Can We Balance Process?

As we troll through history, technical or otherwise, we can clearly see that individual brilliance has dominated the field of development.  It is these individuals who have looked at the world differently, challenged the accepted and made a difference for posterity.  Does this also happen on a smaller scale?   I am personally witness to situations where individual brilliance has made a significant difference in day to day professional life.  Given that my day to day professional life has revolved around internal enterprise software, the examples emanate from the same arena.

However, despite the above observations, we are moving towards a more standardized and process-oriented world.  Will this trend allow for individual brilliance?  Does this framework allow for the flexibility needed to attain the quantum leaps we have seen earlier?  Let us analyze the two extremes here.

What is process and why is it needed?  Process is a defined way to do something.  It preaches a tried and tested way to do things which will lead to the successful execution of what we are trying to do.  In preaching, it provides no flexibility on part of any stakeholder to take a shortcut or do things differently.  It is needed so that all stakeholders only need be aware of their own actions; that they understand the timeline and effort involved to succeed; that they can depend on unknown people to deliver on their needs without having to take any specific action beyond.

Where is individual brilliance needed and when does it produce best results?  When the individual is very much in line with the organizational objectives; when they have the knowledge of what is to be achieved and the expertise on the tools needed to achieve it; when there is complete trust between the individual, organization and the client for whom the problem is being solved.

The above two elements, are fairly opposite in nature.  Process helps with standardization and adoption of best practices.  This reduces waste and results in optimization and increased efficiency.  The quantum leaps achieved  provide the competitive advantage on which company growth is based.  Both of these can be extremely beneficial.  But, how do we use them, individually and in concert?  Some factors to look at:

  • Value of the task: Is the task part of the core competency and gives the organization a competitive advantage?  Or, is it  part of the day to day functioning of an organization and represents friction.  A shade of gray in the middle?
  • Trust in the individuals: What is the quality of the individuals?  Can they provide the brilliance we are looking for?  Are they in line with the organizational aims?  Do they understand the tools being used well enough?  Do they understand the clients and the problem well enough to deliver?
  • Culture of the organization: Does the history of the organization favor process or individuality?  Would it be tough for managers to accept the preaching or would individual freedom be seen as cowboyism?

As the value that can be derived from the task increases, flexibility can be increased given the possible reward.  However, we should ensure that our best, most trusted, most creative people are in position to take advantage of this flexibility.  These people must also be close to the heart of the organization.  The farther they are (eg. outsourced), the less the alignment due to gaps in communication and differences in objectives.  Flexibility must be muted here, until enough investment in reducing these gaps is desirable and possible.  Also, the existing culture of the organization will provide the starting point for the whole exercise of moving to the correct balance.

A few pitfalls and lessons we need to be aware of:

  • Creating a process is not simple.  Not only should the process be efficient, it also needs to provide a value to every stakeholder (not just one or a few).  There is a need to ensure that the process does not become bureaucracy.  The process should also be revisited on regular intervals as well as on receiving feedback.
  • Ensure that the best and most capable individuals are put in position to take advantage of the flexibility.  This will be good for the organization as well as the individuals.  Different individuals flourish differently under process and flexibility.
  • Spend the investment $ on training and engagement differently based on the extent of process or flexibility.  Since the people are different and the objectives are different, the methods cannot be the same by default.
  • Do not go towards any one end too much.  An organization which becomes over-processed will lack the innovation to keep up with the competition.  An organization with too much flexibility is likely to become inefficient without sufficient accountability or governance.

I am sure that there are several gray areas that deserve much greater scrutiny and study.  Leadership here will involve determining the correct ending point for your organization.  Good management will then result in getting the right framework, people, processes and flexibility in place.

So, what do the 9-to-whatevers have to say on this topic?

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