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Noone ever fixed a process by adding more process

One of the recurring problems I’ve come across in organisation after organisation is this tendency for “Process” to become a lodestone for everything to accrete to over time. Eventually you end up with a situation where the “Process”, originally intended to get the organisation towards some goal has become a ravenous beast in and of itself which requires more effort to sustain it than is required to deliver the goal it was created to achieve in the first place and every time we come across a problem with the “Process” we add more controls and process to it, increasing complexity and contributing to the problem over and over.

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

  • Abraham Maslow – The Psychology of Science: A Reconnaissance (1966)

The problem of course is if you’re trying to fix a process with another process that’s akin to trying to fix the problem of a sinking ship by punching more holes in the hull.

Glen Notman, writing on the ITSM Portal about “Process not working correctly? Add more process” tells of such a tale where when faced with a failing process the implementers added more process. As the end users put it: *“We told them the classification scheme was difficult, their fix was to add more complexity!” *

This is not an uncommon approach in general. I’ve observed it time and again in organisations big and small. It seems ludicrous to me that we keep repeating these mistakes again and again in organisation after organisation as if each one is so uniquely special as to be able to “make it work” as a strategy “this time”.

I prefer to approach the problem from something I call: Emergent Enterprise. Emergent Enterprise is not Enterprise 2.0 (E² not e2.0), it’s about changing organisational thinking from front-end design oriented to evolutionary oriented.  In the same way as there has been a tendency in the “Development” world towards agile iterative processes, I believe organisation, process and control systems in enterprises can benefit from a move away from up-front design to fast evolving emergent behaviour based around simple rules, processes and conditions.

This is where I feel the world of Enterprise 2.0, Social Media and the empowerment of the “workforce” with tools for collaboration and collective decision making (by the people with the right knowledge and skills to make them) is leading us. Instead of wrestling to control more and more via process, prescriptive policies and prohibition in a parent-child behavioural dynamic, organisations ought to step back and allow the clever adults they’ve employed to arrive at the “almost” right way to do things by doing them in as transparent and communication rich an environment as is possible and introspecting on what they’re doing continuously on order to feedback improvements at the earliest possible point in time… and with the understanding that evolution doesn’t stop, it’s a perpetual process.

Where a complex process is failing I’d replace it with no process whatsoever most of the time and instead  have a short iterative cycle (with continuous feedback) which favours best practises evolving towards the top of the proverbial foodchain. For sure you will end up with “processes”, some of them likely imperfect but the thing is they’ll work most of the time and when they don’t you’ll have immediate feedback and the next iteration will be better.

You don’t need to design complex perfect processes and plug every gap, allow simple emergent organisation to evolve naturally.

Of course the control freaks will argue that such would lead to chaos, that if we don’t have “control” nothing will get done correctly how will Order come about? The thing is that the core evolutionary tendency (natural selection) is towards order, not chaos. Evolution is often mis-characterised as “randomness over design”. It’s not about randomness, it’s about iteration and selection of the most suitable traits (albeit due to random mutation) contributing towards a goal.

In an emergent enterprise we would set up the conditions which specify the goals, the environment which allow communication, collaboration and fast iterations over the work towards the goal and constant introspection to catch the mistakes as soon as possible in order to stop the current iteration and feedback to the next. The emergent traits (properties, behaviours, organisations, processes) will become dominant via natural selection.

The key is, of course, around being able to clearly define the goals, establish the right environmental conditions and empowering people to allow emergent behaviours, properties and organisation to occur.

More thoughts on how to go about establishing those that in future articles.

It’s time to Evolve!