Exercising Agency: What To Do When Process Gets In The Way

The following is the third in a series of posts further exploring questions and concepts that emerged during the book launch for Exercising Agency.

When supporting project initiation decisions, effective process can consistently lead to extremely effective decisions. The challenge for most of us is that we don’t work in an environment where there is effective process. In actual fact, the presence of solid, well-meaning and useful initiation processes is incredibly rare. While most organizations claim to have formal processes for project initiation, in a large number of instances these do not lead to better initiation decisions.

The challenge is what to do when faced with ineffective process. In a process-based environment, where there are formalized processes in place, the expectation is typically that they will be adhered to. When these processes are not helpful or relevant, however, ineffective decisions result. The right projects don’t get initiated, the wrong ones do get started, and the journey from idea to actual agreement that we should do something is long, convoluted and often painful.

The first requirement in getting better decision outcomes in such circumstances is to assess what is going on in the organization. Where there are less effective—or downright ineffective—processes in place, we need to understand the dynamics around how decisions do actually get made. A key area of consideration is the level of formality and the degree of consistency by which the process operates. Formality and consistency are related, but they do not mean the same thing. A process can be informal, and yet consistently and regularly adhered to. At the same time, a formal process can almost never be used, resulting in a process that is chaotic and inconsistent.

We also need to understand how clear the decision making process is, and the criteria that exist in determining how a project should proceed. In the absence of decision making clarity, each opportunity tends to get evaluated on its own merits, in response to varying and inconsistent drivers, without clear indication of who will actually make the decision. Decisions might be made by a single decision maker, or in a committee environment; they might be made in the room, or develop or emerge by osmosis after the proposal for a project has been reviewed.

More importantly, we need to understand what to do when processes have a lack of formality and consistency. Where the process is inconsistently applied and insufficiently formal, this can be compensated for by the individual shaping the project. This effort needs focus on not just negotiating how a particularly project will be initiated, but also demonstrating the value and importance of the project under consideration. Particularly useful in establishing credibility in this context is reinforcing the ability, track record, knowledge and expertise of the project shaper supporting the project. The project shaper needs to demonstrate that the due diligence has been performed, relevant criteria have been considered and that there is a track record of performance that demonstrates likely success.

Harder to navigate is a complete absence of process where there is still a stated expectation of decision making formality, or there is over-emphasis on process that doesn’t lead to the creation of value. Both of these situations are challenging, although they exist for different reasons. The absence of process clarity means that project shapers are shooting in the dark, trying to hit a target they can’t see. These situations are characterized by a lack of clarity around how the decisions are actually made, and an absence of criteria for the decision itself. What is important to realize is that over-emphasis on process that does not deliver value is often the result of an attempt to avoid decisions, or at least to maintain the freedom to be arbitrary under the guise of process. Both situations are far harder to navigate for the project shaper, and need to be approached with care.

For the project shaper to be successful in navigating an arbitrary or uncertain process environment, they will need to exercise their own influence or agency. This requires careful judgement and consideration of whether they can be successful in doing so. Up-front negotiation can be helpful, but in an arbitrary environment there is a risk that these expectations may still change. Agency can be exercised, working within the process where necessary and outside of it when appropriate, but there needs to be confidence on the part of the project shaper that they can successfully act independently without the fear of undesirable consequences. There will be times when this investment of energy and personal effort will be merited,and there will be circumstances when the potential risks outweigh any likely gains.

The presence of process should lead to a better and more effective approach to project initiation. Better process has been demonstrated to lead to better decisions. Compromised or ineffective process, however, can create significant—and sometimes insurmountable—hurdles. The project shaper needs to approach their role with eyes wide open, serving the needs of the project and organization while still maintaining their own credibility, reputation and ability.

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