Maintaining Balance Between Process and Thought

    1 FREE Audiobook RISK-FREE from AudibleIn the business world, organizations regularly implement and redefine processes as a response to various issues.  This is Thought versus processusually done in an effort to have standardized approaches so that stakeholders know how to address various situations in a consistent manner.  In this week’s podcast, we’ll address the delicate balance of applying process and encouraging people to think for themselves in challenging situations.

    1. What prompted you to make this a topic for this week’s podcast?
      1.    It’s a debate that I’ve seen for quite some time, particularly in the consulting industry.
      2. As organizations grow, they start to see inconsistencies in how various individuals handle situations.
      3. Let me give an example.  Let’s say you run a clothing store and you see that a lot of people purchase clothes on Fridays and return the clothes after the weekend.
      4. You start to see a pattern and you notice that the clothes that are brought back are worn.
      5. You realize that people are purchasing clothes to wear to a weekend event and then returning those clothes on Monday and getting their money back.  They’re abusing your return policy to wear clothes for free.
      6. So you institute a policy that any returns of clothing must have the tags still attached.  You know that people aren’t going to wear the clothing to a function with the tags on.  So if they remove the tags to wear in public, the item can’t be returned.
      7. Now there are many of situations where a customer legitimately might take the tags off and want to return the item without planning to fraud the store.
      8. Let’s say I purchase as suit jacket.  I tried it on at the store and it fits fine.  Then, when I go to wear it out to dinner, I take off the tags and put it on and my wife points out that there’s a bad tear in the back.
      9. I didn’t see that when I tried it on in the store.
      10. So I end up wearing something else to dinner and the next day, I go to return it to the store.  Since I took the tags off, they won’t allow me to return it, even though there’s an unsightly tear in the back.
      11. So this is where we start talking about exceptions within policies.  The store could create the exception that if the item is damaged, it can be returned without the tags.
      12. But then this creates incentives for people to just tear the clothing items after they’ve worn them in order to be able to make a return.
      13. The point is that we need policies and procedures to ensure consistency and to avoid having people take advantage of things.
      14. But we also need to allow flexibility and common sense along with that.
    2. So what are the considerations of this in the consulting industry?
      1. One of the things clients like about hiring consultants, besides having specialized knowledge in certain areas, is the fact that a firm often has a well defined and proven methodology.
      2. Many firms use that as a selling point and use their methodology as a competitive advantage.  “Our firm follows a step-by-step methodology to make sure that your project is done on time and under budget”.
      3. And I believe that having a well defined methodology is a good thing. But it should be driven more by guidelines and parameters rather than a formal and inflexible process that doesn’t allow for exceptions.
      4. Here’s an example that I saw once in a consulting environment. I knew a project manager at a client who followed a strict change management policy after business requirements had been defined.
      5. So any time we had a change, no matter how small, he completed a change request form, documented the impact to the project regardless how small and submitted it to the client.
      6. Change requests usually cause significant overhead for the client.  They have to submit changes up through management to get approvals and signatures, so every one of these can cost fairly significant time and money.  Besides, they get the feeling they’re being nickel and dimed with every one of these small changes.
      7. After a while, our client got tired of going through this process for every little change.  This created some bad blood between the client and the project manager and they eventually went to the firm and asked them to replace the project manager.
      8. If the project manager had put some thought into it and realized that he didn’t have to submit a change request for each tiny little change.  But what if we allow little changes here and there that continue growing until you’ve got what we call scope creep.  It becomes a death by a thousand paper cuts.
    3. So how to you prevent it from growing out of control like that?
      1. A better approach to this would have been to have a threshold of reasonableness for the impact of the change.  If it’s a small and reasonable change, we’ll go ahead and implement it.  Then we would just keep of log of these small changes.
      2. At some point, when we accumulate a certain level where the changes have added up to a significant amount, you can submit a change request to the client that represents all of the small changes.
      3. The client will see that all of these small changes added up to some significant extra work.  It’s easier for them to go through their management approval efforts for significant changes like that.
      4. So here is a situation where you have a defined process that is necessary for change management on a project.
      5. But you’ve taken a step back and purposely decided the scenarios where it makes sense and the situations where you can modify the process a bit to accomplish the same goal, but avoid blindly implementing process when it doesn’t necessarily make sense and provides better client satisfaction.
    4. Can an organization go to one extreme or the other with thought and process?
      1. Absolutely.  I think the situation where the project manager submitted a change request for changes of any size is one good example.
      2. Another good example is airport security after the September 11th and other terrorist attacks.
      3. Think about the fact that one person made a failed attempt at lighting a shoe bomb on an airplane, and now for over 10 years, everyone has had to take their shoes off to get on an airplane.
      4. This was an example of policy makers rushing into a solution that we’re stuck with for the foreseeable future that I think is more of an irritant than anything that’s resolved any problems.
