Mistaking Process for Purpose and Tinkering for Thinking

Mia Nikolic,  Bed

Mia Nikolic, Bed


Originally published in MISC Magazine, 2015.

Co-writer: Paul Hartley PhD



Has process become a Procrustean bed?

Process and method are both necessary aids and major obstacles to innovation.

Process is clearly necessary for organizing thought and action, planning rigorous research, and aligning groups of people towards a common goal. However, people have a tendency to elevate process so that it becomes the end in itself and not a means to the end.

A quick review of business literature over the past three decades provides ample evidence. From Total Quality Management (TQM) to Management By Objectives (MBO) to Theory Z to Six Sigma, processes have been formulated, illustrated with case studies, labeled with mnemonic sound bites, and promoted as a guarantee of success – implying that anyone can achieve their objectives if they follow the process. They typically claim one-size-fits-all relevance to any organization, big or small. The more successful ones generate best-selling titles, juicy speaking engagements, lucrative consulting gigs, rock star status, and presidential awards for their authors.

Once they cross the chasm of early adoption, everyone wants the process and its promise of success. And then begins the long tail of repeated attempts at applying its principles until people get bored, realize that one size does not fit all, and jump to the next process trend.

TQM is a great example. It originated as a response to the ‘economic miracle,’ in which post-war Japan was aggressively taking market share from North America and Europe with innovative products at competitive prices. The primary instigator of Japan’s success was the American engineer and statistician W. Edwards Deming, who, working with Japanese business leaders after WWII, established something called the System of Profound Knowledge. (A moniker that should have immediately raised suspicion.) It was based on four simple principles:

1/ Better design of products to improve service.
2/ Higher level of uniform product quality.
3/ Improvement of product testing in the workplace and in research centers.
4/ Greater sales through side (global) markets.

In 1985, the US Navy elected to apply Deming’s principles to improve its operational effectiveness, branding the effort Total Quality Management. Soon after that, TQM gathered momentum through adoption by the rest of the armed forces and the US Government. It then hit business like a tsunami as companies leveraged it to compete on government contracts and to win back share from the Japanese.

W. Edwards Demming: the man who helped Japan kick the 60s and 70s in the  ass

W. Edwards Demming: the man who helped Japan kick the 60s and 70s in the  ass

Institutes were named after it, academics studied and embellished it, books were written about it, and management consultancies milked it. But by 1995, after a 10-year arc, TQM was all but dead, supplanted by ISO 9000, Lean Manufacturing, and Six Sigma. The process was dead, but the problems remained.

Why does this happen? Why can’t business overcome its addiction to process, even after the success it promises has clearly proven illusory?

It is critical to step back and look at the context of these trends. They are all generated by an obsession with operational efficiency. By definition, operational efficiency is highly reductive. It attempts to remove as many variables as possible to reduce costs and enhance productivity. While ostensibly focused on product quality, its repeated application inevitably results in an obsession with process quality, to the point where the process is mistaken for its purpose.

In this setting, process is presented as the guarantor of controllability – as if human endeavor were akin to an assembly line. You can use it over and over again in a regularized manner, honing it as you go, to the point where the so-called “best practices” are nothing more than a very effective way of generating an outcome that is easily packaged, understood, manipulated, distributed, and consumed.

In this sense, it is a predictable outcome of late capitalist manufacturing. One way to compete is to be disruptive and innovative. Another is to be ruthlessly efficient. It was far easier and much more acceptable for the industrial giants of the 20th century to adopt the latter strategy because the products of their efforts had always derived their meaning from the production process itself. This is why “people” were referred to as “consumers.” It was easier and tidier to position them as the last stop in the value chain, reducing them to statistical entities rather than accepting them as the messy, unpredictable, individualized beings that they are.

Innovation necessitates departures from the so called tried and true. You can’t make new seeds from old hay. You need to dig in places where no one else has bothered to, ask questions no one else is asking, and pursue paths that may lead nowhere but could also pull you in directions that would have never been discovered had you stayed on the prescribed path. You do it because what’s been done already is no longer working, or is working so well that everyone is doing it, losing its differentiating value.

And you do it because we are no longer in the late industrial economy of objects. We’re now in the post-industrial economy of experiences.

People are using technology to reshape the landscape, suggesting that standardization and mass production are no longer valid sources of meaning. Meaning is derived from how your product or service fits into your customer’s life. We are told that we now need to follow customers wherever they are – on their laptops, in their cars, at the store, on their mobiles, or in their kitchens. And we need to understand them well enough to offer up customized and individualized experiences and solutions in all of those environments. 

Process alone will not get us there. These complex challenges require richer inputs, deeper data, and more flexible approaches than are available from your local neighborhood market research firm. This is why a key pillar of the innovation ‘process’ is ethnography. Ethnographers have tools and processes like everyone else, but what particularly suits them to the task of defining meaning in a postindustrial setting is the depth of their inquiry, the flexibility of their approach, and the probity of their insights. Rather than restrict their thinking to a prescribed method, ethnographers select the processes and tools that will help them understand people for what and who they actually are – not what the marketing department wants them to be. The processes they select are both a response to the situation and a derivation of it.

In this context, the practitioner is more important than the process. Processes and tools can be selected and discarded as needed. If you have experts who know by experience and learning the world that they’re in, and are given a clear set of goals, they will select the appropriate routes to meet those goals. And they will do so without losing sight of the content. Process is created and re-created as necessary.

Similarly, the task of sensemaking benefits from a flexible approach to identifying and classifying areas of opportunity for innovative ideation. There cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach at this stage of the process; the nature of the opportunity will be determined by the source and variety of the data. And no amount of process will improve weak data.

Much as we have tried to impose the cult of efficiency on all of our institutions, whether they be cultural, educational, or commercial, it is becoming painfully obvious to more progressive thinkers that not every human endeavor can be shoehorned into a tidy, reductive process. The world is a messy, complicated, chaotic place. Business practice is a subset of the way the larger world works, not the other way around. Homo economicus is the product of economic modeling, not the progenitor of economic reality or the larger reality in which economics operates.

Unfortunately, we have somehow made business process into a self-fulfilling prophecy because its apparatus not only allows us to define the rules of play, but encourages us to manipulate the world to conform to those rules whether it fits or not. We have essentially created the process equivalent of a Procrustean bed.

Rather than saw the legs and arms off reality to fit the process, we need to fit the process to the purpose, and allow knowledgeable practitioners to decide what processes and tools are best suited to the challenge of producing innovation in a world that will always be bigger, messier, and more complex than we are capable of grasping. It’s like what Bertrand Russell said about the human brain: if it were that easy to understand, we’d be too stupid to understand it. And we’re not really that stupid, are we? wn

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