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Don't Blame the People, Blame the Process

~ By Duncan Haughey

People in a business team process management flowchart

Having good, reliable processes is the cornerstone of a successful business, as they ensure there is consistency and sturdiness in repeatable activities. However, not all processes are good processes, and in the worst cases they may actually hold your business back. This was clear on one particular project I worked on.

The project struggled because the process for implementing the IT infrastructure had not been adequately communicated and the key decision makers had not been identified. The IT department provided very little help in the early phases of the project. It soon became clear that something was wrong when the team members, who wanted the project to succeed, were being heavily constrained by the process. This was a clear case of an ill-conceived and unwieldy process causing a delay in an important business project. So what lessons can we learn from this?

The Unwieldy Process

Don't blame your people for a large, unwieldy process. Ask yourself whether your processes fit the purpose of successful project delivery. If your people are forced to clear many hurdles and struggle to do so, then you're trapped in a process obstacle course.¹

Answer: Review and simplify your processes. Ensure there are clear roles and responsibilities and that you have accounted for all scenarios, not just the expected one. Test run your processes on paper with the people who will use them, then use their feedback to improve them.

As we know, good processes are a route to success. Conversely, poorly conceived processes are a route to failure. Poor processes are often hidden from sight when heroes in your organisation deliver successful projects in spite of them. Don't assume that project success equals good processes; there's always room for improvement.

Answer: Talk to your people to locate the pain points and roadblocks, and then update the processes to remove them.

The Process Impasse

If the possibility exists of a process resulting in an impasse, you must consider whether it is fit for purpose. On a recent project, the stage and gate process made clear that the total budget for all years of the project had to be approved together by the senior stakeholder. The senior stakeholder in this case was happy to sign off on the current year's expenditure but not the following years.

This particular project had already passed all other gates and received approvals for each. The finance department had signed off on it. It was a model project administratively speaking, other than this one area that needed senior stakeholder approval. The project manager pushed for the project's approval in order to move forward to the building phase, but the Project Management Office pushed back, insisting on approval of the total cross-year budget. Neither side would move. In the end, the project moved to the building phase without approval, an undesirable but inevitable situation, as the business pushed the project team to deliver on time.

Answer: With any process, ensure there is no potential for reaching an impasse. In this case, it should have been possible to agree to a scope with a budget for year one and a separate scope and budget for year two, which would have allowed for approval of each year separately.

Keep it Simple

Perhaps you have heard the acronym KISS in relation to practices and processes, which stands for Keep It Simple Stupid. While I would not advocate using this with your colleagues or customers, you can keep it in mind when creating new processes or improving existing ones.

The best processes are those that are kept simple. They are easy to understand and have clear steps and outcomes.

Answer: Look at each step in a process and ask whether it's necessary. Can it be removed? Does it move you closer to your goal? The fewer steps in a process the better, so keep KISS in mind.

Summary

If you become too process-driven, you risk losing sight of the business goal. Make sure you keep your processes simple, verify them with people who will use them and avoid processes that can result in an impasse. Good processes will drive your business towards its goals, while poor processes can and will hold your business back.

If things aren't working for you, don't blame your people. Instead, blame the processes, and then take the steps necessary to improve them.


¹ I've created the term 'process obstacle course' to describe processes with a large number of steps that are largely unnecessary, unwieldy, and irrelevant, while only serving to slow down and delay projects.


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