      5. But that’s where I see policies and processes designed in this situation.  We see a problem and implement a way to stop people from thinking.  We just want them to follow rules and not have to think.  That way we can insure a uniform approach that will always be consistent.
      6. The problem lies in the fact that not every problem that comes along is consistent.  We end up applying the same rules to different issues that are categorized as the same.
      7. The change request process was applied the same way for changes that had major impact on the project as well as for changes with minimal to no impact.
      8. I think we have to stop and ask ourselves, will we accomplish what we’re trying to accomplish?
      9. Now, with that being said, it can be taken to the other extreme as well.  If we have no process defined, it can be chaos.
      10. Imagine going into a restaurant and there are no processes in place to serve your food.  They don’t have any recipes in the kitchen. They just wing it with whatever you order.
      11. And every cook makes it just a little bit differently.  So if you order your favorite item in two visits, it can be completely different each time.
      12. You want some consistency and predictability. But at the same time, if you don’t like some particular ingredient, you want the freedom to say ‘no anchovies please’ for your pizza.
      13. Think about going to McDonalds, where they’re strict followers of process.  If you want a Big Mac without pickles and onion, it interferes greatly with their process of making every order as consistent as possible.
      14. But, if you want a custom meal every time, it will take much longer and probably be much more expensive.
      15. You need to determine what will best serve your market and define as little process as necessary and as much flexibility as possible to serve your clients best.
    5. What do you think are the downsides to each extreme in a consulting environment?
      1. I talked a little about the lack of flexibility when you have too much process defined.  In the example of the change request, the project manager on that project blindly implemented a defined process so that it worked for him and our firm.
      2. He didn’t stop to think what the effect was on the client or the extra work the client had to go through as a result.
      3. He made life more difficult for the client and that’s not what defined processes should do.
      4. So the effect was inflexibility which resulted in a very dissatisfied client.
      5. Let’s look at the other extreme for that same situation.  If we had no process in place for change management, perhaps the project manager would just accept every change the client requested.
      6. Then, as we approach the projected end date of the project, the project manager would realize that we had added so much scope to the project that we won’t even come close to completing the project in time for our end date.  Either that or we would take the project live and not all of the functionality is there.
      7. Having the process in place is there to help the client keep the scope intact as well as protect the firm from doing extra work without pay.
      8. So going to either extreme will result in poor client satisfaction.  The secret is working to balance the process with stopping to think about how it will affect the client and your firm and trying to determine the best way to optimize your service to the client.
    6. What do you think is the optimum balance?
      1. I don’t know that there is an optimum balance per se.  It’s sort of like striving for utopia or perfection.
      2. You’re never going to be perfect.  Every client is different.  Every situation is different.
      3. And when you define procedures, there’s no way you can think of all of the variations and permutations for how the procedure can affect the outcome.
      4. I’m reminded of one of Bill Cosby’s jokes about raising children and how they came to him complaining that someone was touching them.
      5. His response was “OK, from now on, I don’t want anyone in this family to touch anyone ever again.”
      6. It’s obviously an exaggeration.  But we see processes and procedures and rules implemented that are designed to stop a certain bad behavior and they end up stopping good behavior at the same time.
      7. So my suggestion is to implement processes as a set of parameters.
      8. Define up front, ‘This is the behavior we’re trying to encourage or avoid’.  Then define a process that addresses that situation with enough flexibility to allow for legitimate exceptions and encourages employees to be able to think and make decisions for each unique situation.
      9. There are some that argue that the more flexibility you build into a process, the more you’re opening yourself to abuse.
      10. There is no process that is 100% fool-proof.  You have to be able to trust your people to make good decisions.  And if they don’t, you need to deal with that.  But it’s a different situation.  You can’t inflict cumbersome process on your clients because of a lack of trust with your employees.
      11. So while it seems vague, the optimal balance is letting your people know the intended consistent result you want, while giving them the freedom to make decisions based on all the variables in each situation.
      12. Those variables include the people involved, how volatile the situation is, and the impact that any decision will have in that situation.
    7. Any final thoughts about balancing process with thought.
      1. The difficulty with this is that it’s got to be a balance.  Defining too much process will create an environment that doesn’t deal with reality.  People will unthinkingly just implement process without a thought of trying to do a job right.
      2. It creates an environment of bureaucracy.
      3. On the other end of the spectrum, if no process is in place, you create an environment of chaos where there is no consistency and people have too much freedom.  Few things get done right in that environment either.
      4. My preference is to give people more freedom rather than less.  Hire good employees, train them well and then set them free and let them make decisions.
      5. If you need some parameters, make sure they know what your ultimate goal is.  Tell them what you are trying to accomplish and they’ll more often than not make good decisions for you, for the client and for the situation in general.

    Next week’s topic: Leaving a Consulting Firm

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