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Paul Glen: The secret to keeping processes vital

Paul Glen | May 21, 2013
As long as a problem seems present, gnarly and intractable, we enjoy following the process that solves it. But once the problem has been solved, it's not so interesting to us anymore.

Processes seem to come and go. Too often, though, they wither away from disuse when they still have value. How can we ensure that our staffs remain engaged with worthwhile processes?

Consider the life cycle of the typical process. It usually is created as a response to some organizational trauma, like a major project failure. For a while, everyone embraces it, testing, tweaking, celebrating successes and mitigating inconveniences. But eventually, enthusiasm wanes. Urgent needs come up, and people decide that, just this once, a shortcut is justified. The decay begins. Before you know it, the process is forgotten, a new trauma occurs, and the cycle starts again.

Each time it happens, we feel terrible. But when we better understand why we let this happen -- how much human nature has to do with it -- we can interrupt the cycle.

Human motivation isn't all that mysterious. We tend to focus our attention on what feels good. And for us as geeks, solving problems feels really good. We love to roll up our sleeves and analyze problems, and we glory in the thrill of solving them. So a new process feels good because we're solving a problem: "Why did the project fail, and what can we do about it?" As long as the problem seems present, gnarly and intractable, we enjoy following the process. But once a problem has been solved, it's not so interesting to us anymore.

Eventually, we follow the process because we are obliged to. We start to think of it as rules to follow rather than a solution to our problems. Our inner schoolchild starts to rebel. Some of us might start to unconsciously solve a new problem: "What is the minimum process that I can follow and still deliver an acceptable outcome?" Others get caught up in the more immediate rewards of short-term problem-solving. Solving an urgent problem is more rewarding than following a process because the joy of its solution comes immediately. When following a process feels bad and avoiding it feels good, it's no wonder things unravel quickly.

If you want to keep off the process merry-go-round, you'll need to fundamentally change how you as a leader think and feel about the rewards of following processes. You've got to give the team something lasting to care about. The key to that is at the very beginning of developing a process. In short, create processes that achieve a vision, not ones that just solve a problem.

A process has to speak to something bigger than the last problem you encountered, so that adherence to it lasts longer than the removal of symptoms. The joys of achieving a vision are somewhat different from those of solving a problem. Problems give way to forgetfulness when their noxious symptoms have been removed. A vision is more long lasting.


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