A Four Minute Read
Clients frequently tell me that we can’t improve their business, because the work is “too complex” or “customer-centered” to “follow process.” Demands are too dynamic, or unpredictable, their refrain goes – being shackled to a process would only limit the ability to get real work done.
I have coached project managers with multi-million dollar portfolios who bristle at the very idea of following a project management process. (And don’t get the Agilistas started on the human bondage that is “process”.) “My project is so unique,” they say, “it could never fit within the arbitrary constraints of a process.”
This perception, while widespread, is false.
This is a fundamental misunderstanding of what “process” actually is – versus, say, “operating procedures.” SOPs or standard work are (intentionally) limiting – and when the real-world situation at hand does not quite fit a pre-ordained list of tasks, the instructions become frustrating. And, ultimately, ignored.
But a well-designed business processes should not be that narrow. A well-designed process is meant to accomplish a specific goal, and should allow for freedom within a framework to meet that need.
It may sound paradoxical, but it is that very framework – the built-in limitations – that create the freedom.
For example: At its core, music has a very strict framework. Twelve tones. Five lines on a staff. But from that basic structure, there are 30 keys, 105 modes, and countless variations.
No one is likely to argue that Jimi Hendrix, say, or Mozart, were arbitrarily restricted from achieving their individual creative genius. However, they were indeed both confined –limited by the same 12 notes – as are Paul McCartney, Taylor Swift, and Vivaldi.
If Jimmy Buffet had to sit down every morning and create, from scratch, new keys and new scales, he would never have had time to write “Margaritaville.” Listen to Coltrane and Miles Davis play together– the trumpet and sax can both go veering wildly in opposite directions, but at the snap of a snare, it all comes back together. Because they trust their process, and exercise individual freedom in a common framework.
Good processes have standardized documentation. If Beethoven had to custom-design a way to write down his work – rather than relying on that pre-existing system of five lines and four bars – we would be lucky to have one symphony. If there was no accepted standard of documentation, orchestras and conductors would be paralyzed by the need to learn how each composer scores his or her music. Having a common, accepted process allows them to focus their talents on what is most important – the content.
It would be hard to confuse The Usual Suspects with ET the Extra-Terrestrial. While Christopher McQuarrie’s screenplay entraps us in a tangled web of deceit, Melissa Mathison’s script charms us with the tale of a boy and his friend, and they both – along with the hundreds of screenplays that are filmed every year – adhere to the same framework: 12 point Courier, 1.5 inch inside margin, dialogue indented 2.5 inches, and so on.
Don’t mistake this just as “word processing rules”: Throughout the first 30ish pages of those screenplays will be the Set-Up to the story, followed by an Inciting Incident leading to about 60 pages of Confrontation and Conflict, building to a Plot Point that begins approximately 30 pages of Resolution.
It is the content and the output that is unique and creative, not the framework. It is form not formula.
Actor Wendell Pierce is as versatile as they come – playing roles as diverse as Bunk on “The Wire” to Clarence Thomas. Speaking in Philadelphia, he explained how he found the “jazz” in Shakespeare. Iambic pentameter is a rhythm to follow, but not a dictated restriction. “Order, technical proficiency: Honored. Freedom of expression: Unleashed,” is how he described it.
A stable process encourages freedom within agreed-upon frameworks, and not just in the creative arts. In the interminable final four seconds of a college basketball game, the coach and players huddle over a clipboard, diagramming a play. What actually unfolds rarely looks like what was sketched (the other team is always so damn pesky about running their own play). But, because the five players all have a common understanding, each can improvise as necessary – knowing that the others will adjust using that same framework.
In a business environment where people routinely have to act alone, then collaborate, then work alone again to satisfy demanding customers, the lack of solid business processes can be disastrous. Where each situation may be unique, we should not be spending our energy, time, and intellectual capital trying to figure out how to approach the solution, or how to document the solution, or what needs to be done first – we should be able to jump to action.
Our customers and clients do not want us to spend our time (which, ultimately, is their money) debating where to begin; they want us to tell them the end.
“The Star-Spangled Banner” sure sounds different coming from the Marine Band than from the Jimi Hendrix Experience; applying the same framework to different situations and audience/customer needs provides for the creative freedom to meet those demands.
If the process does not allow or adapt to satisfy its customers, it is not the concept of “process” to blame, but the design and implementation of that process. Construct the right framework, allow for freedom within it, and your organization will be ready to hit the right notes, together.