklist:

 Don’t implement a process that you are not willing to forever infuse energy into. Among other things, it means that leaders must themselves use it, expect excellence in implementation, keep refining it, and be willing to sunset it when the appropriate time comes.

  • Keep the process at the highest effective level of abstraction with the least amount of paperwork or process tool guidance. People will use judgment anyway.  Don’t try to control every little behavior unless doing so is important for safety or other critical reasons.
  • Be sure everybody knows the reasons and the personal/organizational benefits of using the process or checklist (etc.). Process rigor mortis, including playing games to get the most personal advantage, will set in when people are disconnected from the “why”   (think about people setting low goals in performance management so they can get an “exceeds” rating at review time).
  • Develop higher order skills – conceptual thinking, communication and collaboration skills, decision making, emotional intelligence. These transfer across all important processes and ensure that people stay in charge of processes vs. the other way around.

 Process has gotten a bad rap, but let’s not throw the good out with the bad.  Today’s organizations need software, guidelines, and routines that build in best practices and that everyone uses to accomplish more together than they could individually. There is a secret to good process:  it has to add value, be continually energized, and not become calcified. It has to unleash thinking and communication rather than replace it. And it has to be something that everyone uses and has the skills and information to use.

NUGGET: Processes can add immense value for the enterprise. But it still takes people to make them work.  It matters how you implement and sustain them


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