The experience people have of working with you depends a lot upon how you actually work. Your approach signals a lot about who you are, what you value, and the way you organize yourself. How that approach is perceived is the result of many factors: your underlying preferences, your attitude, how you show up for others and how you speak of and treat yourself. The processes you adopt and the degree to which you rely on them also have a lot of influence in how all of that plays out.
Think about that for a second. You have probably known people who were super-organized and diligent. Whether that was back in school, constantly studying and getting top marks, or in the office dotting every ‘i’ and crossing every ’t,’ they are often earnest, disciplined, serious and purposeful. You will have also known people who were personal, engaging, fun to be around but a complete nightmare in terms of organization and follow-through. Disorganized, chaotic, inconsistent and struggling to meet commitments. You might enjoy their company, but you also quite possibly dread the consequences of giving them a deadline.
There are a few rare individuals, though, who manage to be delightfully engaging, friendly and enthusiastic, while also being extremely capable and competent. They get work done. They follow up on commitments, and make sure that the details are addressed and obligations are handled. That they manage this while being friendly, personable and communicative seems remarkable. They can feel like they have all the time in the world to connect with you and interact, and yet they also diligently deliver on their priorities.
What influences these very different experiences of interaction and outcome depends not only on whether there is process, but also the degree to which that process is visible. I can have rigorous process that I keep front and centre in all instances and interactions. I can be completely lacking in process and look like—and possibly be in—absolute chaos. I can also rely upon process as my own personal means of organizing, while in no way feeling compelled to lead with or even show that this is the case.
These observations are not just relevant on an individual level, however. They also hold true for organizations.
Process is important. It is what allows us to coordinate. It creates expectations, defines standards and guides action. Where consistency of response is required, or disparate parts of an organization need to come together around a single transaction, process becomes essential.
Process also can get in the way. It is often felt as an obstacle to be surmounted. It defines expectations to be satisfied, actions to be performed, checkboxes to be ticked and information to be captured. The act of coordinating is also an act of formalizing. That often has the consequence of creating more work.
The absence of process can be deadly. Client experiences are inconsistent. Performance varies. Commitments get missed. Handoffs and important communications do not occur. Workarounds and re-work start to dominate, as failures in one stage of the service experience result in gaps or missed expectations at later stages. More time is spent catching up, correcting and recovering than getting it right in the first place.
All of these statements are true. They reflect why process happens. They reinforce the rationale of imposing processes. Organizations at early stages of their life struggle with this, reacting and responding and figuring out on the fly. One of the hallmarks of entrepreneurial culture is to above all deliver, despite the costs and effort required to make that happen. It is, in fact a point of pride. It might not have been efficient, it may not have been easy, but it got done.
Organizations at later stages of life theoretically value process more as a consequence. They know they shouldn’t by reacting and responding. They recognize that performing on purpose is better than reacting and recovering from disarray. Process emerges—or gets imposed—to make sure that what is expected is what actually gets delivered. Whether process takes hold or makes a difference, though, depends significantly upon the dominant culture of the organization.
There are organizations that continue to value their entrepreneurial orientation, even as they grow much bigger in size. They place emphasis on principles of responsiveness, flexibility and on delivering results. The consequence is a tendency to avoid process, even where it would be appropriate. Sidestepping process expectations is common, and compliance tends to only occur when absolutely forced. There is an on-going tension between the formally defined expectations and the observed behaviours within the organization.
There are also organizations that enthusiastically embrace and internalize process. People value the direction and clarity that it provides, because then they know exactly what to do and what is expected. Process fully defines how services are delivered, and there is absolute expectation that it will be adhered to precisely at all times. Worse, process tends to be adhered to precisely and fully at all times, even where circumstances might call for a different response. Process becomes a way of focusing organizational action, while at the same time deflecting and diminishing personal responsibility and all but eliminating flexibility.
Like with the personal example from earlier, there are very few organizations that find the happy medium between these points. All process, all the time frankly doesn’t tend to produce any better results than no process, or process-barely-complied-with. Each produces negative and unwanted results. They just annoy different groups of customers in different ways and with different consequences.
