Process Can’t Compensate For Culture

As a rule, we want simple, clear, direct answers. Faced with a problem, we would like a solution. We would particularly like an easy, readily implemented solution.

In some situations, this is actually possible. A part breaks on your car, you replace it. You drop your phone in the pool, and you get the next upgrade (and hope you backed up your data recently). Your furnace dies, and you replace the fan motor. Dealing with these situations is a simple and straightforward process: identify the problem, diagnose a solution and implement it.

In our organizational lives, however, we frequently are confronted with much more complex issues and challenges. Improving practices, adopting new approaches and implementing new systems and frameworks takes time, effort and work. Work like this also takes a great deal of adaptation, adjustment and experimentation to be successful. As we discussed last week, there is very rarely one best answer to these kinds of problems.

Best practices usually aren’t. Parachuting in something that worked elsewhere doesn’t mean that it will work for us, and certainly not well. Appropriate solutions require care, thought and consideration. We need to consider context, culture, purpose, readiness and capacity. Making meaningful strategic change is hard work that requires focus and investment if we are going to see a return on our efforts.

These very often aren’t the answers that executives want to hear. In response to an emerging problem that is having an organizational impact, the temptation and tendency is to look for a quick fix. We look at what is available, what others are doing and what seems intuitively appropriate, and go with that. If it worked for others, it should work for us. After all, are we really so different than everyone else?

Vendors and consultants not only respond to urgent solutions and immediate fixes; in many ways, they feed it. They are—all too often—the source of the best practices that organizations find so appealing. If the customer wants simple answers and doesn’t want to hear about complexities and considerations, in many instances, that’s what they get.

This is not to single out specific consultants or vendors (or to suggest that all engage in the same behaviours; there are good ones out there, but they are usually the exception that proves the rule). It’s also not to say that all executives are short-sighted and reactionary. There are reflective and considerate organizational leaders, but they again tend to be the exception that proves the rule.

The upshot, though, is often a vicious circle of investment and effort that doesn’t produce meaningful results or create lasting and relevant change. Consultants are engaged, work happens, deliverables are produced and invoices are submitted. Projects close out, consultants move on and the organization tends to very quickly reverts back to its old ways—to the extent that it every left them in the first place.

Speaking as a consultant that genuinely wants to make a differences, this is a frustrating state of affairs. One of the greatest challenges in playing a consulting role is that you ultimately have no control over how—or even if—the results of you work are implemented and used. The best you can do is to produce the greatest work possible, position it for success and provide the most relevant guidance, encouragement and advice you can. The rest is entirely in the hands of the client to do with what they will.

The fundamental point here is that producing different outcomes requires a different approach. Solving complex issues and managing significant change is not a transactional process, it is a relational one. It is the result of the searching, exploration and experimentation with what works and the adaptation of what doesn’t work well to come up with results that make sense.

A case in point is work that I did over several years with a recent client. The initial challenge was helping them to develop a strategic plan. This very quickly revealed follow-on impacts in how they thought about their business planning at corporate and departmental levels, and how they ultimately developed their budgets and fiscal plans. The best strategic plan is useless if there is no mechanism to deliver on the promises being made.

Early on, our approach was distinctly hands-on. We actively led the executive and management team through each of the steps, We did everything in our power to make it easy for them to work through the process, often sitting directly beside them and guiding them through it. Even so, there was resistance, resentment and a desire to do the minimum amount possible. Planning in detail was intense, and the work required a level of detail that went far beyond anything that the organization had previously experienced.

Over a few years, however, the organization made a number of significant and meaningful shifts. Executives and managers took direct control of their planning efforts. The initiatives and strategies that they proposed were relevant and significant. They didn’t waste time defining objects and proposing projects that didn’t align with organizational priorities.

Even more importantly, the organization started to make better decisions. The actually prioritized their work. They made decisions based upon their capacity, and tried to avoid taking on more than they could meaningfully deliver. While they weren’t always successful in this goal, the results were far superior to what they’d experienced in the past. Rather than saying “yes” to everything and implementing very little, they began to say “no.” A lot. Often, only half the projects that were proposed would get underway in a given year; the rest were deferred to subsequent years, where they would be reprioritized and reconsidered.

Today, the organization has a mature, robust planning process. It is a process they own, and that they have continued to maintain and evolve. In fact, I haven’t been involved in contributing to the process in any meaningful way in about four years. I don’t need to, and they don’t need me. It’s all theirs now. And this isn’t a bad thing. In fact it is arguably one of the biggest successes of my consulting career; I quite literally worked my way out of a job.

The interesting thing is that the organization now gets a lot of attention and interest. Other, similar organizations are attracted to how they manage, how they prioritize and how they make choices. Many have asked if they can adapt—or outright adopt—the processes, templates and databases that the organization has established.

The problem is that it’s not the process and the tools that make the organization successful. Certainly, they help. It would be a much more painful and manual process if they weren’t in place. But it’s not the physical artefacts of how they manage that make the difference. It’s the thinking and the mindset and the culture that exists behind the process. It’s the belief that exists within the organization that the process works, and makes a difference, and actually helps them to make better decisions.

A different organization could theoretically take what my client has in place today and implement it. There is little that is truly unique and specific to that organization that is obvious from the outside. Behind the process, though, there is a great deal of thought and learning and perspective that is truly unique. That insight didn’t exist when we started, and the changes in mindset weren’t clearly obvious at the time. But the shifts that were made—and they were real and significant shifts—were the real work of building them a new approach to planning and prioritizing.

This is probably the biggest challenge in helping organizations to understand that what gets implemented needs to be culturally appropriate and contextually relevant. On the surface, what winds up being in place may genuinely look a lot like what exists in other organizations. But it’s not the surface appearances that matters; it is what lies below and beyond the surface that makes the greatest difference. Shifts in thinking and sensing and knowing are the critical changes that make the process work.

Organizational change is a slow and arduous process. It takes time and effort, and often feels incremental and painful and tedious. Participants don’t recognize the internal changes they make in how they react and relate to their work. It is a steady shifting of viewpoints until all of a sudden they look back and realize that their outlook is completely different. It’s a little bit like hiking up a mountain; each step is tedious, but eventually you get to a point where you can turn around and barely see where you started. The journey that looked overwhelming and impossible when you started just became not just manageable, but done.

We may want quick and easy solutions. And we may well be frustrated with the fact that after a lot of effort the solutions we wind up with look a lot like what other organizations have and use. The problem is that this mindset is looking at the problem in the wrong way, and judging success by the wrong criteria. It’s not the physical process that matters, helpful though it might be. But the process gives focus to the journey in thinking and understanding and knowing.

You can’t short-circuit the journey by just adopting someone else’s process. And you can’t just ride along on someone else’s journey and hope that you wind up in a place that is meaningful for you. The starting point, the ending point and the steps long the way will all be uniquely yours.

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