I will begin with a disclaimer… I am not a process-oriented individual. I am, by nature, a divergent and chaotic thinker who craves freedom and creativity in my work. I am one of those “crazy” people, who is comfortable at operating outside the stereotypical “box”, in breaking rules (that I deem unnecessary), and in jumping out of the airplane without a parachute… confident that I will figure out a solution before I hit the ground. If you are “crazy” like me, then this probably sounds like an inspiring and refreshing approach to innovation. If not… well, then you probably want to lock me up in that “box” that I got out of.
It is not that I do not value processes. In fact, I am a huge supporter of any system, approach, or tool that allows me to save time, to be more efficient, and to simplify the work. I like to push the envelope, to experiment as much as possible, and to move quickly and agilely… and the more tools in my toolbox the better. Net, I love processes that are designed to work for me and to make my job easier, so that I can focus on what breakthrough innovations that I should design and deliver and not so much on how I walk through the work. My problem with processes is when they are elevated in such a way that I am supposed to work for them. Statements such as “The process won’t allow you to do that”, or “You need to do x, y, or z instead to satisfy the process” drive me mad. It is as if my tool has somehow jumped out of my toolbox and suddenly become my master… and that I have now become the tool. I don’t want to be a tool.
I recently had a serious office debate about what was more important to delivering successful innovation- the process or the people. To me the answer is obvious… People- no question. While processes can facilitate innovation, they are a means and not an ends. Give me any challenge, big or small, and I would rather have a small group of amazing people with no established process than a world-class process with mediocre people. To quote Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of concerned citizens can change the world. In fact it is the only thing that ever has.”
That said, I do believe that processes have an important part to play, not just in the execution of initiatives but also in the culture of an organization. When effective processes are in place for activities such as initiative management, resource allocation, and quality control and used to propel teams forward, then innovation can be take to an even higher level. Basically, it is not just about having an effective tool… it is also about how you use it. Thus, a corporate culture that supports innovation is the essential element – without an atmosphere that supports some risk-taking and uncertainty, the innovators will suffocate… regardless of the process. And while I completely agree that an effective process can be essential in driving ideas to reality, I also believe that over-reliance on a process can be a severe hindrance as well. When strict adherence to the process becomes more important than the realization of the invention, more harm will be done than good.
The following are four examples of how Innovation can be harmed in a world of “Processes Gone Wild”:
- Teams are steered to focus more on “Checking Boxes” than on delivering “Big ideas”. When the process is in charge rather than being used as a tool, then a team can easily fall into a mode of mindlessly crossing activities off of a list rather than of mindfully looking for new ways to drive bigger and better ideas. Have you ever been in a situation where delivering against the right date became more important than delivering against the right proposition? If the team is truly a slave to the process, then the priority can become focused on delivering something solely “Actionable” rather than something “Amazing”, and the innovative potential will be diminished.
- Process outputs are treated as “decisions” rather than as “data”. Have you ever had some form of this conversation, “I know that the team thinks that this is the right idea and that it has the resources to get it done, but ‘The Process” says that it cannot be done. Therefore, this discussion is over.”? Essentially, when we work for “the Process”, then the data output can be used as an excuse to avoid hard discussions. Process data should be a resource to aid smart people debate and to make decisions… even if the ultimate decision is contrary to what the data might suggest. As leaders and innovators, we should use data to aid in our thought process and to facilitate decision making, but not arbitrarily trust it to be a decision. Process output should not replace thought.
- Teams are “forced” to utilize a process even when it does not add value. Processes should facilitate rather than be a mandate. For example, if an initiative management tool is designed around a 5 year innovation cycle, and a team suddenly needs to get an innovation from idea to market in 6 months, then strict adherence to that process likely will not be useful. Now, there may be principles or aspects of the process that can help steer the team forward, but most likely there will be steps and activities that need to be eliminated and skipped. If this team is mandated to use the process and to follow each step, it will lose agility, create inefficiency, and likely fail to focus on the top critical issues. Net, teams should be empowered to use what is useful in helping them to complete their mission, and to exclude what is not.
- Processes drive Rigidity rather than Agility. Not all projects are created equal. And more importantly, not all teams are created equal either. A “one size fits all” process may be beneficial from a portfolio assessment standpoint as it makes tracking initiative success, progress, and consistency easier. But from a team standpoint, a process needs to be agile enough to allow for different needs, approaches, and talents. That is not to say that there should not be any “hard points”… there are likely certain financial measures and technical proofs of principle that need to be met no matter the program. However, there also should be “soft points” that are customized based on the specific project needs as well as the team capabilities.
Again, this is not a call to banish all processes from organizations and to let anarchy reign in the corporate world. Fun as that would be for someone like me, it is not realistic or intelligent, particularly in a large, complex, matrixed organization. The call here is to put the processes in their place… back in the toolbox. If your organization has personified or even deified a process so that individuals, teams, and even management are being held accountable to it (i.e. “We are all slaves to the process”), then that has to change. Swing the hammer and don’t let the hammer swing you.