Organizations need process. They also need to remember what process is for. It is a means of managing internally. It allows coordination of work, ensures consistency of services and helps keep different parts of the enterprise focused on the same outcomes. The process is not the point. What matters are the outcomes that the process delivers, and the degree to which those outcomes are relevant, effective and delight their intended audience. Not only do you not need to lead with process, but there is a good argument to be made that the best process isn’t actually visible from the outside.
An example of extraordinary but hidden process that I will always remember is checking into a hotel in London, England. As soon as the car I was in pulled up to the front door, my bags were being unloaded from the boot (this was England, after all, so we shan’t use ‘trunk’). As my car door was opened, I was greeted by name: “Welcome, Dr. Mullaly. It’s a pleasure to have you staying with us.” I was guided towards the doors of the hotel and the front desk beyond.
When I reached the front desk, I was greeted with a smile by one of the people on reception, who made eye contact as I approached. “Dr. Mullaly! Welcome to the hotel. We’re delighted to have you staying with us.” They briefly looked away past my shoulder, and then back to me. “Allow me to introduce you to our general manager.” they said, indicating a person walking up to me with their hand outstretched. We greeted, they inquired about my trip, and again welcomed me to the hotel. They queried if I had any preferences in terms of drinks; there was a subtle nod to my response, they wished me a pleasant stay, and I continued with my check-in experience. Not ten minutes after arriving at the hotel, as I was guided to my room with bags in tow, the door was opened to reveal a half-bottle of champagne on ice, a flute waiting expectantly on the tray beside it.
I had never stayed at this hotel before. I had never met any of the staff before. Being completely candid, I have never had a check-in experience quite like this one before. But reflecting on it, there was absolute process at work, none of it in any way visible. The bellmen made a point of having the bags out immediately, to read the luggage tag and be able to greet me by name. They radioed reception my name and general description, and reception in turn called for the general manager. The receptionist was listening to my conversation with the general manager, and conveyed the drinks order while we completed our conversation. All of this coordination happened behind the scenes. There was enormous process at play, and I was both unaware of and not needing to be privy to any of it.
That contrasts entirely with a more recent experience that I had. I was invited to speak by the chapter of a professional organization. The invitation was welcoming and warm, and they took the time to acknowledge writing and presentations that they had seen, what they had valued, and why they hoped I would agree to present for them. All good and wonderful, until the point I accepted the invitation and suggested a conversation to understand their audience better and explore potential topics. At this point, I was sent web links, with the request that I complete the attached forms.
What started as an incredibly personal and welcome experience quickly descended into a profound level of bureaucracy. One form was eight pages long. The other requested information that had already been asked for and answered on the first form. I was asked to provide not just my bio and my presentation topic, but also to craft marketing statements and social media statements, and to create the definition that would allow audience members to claim professional development credit for attending.
Normally, I would provide a title, bio and abstract in an email, and the association would take it from there. What had been created instead was a bureaucratic and process-heavy form that took all of the information that they need or choose to ask for in managing their process, and thrust it into the foreground for me to complete for them. I was being inflicted with their process.
No doubt, doing so makes it infinitely easier for the association in question. It also took what should have been a two minute email from me and turned it into a half-hour exercise in administrative frustration. What started off feeling welcoming finished feeling decidedly less so.
To be clear, the organization unquestionably needs all the information they were looking for. Capturing it in a form undoubtedly helps them to coordinate and communicate between their various volunteers, and make sure promoting and managing the event is coordinated and nothing falls through the cracks. At the same time, it is their process, not mine. There are other ways to manage the collection of the information that they were seeking that didn’t involve creating extra work for me. In this instance, though, the organization led with process and experience was lost as a consequence.
Having process is important. Being clear about what is required to manage process and create experience is essential. Even more important, however, is remembering that process is for you and your organization. It should help internal management and communication, but it shouldn’t burden or detract from the experience of those that you serve. Process is a tool, not a weapon. In designing process, then, it is important to think about how you need to coordinate, but also about how you can optimally design that coordination in a way that creates as little friction as possible for those outside of your organization. At a bare minimum, process should be seen and not felt. In the best of all circumstances, the results of process should be experienced without it even being seen.