I was watching BBC America World News the other day, and there was an interesting piece on the G20 summit. Dr. Irwin Stelzer, Senior Fellow at the Hudson institute made the assertion, “Europeans are very much in love with process, while Americans are very much in love with results.” As a European who has lived and worked in the US for 30 years, I resonate with this statement – gross oversimplification though it might be. I’m not sure where the US/Europe biases regarding process and outcome originally come from, but in my experience, they are biases rather than universal dogma. Americans can get deeply (and sometimes overly) enamored of process at the expense of outcomes just as Europeans can sell process short in a jump to outcomes.
The need to balance process with outcomes is, I think, well appreciated. Even the distinctions of types of work, and how these play into the importance of process are, I think, old news and generally understood. However, for all of the underlying theory and experience, there do seem to be cultural biases that all too readily derail the proper balance. One of the great things about the US is its “bias for action.” This was one of the characteristics that led me to move to the US in the first place, and has helped keep me here. However, taken too far, a bias for action all too easily becomes wasted effort or a screwed up opportunity. On the other hand, an overly deliberate focus on process can get in the way of outcomes realization.
I have seen many business process reengineering efforts derailed by a loss of sight of the outcomes. While these may have been clear at the outset, they somehow got lost in the process of re-engineering. In fact, for quite a few years I was involved in many client consulting engagements designed to help get derailed ERP initiatives back on track. Almost always the magic sauce we used was to go back to the original outcomes. If these had been well-defined up front, it was simply a matter of refreshing them then going through a rigorous triage to determine what features and functions were essential to realizing those outcomes. Anything else, while perhaps “good ideas” and/or “good things to do” were put on a back burner as “not critical to achieving the outcomes.” If the outcomes had not been well-defined up front (this was often the case – they were vague, lacked specific metrics and time frames, or were not really outcomes at all) then our task was to define the outcomes. In every case, once the outcomes were clear and compelling, the process could be brought back on track.
Process can all too easily become a substitute for thinking, rather than an aid to thinking. When I was at Ernst & Young, I learned (and still apply) the “ODW” mantra – Outcomes, Deliverables, Work-plan. The idea is simple – get clear on the desired outcomes first. Then figure out what deliverables are needed to realize those outcomes. Then you can build the right work-plan for creating those deliverables. It’s a very simple formula, but one that once internalized can help enormously with this outcome/process balancing act. In some respects, ODW is a process. And, of course, the work-plan that comes out of ODW is a process.
Finally, I think metrics are an important tool in helping keep the balance right. Not coincidentally, the Kaplan/Norton Balanced Scorecard has as an underlying premise the balance between outcomes and process (as well as the balance between today’s results and investments for the future.) It is an important discipline to distinguish between outcome measures and process measures. The former can tell you how well a process is performing, while the latter can provide insights into how to improve that process.