Most organizations are trapped in a structure of business-as-usual functioning. In this environment, many processes do not fully serve the employees, customers, or shareholders. Instead, they are based on historical ways of functioning that no longer reflect the needs of the organizational system.
As stewards of our organizational systems, it’s our responsibility to establish processes that support the most effective functioning of our organization.
A common misunderstanding is that, as leaders, it’s our job to tell people what the process should be. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Instead, we’re suggesting something quite different: how to support the collective investigation, deconstruction, and co-creation of new processes that better support the organizational system.
As leaders, we can use our power to facilitate the dialogue around the processes. People can together identify those that are no longer serving the organization and explore how to make them better. If this sounds scary and impossible, you’re in the right place! Read on.
The Process Paradox
There’s a strange paradox in the business world. Organizations want higher performance, greater success, and greater achievement. At the same time, these systems are highly resistant to changing processes and governance structures. However, without taking these risks, the organization will remain stuck.
How to Challenge the Process
Challenging the process works best as a collective questioning of current processes. The secret to why this works is that we’re aligning back to the organizational goals of greater achievement and performance. We’re just gently reminding the system of what it was here for in the first place.
Step 1: Shared Awareness of the Problem
The first step is to understand that something is not working or has an opportunity for improvement.
This can be clarified through open-ended and quantitative polls or surveys. These will tell you, “We’ve got this thing or we’ve got a problem here. We need to solve it.” You could ask, what processes have the most opportunity for improvement and have people name them. A quantitative approach is to score each process from 1 to 10 for how well it is working.
Step 2: Shared Desire to Resolve the Problem
Just because there’s a problem in an organization doesn’t mean there’s a willingness to fix it. The second step is about clarifying: “How important is this challenge relative to the other initiatives and activities we have going in our organization?”
In a healthy environment, there’s a list of activities in flight and the ones that are waiting in the queue to get fixed. Part of challenging the process is waiting until there’s enough desire, time, and energy to successfully solve the problem.
Trying to inject more work into the system to solve this specific process may actually make things worse. People would be overloaded and there wouldn’t be enough time to solve the problem in a satisfactory way. People would rush to a quick solution that would lead to other challenges.
It’s important, as a leader, to make sure people are not so overloaded with project delivery that they have no time for making this better.
Step 3: Shared Analysis
Work together to co-create a solution. This could mean creating a task force that meets to talk about what’s going wrong. Work to identify a solution that will support a better way of functioning within the organization.
The goal of this phase is to come up with, “What does ‘good’ look like? What is our best hypothesis of what will help us function better? What change or set of changes will help us be more successful?”
Step 4: Shared Action
Shared action might not happen right away. It can be scheduled for when the organization can absorb it. It may be best for some teams to make the change as they’re ready, or it might be that we all go on the change together.
In the action phase, we’re not clarifying the design of what we want to do. We are clarifying how we actually get it done practically in a way that works for everyone. At the very least, it should balance different trade-offs.
If you find change efforts faltering at the action step, that means either the problem wasn’t that big, or people don’t agree with the proposed solution or maybe that people have no time due to delivery pressure. This is a chance to go back and fix your improvement process! It’s recursive.
Step 5: Reflection
In reflection, we revisit the original challenge and the changes that were made. We revisit the metrics to see, “Was this change actually effective?” This might mean running another survey or poll. It may just come from informal feedback about whether the change was successful. That way, the next time we make a change together as a team or community, we can do it even more effectively.
As managers, the most important thing we need to do is to look after our people. Challenging the process is one valuable tool to support looking after the people in your organization. As stewards of the systems, it’s not an optional activity, it’s a responsibility.