Breathe the Life Back Into Your Organization


Posted by Joel Basgall - 04 March, 2013

Add Culture. Not Process.

by Joel Basgall

You spend so much time in meetings talking about deadlines that you end up missing one.  Your micromanaging boss wants you to put in more hours on a project you know is useless. The amount of time and energy your team spends to produce ridiculously simple things no longer makes sense.  

We've all felt like Dilbert at one time or another.

What’s behind the menacing bureaucracy that is such a big part of Dilbert’s world?  A workplace paying the price of too much process.

** Top 10 List **

Signs Your Work Place is Over Processed

We’ve scoured Corporate America to bring you some of our favorite obtuse, often absurd, processes:

  1. You were made Project Manager on a system you are not permitted access to.
  2. Problems are automatically solved through new processes.
  3. You go through three different log-ins to get to your timesheet.
  4. After spending hours making major upgrades to your laptop, IT sends you an email saying the whole company is getting new laptops.
  5. A meeting is called to discuss new items for the vending machine.
  6. Your weekly report is edited three times as it moves up the ladder.
  7. Your boss finally recognizes that you have no  bandwidth and kindly assigns a co-worker (also on overload) to help you.
  8. You have to go online and fill out a form for a box of paperclips
  9. Your company has a personal yearly pen quota.
  10. You’re in yet another meeting to discuss an email.

“Sorry. I Was Just Following the Process.” 

A couple of years ago I met Terry Frasier.  Terry had just stepped into the role as CIO of R2R technologies, a high growth telecom firm. When Terry talked about driving his new team to the heights of innovation, he was as excited as a high school kid handed his first set of car keys.

When I ran into him at a networking dinner recently, he was not the pumped up guy I had met a year earlier.  After describing a year of dog and pony shows, Terry recalled those early days with regret and disappointment.

Terry was used to working in an organization with the kind of culture that rewarded people for pushing the envelope.  Everything possible was done to remove obstacles to spirited innovation -- not create them.  People were motivated to be stars and were having fun doing it!  Sure, they had rules but it was safe to adjust, add and remove processes as needed.   He expected no less at R2R, but walked into a culture where following a process seemed more important than delivering the best outcome.

I understood Terry’s frustration. He wanted to build amazing teams. His success depended on it.  But, like Dilbert, he found himself in an organization (not uncommon in growing companies)  that was struggling to balance the control of process with the opportunity to be wildly successful.

But Wait … Process Isn’t All Bad

True.  When used to drive consistency and efficiency, process is a good thing.  Used this way, there is still enough room for the organization  to reward free thinking and encourage engagement.  Process turns ugly when the process itself becomes more important than achieving the right outcome.

In other words, you do something that has a mediocre result but are still commended for following process. That’s ugly.

Think of it this way: A process is a point-in-time solution.  It makes sense for the goals, people and environment in play at that moment. But as soon as one variable changes, the process can become “wrong.”  A healthy, balanced culture recognizes this and permits the workplace to change and adapt. It encourages people to challenge themselves by asking “Am I just doing what I did yesterday OR am I doing things right?” They’re often not the same thing.

Ideally, in a balanced organization, we use process when it is useful but know when and how to jump out of it when it becomes obstructive.


(or just move the friggin’ copier already)

I love giving this example, based on a story from Ian MacDougal, founder of Corporate LifeCycles.  According to MacDougal, the secret to keeping process under control is to have the right mix of organizational roles:  Producers, Administrators, Influencers/Organizers and Entrepreneurs.  When those are in balance, the culture itself acts as a firewall against too much process.

MacDougal explains how (if left to their own devices) these personality types would handle the seemingly simple task of moving the office copier:

  • The producer, the get-it-done person, gathers his buddies and says, “Okay, let’s move it now.” They run over, unplug it, push it to the new location, plug it back in and hope it works.
  • The influencer/organizer schedules a meeting in Outlook, facilitates a discussion about location and logistics, and get consensus.
  • The entrepreneur says, “We have a copier?” She needs a copy, asks for a copy, and gets a copy.
  • The administrative fills out a requisition form, submits it for approval, calls building maintenance for back up, and checks with HR on the liabilities of employees moving equipment.

Now, in a balanced situation:

  • The Administrator does a quick check for electrical or other relevant concerns
  • The producer rounds up his buddies to push the machine.
  • The influencer tells the entrepreneur that if she needs to make a copy, she now turns left instead of right to get to the machine.

Any organization that doesn’t have all four roles has a problem by definition.  When all roles are present, the trick is to figure out the right balance. And this, of course, can vary from company to company.

The Lure of Process

So with all of its pitfalls, why are we so drawn to process?

In Terry’s company, most of the managers were worried about scaling the organization during a potentially chaotic growth stage.  At some point, they turned to process as the answer rather than the people.  While all their procedures slowed things down enough to create a sense of control, it also stifled energy and spirit -- the true drivers of an organization’s long-term growth, strength and value.

