Process is good, but…

To be clear—I’m a big believer in process discipline! The importance of and evidence for strong process discipline is all around us! I was on an airplane this weekend and happened to peek into the cockpit while boarding. The pilot and co-pilot were going through their pre-flight checklist. It was comforting to be reminded that they do this—every flight! I was with a family member in hospital yesterday. About 5 or 6 different nurses, doctors and specialists came into the patient’s room while I was with her. Each one of them followed a process involving thorough hand washing, checking the patient’s wrist band, asking her who she was and why she was there, checking her charts (now computerized, for even better process management.) I’ve been on many consulting engagements where we helped a client re-engineer major business processes, and the financial benefits the client experienced were significant.

Good process helps prevent errors. Good process helps drive efficiency. Good process ensures consistency. Process is good.

Not all activities are process-centric!

I was recently reminded that too much reliance on process can, for some types of activity, be a trap. It can create a false sense of confidence that something will work well, when it fact it won’t.

A recent exchange on the Business Relationship Management Institute (BRMI) member’s Online Campus prompted this post. One of the Special Interest Groups had started a discussion thread about goals for 2016, and several members were talking about their plans for implementing Demand Management Processes. One member noted his concern that the discussion had a very strong process-centric spin to it, with the implication that if you have a robust Demand Management Process, business value realization would increase significantly and the Business Relationship Managers would be heroes!

The individual’s observation was insightful. Much of the discussion was process-centric, and that can be a trap. When my co-founders and I began formalizing the BRM role through BRMI (and my work in BRM training and development over the last 20+ years) it was often a struggle to get beyond the process-obsession of IT professionals.  The need for strong process discipline in IT is important and valid. But not for all types of work.

Let me present a couple of lenses through which to determine the degree of process-centricity appropriate to a given context and type of work.

The Value Disciplines

Back in 1997, in their book, The Discipline of Market Leaders, Treacy and Wiersema presented their hypothesis about value disciplines and market leadership. The Value Disciplines were:

  • Operational Excellence (which was all about process discipline)
  • Customer Intimacy (which was all about relationship discipline)
  • Product Leadership (which was all about innovation discipline)

The role of Business Relationship Manager (BRM) is optimized for the relationship discipline, both in terms of how it is aligned with business units (or, in some cases, end-to-end business process, or in other cases geography or brand) and in terms of the BRMs skill set.

In my research last year into BRM time allocation, I found that BRMs were spending too much time on process-disciplined activities and too little time on relationship and innovation disciplined work. I argued that the BRM role was largely ‘invented’ to put people into a role where relationship was the focus. That does not mean ignoring process or innovation, but it means the role is deliberately optimized for relationships. Process-centric work such as infrastructure operations and Service Management should be handled in a process-centric way. That is why process libraries such as ITIL exist.

Henry Mintzberg on Standardization of Work

Back in 1992 in his book Structure In Fives: Designing Effective Organizations, Henry Mintzberg describes coordinating mechanisms and the relationships between ‘bureaucratization’ and ‘decentralization.’

  • Some work activities demand standardization of work processes (e.g., systems development.)
  • Some work activities demand standardization of outputs (e.g., project management.)
  • Some work activities demand standardization of skills (e.g., relationship management.)

In reality, most roles comprise a mix of these types of work activity, but getting the mix right is most important. A brain surgeon spends far more time developing her specialized skills, and is little concerned with process (except at a very high level—e.g., make sure the the patient is appropriately anesthetized before removing top of skull.)  The architect is highly concerned with plans and diagrams, and less so with process. The designer of a production line is highly concerned with work process and less so with the need for years of post graduate training, internships and residencies.

So, my colleague’s caution to his fellow interest group members is well taken. Demand Management happens through strong, trusting relationship networks, with an outstanding ability to recognize true sources of value, and then to influence and persuade those creating demand to appreciate and pursue the high value opportunities. A little dose of process can help, but it won’t substitute for the right relationship skills!