An essential question that we have to wrestle with is, “How do we make process work?” Over the past few weeks, we’ve explored some of the challenges of implementing and adopting effective processes. While knowing what not to do is important, even more vital is determining an appropriate, relevant and meaningful path forward.
Adaptation—and adaptability—is a crucial concept. That’s how we get to an answer of “It depends.” That’s not to say that there isn’t, in any given organization, a defined way of getting things done. But the practices that work for one organization won’t necessarily be the same practices that are relevant for other organizations.
Even for organizations in the same industry, managing the same kinds of projects, adaptations will occur. Sometimes those differences will be small and sometimes they will be significant. But with the exception of the simplest and most straightforward situations, where there is and can be a clear understanding of “best practice,” some level of adaptation will virtually always be required.
So what needs to be done in determining how to navigate the choices for any given organization? What are the options and pathways that need to be explored? What are the questions to ask along the way? And what are the strategies and approaches that can guide towards the deployment of reasonable, responsible and responsive processes? While the destination will vary, the journey for each organization can be considered through a set of considerations. These are outlined in the points below:
- It is absolutely critical to know where you are starting from. There are several reasons why this is vital. It’s not just about having a baseline against which to assess progress (although this is important). It is also about recognizing that there are foundations on which to build. Any organization will have practices that are effective already, and can be leveraged going forward—or that at least offer a kernel around which to build. Recognizing what works—and valuing what exists—is an important part of the change management effort. Not starting over from scratch, but building on what was there, helps to celebrate what already works even while identifying what can be improved.
- Think about where you can get to from here. The other aspect of defining where you are starting from is about identifying—and being realistic about—where you can get to. Organizations are not going to make quantum leaps in maturity, rigour or formality overnight. What gets built needs to be a logical—and visibly attainable—progression from what already exists. Setting too ambitious a goal will not only be viewed as being impossible; it will also be seen as irrelevant and inappropriate. The path from today to your desired future state needs to be defined enough to be understood, and resonant enough to be valued.
- Define what is appropriate, reasonable and acceptable. A big part of process development is about articulating capabilities that solve recognized problems and provide valued and useful support. That means making sure that what is being developed and implemented makes sense for the people that will use it. They need to understand the current problems, and see what is being offered as process as a viable and helpful solution. That means being extremely clear on what the goals of improving the process are, and the capabilities that will help you to realize those goals.
- Know where to stop. This is probably one of the most significant challenges of designing process. It is incredibly easy to be all-encompassing and all-consuming. To ask for everything. To consider—and then address—every option. The problem is that we often build process to address the largest, most complex and most challenging situation, and presume that people will scale down from there. Once the process is designed, however, the expectation—and quickly adopted presumption—is that people will follow it. A better approach is to begin with the minimal, essential process that will work for everyone. Set that expectation, and allow more complex projects to build on that as additional solutions are required.
- Tailoring is important, but common practice is still essential. This is one of the great ironies about process. While uniform, blindly adhered to “best” practices are neither applicable nor useful, good process is still typically rooted in common standards, concepts and terminology. Adaptation is critical, both in terms of the process being appropriate and from a change management perspective in ensuring meaningful adoption. There is incredible value that accrues when people believe that process has been customized to the specifics of an organization. Where that process is too customized, and too far from normally recognized practice, however, there is a significant learning curve. Positioning the process relative to familiar concepts that people already know makes it easier to understand what is expected, and how what is expected might be different from what they have done in the past.
- What fits today won’t fit tomorrow. Adaptation is, in fact, a constant. There is not a place in process improvement where you can say you are “done.” When attention wanes and investment in practices stops, people also stop using and valuing process. On-going investment is an important reinforcement that what has been designed is important and cared about, but also needs to continually be improved. The best organizations in any field continue to invest significant resources and effort in continuing to learn and in further enhancing their capabilities.
- Process change is culture change. Process doesn’t live in a vacuum. It is not abstract, objective and separate from how the organization operates in reality. “How things really get done here” is essential to culture. If the processes that we develop and implement are to be successful, they need to be adopted, embraced and used. They need to reflect what is actually done in practice, not just what would optimally be done in theory.
- People will do what works for them. Getting process to be used relies upon one fundamental principle: people need to see themselves as being more successful using the organizational approach than they are using their own practices. Each of us comes to the table with our own background, experience and understanding. We have our own approaches, that we have developed over time, because they are what we have found to have worked. Shifting away from this to something else will only happen if the new approach works better than the old approach. If it doesn’t, change will not occur.
Defining process is easy. Defining relevant, useful process requires work. Having that process be embraced and used is the most significant challenge that we face. Process development and implementation is difficult. Done right, it can be satisfying work. Good process work is never a cut-and-past exercise of reintroducing what has worked elsewhere. It’s about finding solutions that live in the sweet spot of what will work here and now. It’s a moving target. Successfully reaching it involves being flexible, responsive and aware. We need to be willing to constantly reinvent what we’ve done before if we are going to create what is needed going forward.