Mention ‘process,’ and most of us feel constrained or restricted—even stagnant. This seems odd, given the word itself derives from the Latin ‘processus’, meaning “advancing or proceeding” and “a going forward.” So why do we feel stifled when faced with process in our daily work?
The problem is not that we prefer to live in chaos! Or to make things up anew every day. The real issue is that too often our organizing systems are based on standardization to maintain control. In the effort to drive economies of scale and achieve short-term gains, we try to force people to behave like cogs in a machine. And that’s become the grand metaphor for a well-run company—“that place is running like a machine.” And perhaps it is…. Until it’s not.
What we sacrifice in this outdated metaphor is the capacity to respond quickly and efficiently to the inevitable changes that so easily make processes obsolete. Yet if there’s one thing a random sample of executives will agree upon, it’s that the pace of change is accelerating.
So how should we be thinking about systems and processes?
In our volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world, where the pace of change is unprecedented and accelerating, we need new approaches to systems and processes. Glimpses of better solutions have arrived in the form of agile software development methodologies, responsive management approaches such as ROWE and Holacracy, to name just a couple of many. These various solutions fall in and out of favour, easily leading us to dismiss any or all of these approaches as still insufficient to help us adapt to a VUCA world. On the other hand, each of them does work in the right context—and each of them has vocal proponents. So what should we really be thinking about when we think about systems, today?
“The best processes leverage your intuition and give it room to thrive.” – Seth Godin
Humanizing, instead of standardizing. This is next economy thinking. As leaders, organizations, even entire countries, recognize that a singular focus on economic production and growth is outstripping the carrying capacity of our planet, new approaches are emerging. Leading thinkers like Kate Raworth, Hunter Lovins and many others are advocating for a new approach to economic systems—and they’re leaving clues about how we should think about organizational systems.
Chief among these hints: put humans at the centre, rather than standards. Effective processes are built not to suppress creativity, innovation, and agility, but to enable them—to empower them. These are very human characteristics. People create change, after all, not systems. In process planning, put people first, closely followed by your intended impact.
Purposeful digital transformation. Digital technologies have been around for decades now. And for nearly as long, many of us have fallen victim to what we at Junxion have come to call ‘technological solutionism.’ Something’s not working right in your organization? Apply software and it will all be okay. Right?!… Wrong.
Bill Gates famously said, “Automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. Automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency!” Accessorizing inefficiency with more tools doesn’t contribute to better systems. It just makes the existing systems more complicated! Or worse, it layers on yet more standards and processes that force people to fit themselves into yet another uncomfortable process.
Digital technologies should be used to streamline processes that are already well-designed. Technology is an enabler. It allows us to work in a different way by automating the mundane, liberating our human capacities for higher order, more demanding, higher value work.
Accept iteration. You won’t get it right the first time. So plan on making refinements. And even then, it might be right for a while, but remember, change is constant. So you’ll have to refine again in the future. Healthy systems evolve and adapt to us—not the other way around. So plan for evolution, adaptation and iteration.
The processes we need today, in our dynamic world, are more human, iterative, and empathetic, enabling the innovation and agility we need to achieve meaningful results. They free employees to work on value-adding activities, to make decisions based on insights and intuition, to collaborate and to co-design, and to use technology when it makes sense. If we can achieve internal transformation—within ourselves and our organizational cultures—then we can use technological innovations more effectively to achieve our desired results.
Real transformation comes when we stop asking our people to adapt to processes, and start designing our processes to empower our people.
Chantal Schauch is a Senior Consultant with Junxion and a certified Project Management Professional (PMP). Reach her via [email protected]. Mike Rowlands is Junxion’s President & CEO. Reach him via [email protected]. They co-wrote this post. The headline for this piece is a quote from one of our clients—another visionary consultancy.