For the most part, organizations introduce (and often get stuck in) process for one or a combination of reasons:

  1. Drive consistency and leverage economies of scale. Instead of reinventing the wheel every time, we create a process.  Or, we reuse things that are already there, but we’re allowed to make adaptations to improve the process. There’s much to be said in favor of this kind of process.
  2. Compensate for human weakness:  Sometimes, well-intended processes get enhanced because the “people involved can’t do it”. Now, the process becomes so precise even a chimpanzee can do it. With no opportunity for people to add value, this kind of process has one message: “I don’t want them to think; I just want them to do what they’re told.
  3. Control outcomes: Next, we go to the extreme. This is when the process is designed to actually direct behavior to a specific end.

While #1 is healthy process, the others are more about control and trying to make process smarter than people. (As we see at R2R, this is an approach that can backfire over time.)

Process isn’t bad as long as it is used as a tool.  It’s not supposed to be the point.  And, while it doesn’t make sense to eliminate all process from the workplace, there’s a right reason and a wrong reason for having it.

Breaking the Process Habit

If you are accountable for making things happen, it’s tempting to use process to control outcomes.  The problem is that you usually don’t end up with the best outcomes.

The first step in breaking the process habit is to recognize why you use process.  Commit to some honest introspection and ask yourself:

  • Is hitting your metric your main goal at work? In other words, do you find yourself thinking: “My metric is 75, I hit 76, I’m done”?
  • Do you resent it when co-workers give feedback on your processes?  Are you uncomfortable with their ideas to make a process easier or do you embrace their thinking?
  • Are you more comfortable maintaining the status quo than trying to make things better?
  • Do you hold your people accountable or do you encourage them to take ownership?
  • Do you micro-manage your staff?
  •  Do you find it difficult to treat the people you work with like valued friends?
  • Are you naturally distrustful?  Do you genuinely believe that your co-workers will hinder rather than help you?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, it’s possible you’re at risk of using process the wrong way.

Don’t Add Process. Add Culture.

If you’re ready to lessen process and stimulate innovation (or whatever you feel is missing from your organization),  what do you do? If you pull out all the bad process, you’re left with a gap.  Now what? How do you balance control and predictability with the freedom to be creative?

Don’t worry about creating a cultural utopia. Focus your energy on changing your company’s attitude about the value of culture:

  • Hire for cultural fit as well as technical ability:  If you want an innovation-driven culture, hire people who are committed to innovation. Terry, an ambitious, passionate leader, felt stifled in a process-heavy culture. On the other hand, if R2R was dedicated to producing star performers, a more bureaucratic CIO would also hit resistance. This is the reason that struggling organizations don’t change when the CEO is replaced.  The CEO changed but the rest of the organization didn’t.
  • Think of process as just a tool: In a balanced organization, people are empowered to operate in a way that influences outcomes. Because they feel ownership (not to be confused with accountability) of those outcomes, they are unlikely to let process interfere with their drive for success.  Everyone on the team understands why a process exists and they have the freedom to adjust, add and remove processes as needed.
  • Understand and exercise the differences in people.  Don’t worry if someone decides not to abdicate thinking and follow process. “Control” may be knowing your people will do what’s best, not just what was done yesterday.
  • Succeed or fail together. Look for the right or best answers rather than blindly follow process. You want to build a level of trust where team members can coach each other on processes that need to be adjusted.
  • Keep everyone aligned with the company goals and vision.  When you have shared vision, collaboration and loyalty (rather than obedience),  employees always come through and do the right thing.
  • Know when you are successful.  Define metrics that the entire organization buys into. Are most employees comfortable with mediocrity? Or, is there energy around being wildly successful?  Metrics are a way to know where you are as an organization and how to get better.  There is no “bar” – you always want to be better tomorrow than you are today. Too much process may make that impossible.

Kill a Stupid Rule"

Here is a suggestion from business thought leader, Lisa Bodell, founder and CEO of futurethink, an internationally recognized innovation research and training firm.

This exercise helps to streamline or eliminate the barriers that prevent organizations  from being more innovative:

  • Get your team into a room and ask them to brainstorm the following question: “If you could get rid of any rule, either kill it or change it, what rule would you choose and why?”
  • Put guardrails around the discussion. For example, “red rules,” cannot be touched because they are regulated by the government, or would be illegal if you changed them. Everything else is a “green rule” and fair game.
  • Brainstorm for about 10 minutes.  You’ll be amazed at the assumptions, processes, and annoying things that hold people back.

Note:  Be brave.  It might turn out that some of the most irritating rules were made up by you!

Following these ideas are rewarding (and yes, difficult) first steps in getting culture and process to work together.   

Process Doesn’t Drive Success.  People Do.

With its mismanagement and failure to reward achievement, do you think Dilbert’s company is successful?

If you look inside America’s fastest growing companies, you find a healthy respect for the role a culture plays in shaping high performance teams.  These organizations are tuned into removing obstacles to success, they don’t create them. Process is less important because management believes that employees will always do what’s best and empower them to do it. That’s culture.

When culture and process are in balance, the organization is very effective, a well-oiled machine. If process overshadows culture, the spark of creativity dims and the flow of innovative ideas slow.  The health of the organization begins to suffer.

Decide what kind of organization you want to be. Obedient or loyal? Antiseptic or passionate? Blamers or solvers?  Then, reset your priorities. Pay allegiance to results rather than process. Make getting it right the top priority. And most important, do whatever you can to set your team up for success.  It won’t be long before you see the life come back to your organization.


Topics: culture, Organizational Leaders, Work and Lead Better

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