The Problem with Process

The Problem with Process

In concept, process is a good thing.  It can prevent unnecessary errors, smooth out workflow, and facilitate quality control and consistency.

Process works best where tasks are repetitive or filled with mind-numbing details which must be done, and done correctly.  For example, it is hard to see how one can develop sophisticated, user-friendly software without a systematic way of writing, documenting, and testing code.  And, of course, efficient and consistent manufacturing depends on well thought-out and reliable processes on the assembly line.

In fact, the whole idea of process management comes from the 19th century need to manufacture on a large scale, and do it with systematic efficiency and quality.

But in the intellectual realm of thought and practical human interaction, process can also be a refuge for the uncreative.  It can be an apparently simple way to try to ignore or overcome the messiness of how people think and how people respond to others’ thoughts and communications.  It is an apparently simple way to “manage” knowledge workers, to simplify the complexities that companies face in the real-world marketplace.

Too often, the interest in process masks the fact that most business success – the introduction of breakthrough products, an innovative marketing campaign, a clever, novel way to reduce costs and improve effectiveness – is as much an art as a science.

The problem with process is that it inherently defines a “right” way to do things.  Certainly, we chance processes over time, tweak them, improve them as experience dictates.  But it is difficult to get people to agree on change, or on what changes are necessary.  Processes develop a life of their own.  And you have to wonder if the time and effort couldn’t be better spent on improving products and customer outreach rather than improving the processes themselves, where we are concentrating on tools rather than on substance.  (Yes, yes, I know.  We create these processes because the employees on the line with customers, for example, shouldn’t have any room to make mistakes.  But are the processes themselves a mistake?  Might the customer not ultimately be better served with less restrictive guidelines?)

But process is easier to manage and measure.

True innovation steps outside the norms.  And once you’ve stepped outside the norms, you’ve stepped sideways with process.

Let me be clear:  I am not saying that process is a bad thing.  I am not saying that there aren’t real benefits to processes.  What I am saying is that the creation of processes needs to be selective.

By its very definition, creativity is anomalous.  By their very definition, market changing products are the result of aberrant thinking.

The problem with process – for marketing or any other intellectual endeavor, for any arena that deals directly with the chaos of human interaction and the messiness of the real world marketplace – is that it tries to create a science where the only scientific law is the law of entropy (that nature tends to move from order to disorder).

The problem with process is that, intellectually, it can create a comfort zone for mediocrity, and mediocrity done “right.”

The problem with process is not “process,” but how we try to use it.

To achieve 21st century market success, companies much dare to go beyond process.  To achieve 21st century market success, companies must move beyond our manufacturing intellectual framework.  We must learn to tolerate some creative chaos.  And we must develop a new intellectual framework to both foster it and manage it.

2 thoughts on “The Problem with Process

  1. Wow, Dr. Coleman, I am going out on a limb here and take issue with your premice, which I don’t normally do what your articles. For me Process means structure and I think that following a process or structured way of doing something doesn’t neagate crativity as you seem to elude to.

    For me process also creates a framework in which things are done in a way that produces results.

    Sorry to disagree.

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