Don't Blame the People, Blame the Process

Recommended Reads | By Duncan Haughey | Read time minutes

Colourful business people standing on a process flowchart

Good, reliable processes are the cornerstone of a successful business, as they ensure consistency and sturdiness in repeatable activities. However, not all processes are good processes, and in the worst cases, they may hold your business back. This situation became very clear on one particular project I was a member of recently.

The project struggled because the IT department had not adequately communicated the IT infrastructure implementation process and did not identify the key decision-makers. The IT department provided very little help in the early phases of the project. It soon became apparent that something was wrong when the project team members, who wanted the project to succeed, became bogged down in the process. This situation was a clear case of an ill-conceived and unwieldy process delaying a critical business project. So what lessons can we learn from this?

The Unwieldy Process

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

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

As we know, good processes are a route to success. Conversely, poorly conceived processes are a possible route to failure. Poor processes are often hidden from sight when heroes in your organisation deliver successful projects despite 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 suitable for the purpose. On a recent project, the stage and gate process made clear that the total budget for all project years 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 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 area needing senior stakeholder approval. The project manager pushed for the project's approval to move forward to the build 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 was pushing 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 budget with 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 concerning 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.

A Final Thought

Good processes will drive your business towards its goals, while poor processes can and will hold your business back. 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.

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

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


How to excel in business:

Employ the best talent and pay them top dollar.
Empower people to excel by removing bureaucracy and any blockers.
Invest money in being the best in class (saving cost will not get you where you want to be).
Remember, true entrepreneurs do not ask for approval; they see the prize and go for it.
Be a leader and not a follower - it isn't easy to break out of old habits.
Do you want to be a supertanker or a speedboat?

Recommended read: 3 Decision-Making Techniques to Suit Any Purpose, Project, or Need, by Adele Sommers.


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