Out of Your Bubble, Process Nerds

Michelle Cowan's picture

Whew! APQC's 2011 process conference was a huge success. We hosted some fantastic presenters who shared information that people could actually go home and use. You can view the presentations in our 2011 Process Management Conference Presentations and Slides collection. Great stuff in there.

Since the conference, though, something has been nagging at me. Process management nerds (myself included) get caught up in details—in clean, simple, linear process maps and definitions. Turning the chaos of work into a manageable set of tasks that can be tracked, measured, and improved is a joy. It's like untangling a huge knot of work insanity to reveal dozens of clear, kink-free process strands. Ah, the beauty of the thing…

But just because we've found the order in the chaos does not mean the chaos is gone. In even the most mature process management environments, almost every process has at least five exceptions. And every process involves people—unpredictable, ever-changing, creative people. We cannot document every exception, and we cannot capture everyone's experience in a single process map. We do what we can. We reduce the process to its simplest parts; we put them together in a way that aligns with the rest of the organization. But people still operate within those processes and have to change behaviors over time (or minute by minute).

The structures we create in process management are containers for the real life that happens within organizations. Never forget that. Some processes, although they can be depicted linearly in process maps and diagrams, are not very linear at all. Innovation and creativity are obvious areas of the business that do not readily follow a linear process. In these areas, the exceptions often outnumber the norms. We can still write processes for innovation, but those processes must allow enough flexibility or have enough undefined space to allow employees to do what they do best. Defined process steps help—deadlines, interactions with other departments, roles. But employees need to be free to operate freely within those guidelines.

And this doesn't apply only to obviously nonlinear processes. Parts of sales, marketing, product development, communication, negotiations, and almost every other process don’t conform to a regular routine. Portions of the process can be defined; others defy structure.

The best process management programs admit that not everything fits perfectly. They depict processes in new and different ways and remember that kinks and exceptions are common. An organization may not change its official process definitions; it may not add dozens of exceptions to every process. In fact, APQC discourages documenting too many exceptions as part of the universal standard. However, an organization can provide extra material in addition to the global framework and definitions.

This material might include links to knowledge sharing tools and access to places where employees can learn about the exceptions—places where employees can see how other people have broken the mold in creative ways. Organizations can even offer tools that help employees determine whether or not their preferred way of working aligns with organizational strategy and contributes positively to enterprise measures.

Process management is a manageable and relatively static (albeit regularly updated) container for the life that runs through business. Organizations are fluid, moving, living entities. Process management is our attempt to understand it. Don't get mired in the details to the point where you fail to acknowledge the life. The buy-in you need and your ability to sustain process management through multiple changes to the market and the business depends on your ability to take a realistic perspective.

Many organizations out there realize that not everything can be explained in a linear fashion. For instance, check out www.prezi.com, where you can create presentations that explain ideas dynamically, rather than point by point in a slide deck. And don't miss www.exploratree.org.uk, a great tool for mindmapping and recording your ideas before you've figured out how they fit together in a process structure.

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