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Why "Process" Falls Apart and How to Fix It
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Today’s post is a look at how we might reimagine what process means to our organization, our team, and our workflows.
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Bright-eyed and eager to prove myself, I entered the workforce.
With a background in design, I saw every problem as an opportunity to redesign the system for maximum output. For every inefficient operation — from sales and marketing operations to project management — I blindly assumed that implementing a standardized process would dramatically improve the performance and output. I’d invest hours outside the office rethinking nearly every aspect of our business. If I saw a flawed process, it was my duty to fix it.
To this day, the designer within me thrives on turning complex, open-ended problems into streamlined, seamless solutions.
It seemed that processes could solve everything. Unfortunately, I had yet to realize that process was in fact part of the problem. And the problem wasn’t just mine or my company’s, it was true for millions of teams and organizations. Process is both the silver bullet, and a deadly weapon.
It always baffled me how easy it was to sell process over output. Companies spend a lot of time talking about, thinking about, and designing processes. In my past life as a consultant, I could walk into a room and lull a client into a sense of security simply by showing a few well-designed process slides.
It made me realize that people want the pitch more than the actual process. They don’t just want someone to trust, they want a process they can count on when all else fails — when we’re human. And therein lies the fundamental flaw with process design. Processes can be very powerful when used correctly, but they should be the last stop on a journey to maximizing efficiency.
Should You "Trust The Process?"
“If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you’re doing.” — W. Edwards Deming
A process is little more than a checklist to guide how things are done and ensure consistency, quality, and accountability. There are two types of processes: implicit and structured.
Implicit processes are fluid and ill-defined, naturally evolving from the patterns and actions of those engaging. “That’s just the way we do it” is a perfect example of where an implicit process exists. It’s not written down, but it’s known.
Structured processes are quite the opposite of implicit processes. Where implicit processes are not pre-defined, structured processes are highly organized, structured, and explicitly defined. If it’s written down, it’s structured.
It’s easy to believe that simply creating processes will help improve overall performance. And that may be true when the conditions are well-defined, specifically when we’re looking to:
Scale a known set of activities
Improve simple efficiencies
Improve output, not outcomes
But as soon as things start changing, a process quickly falls apart, or worse, actively works against us. That’s because a process creates complacency by allowing us to rely on a checklist and remove critical thinking. In essence, the process acts as a proxy for decision-making. For instance, how often have you been told to "trust the process?"
Very few processes are adaptable. We create processes based on a static framework designed to work in a stabilized system. But, as we all quickly learn, the world is highly complex and unstable.
So why not just create an adaptable process? This, almost by definition, breaks the entire concept of "process." If we want something that’s adaptable and able to fit into a complex decision-making environment, we have to get into the smaller, more elemental details.
Instead of processes, we should build patterns, plays, and playbooks. Patterns lead to plays; plays lead to playbooks, and playbooks lead to processes.
Let’s take a bottom-up approach to process creation by starting with patterns.
Start with Patterns
Since "plays" are the "smallest, simplest form of planning", it almost begs the question, why start with patterns? The answer is: in order to create something repeatable, one would first need to recognize the patterns. Therefore, the art of seeing the pattern would be the first step.
While tempting, the key is not to jump straight into a process. We must remain diligent by working our way toward a playbook. This stage is critical to ensure we remain agile and focused on the output over the process.
Patterns, a combination of activities run in succession, are the natural precursor to plays. Each pattern starts with a singular activity which is then combined to create a more complex series of activities that add up to a pattern. By creating a pattern, we’ve now simplified a series of complex actions, making it reusable and still adaptable.
Patterns are most efficient for:
Generating rapid activity with little governance
Short sprints and constrained workloads
Improving consistency without losing flexibility
Some patterns can be defined in advance but, just like using a process, the early definition can reduce the efficacy. As patterns evolve and stabilize, we can capture them as a repeatable element that becomes a play.
Plays, a planned action taken by a player or series of players, are the smallest, simplest form of planning. They are segmented into bite-sized chunks that can quickly be swapped or adjusted on the fly.
Plays allow for improvisation. They require minimal forethought and emphasize agility. Their beauty lies in their ability to support freeform thinking with structured outputs.
Plays can be broken out into categories and recombined to fit new definitions at a moment’s notice. Furthermore, they don’t dictate the outcome, but rather the actions. This allows for maximum flexibility for the players involved.
Why plays are important in the process hierarchy:
They’re easier to iterate and adapt
They can be targeted at a specific issue
They are self-generating
can be cobbled together
allows for autonomous play-calling (quarterbacks can call plays)
Build Your Playbook(s)
This is where most people jump straight to when creating a process — and it’s exactly where we lose the thread. Successfully designed patterns and plays get watered down into a measly checklist for someone to blindly follow. But, we can retain the structure without losing the value by designing a playbook. Like Tetris pieces, playbooks allow us to rearrange plays and patterns at will, while providing templated structures to help guide our decisions.
They are a collection of plays, with a subtle directional indication of how to use each individual play. They reflect our plans and provide predetermined actions that can easily and efficiently be executed by those without full knowledge of the specifics.
Playbooks are most efficient for:
Providing consistent strategy
Decreasing time to value
Reducing analysis paralysis
Creating Your Own Plays and Playbooks
Like everything in life, it comes down to mindset. If we assume everything is a process, we set it in stone. If we take a more agile approach, we provide ourselves and our teams with the space to reinvent at the most fundamental level. Here’s a lightweight play to create your own plays and playbooks:
Constantly observe. Be on the lookout for areas of inefficiency, in life and at work. Trust me, they’re everywhere.
Capture patterns. We can’t act if we don’t record our observations. Capturing patterns helps us decide if the pattern should become a play.
Don’t fall in love. The moment we fall in love, is the moment we start losing it.
Rigid thinking is a relic of a bygone era, where the world was more orderly. Don’t get caught mindlessly following the wrong path. Take the opportunity to reinvent at every step of the journey.
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Thanks for reading, and see you next week,
— Kevin K. (@kkirkpatrick)