Don't Mention the Process: How to Talk to Executives about p…….
Our journey to process-based management can start bottom-up or middle-out, but it can't be effective and sustained unless we transition to top-down, enthusiastic, sustained leadership. Even better, of course, if we can start top-down.
[An aside: CEO support is necessary, but not sufficient. I once worked in an organization where the CEO was an experienced industrial engineer for whom the power of the process view was self-evident. However, the take-up of process-based management was handicapped by the much larger number of executives and managers who did not get it. Our CEO's enthusiasm was certainly necessary, but nowhere near sufficient.]
To achieve our goal of adding process-based management to the organization's strategy execution and performance management toolbox, we need a plan to gain and sustain executive attention, with that leading to executive commitment and participation.
And we do need a plan, a well-designed plan with excellent execution. It will take a lot more than an elevator pitch of 30 seconds and 75 words to make any progress at all.
Why might a C-level executive fail to be inspired by your passion for process? How can they resist the lure of the process nirvana that you so eloquently describe? What's wrong with these people? (Spoiler alert! There's nothing wrong with them, but it turns out they are busy and human.)
A failure to communicate
Five minutes into an executive briefing on the joys and benefits of process-based management, the CEO interrupted to ask me why we would want to manage processes? His plan was to get rid of them as they were obviously the things that got in everyone's way. Clearly, he and I had a quite different understanding of process.
This miscommunication can easily happen. Even worse it may happen, and nobody is aware that it has happened. If that's the starting point, the conversation cannot end well.
Problem? What problem?
If we aren't a solution, we are a new problem. And if we are a solution, what's the problem we are trying to fix?
When we are talking to an executive of a successful organization, they can be forgiven for wondering "what problem?" No organization has a business problem called "we don't have enough process models" or "we don't have a process architecture."
If the targeted executive doesn't clearly see an important opportunity or problem, why would they want to hear about a solution?
Process is an SEP?
The extent to which an executive feels the need to get actively involved in process management will depend, to a considerable extent, on how they see and understand the concept of a process.
If processes are seen to be things happening on the factory floor, or at the counter, or in the cubicle, i.e., low-level operational activities, then why would an executive want to be involved. In that mindset, process is an SEP — Someone Else's Problem — and nothing important enough to warrant executive involvement.
Who else is doing it?
It is common for executives to ask for examples where other organizations are doing the process work which we propose. They seek the reassurance that, if they did agree, they would not be working at the bleeding edge. Some executives simply do not want to be pioneers or work near any edges.
Fear of escalation
Sometimes you can see the thinking — You say you want 5 people now, but I expect you'll be back next year asking for 50. And other similar fears that this is going to escalate, cost too much, and distract people from the real work.
This is not an unreasonable fear. Allegedly promising ideas have a bad track record. Why should anyone believe that yours is any different?
Welcome to the revolution?
With the evangelical enthusiasm of the convert, our fervent pitch for process-based management can easily seem more like we are suggesting a revolution than an evolution.
Marx with a modeler! Boudica with BPM! Joan of Architecture!
Our executive targets are likely quite keen on transformation, but revolution … not so much. Keep those process fanatics out of here!
OK, so we are talking in different languages about a problem that does not exist, or if it does, it's not my problem, and you want me to do something at the bleeding edge that is likely to go wrong and be awfully expensive, and that feverish glint in your eye is very unsettling.
How can we deal with that executive reaction? Better still, avoid it in the first place.
Agree the basics
The first step is to be sure that everyone has the same understanding of the basics. It may feel a bit tedious and trivial to run through some basic definitions but unless we can be sure about agreement of the basics the rest is pointless.
So, as often as you need to (and that is certainly more than once) get agreement to the answers to questions such as:
- What is a process?
- What does process-based management mean?
- Whose job is it to manage processes?
- Why should executives care about processes?
It's about strategy
A compelling reason for a C-level executive should be the fact that every organization's strategy is executed via its cross-functional business processes. Products, services, and experiences are delivered to customers and other stakeholders via those processes.
That's a fact. It's not optional. The only choice is whether to actively manage those processes or just hope it all comes together OK.
Properly explained, it's hard to argue against that. There might still be resistance — it sounds good in theory, but how does it work in the messy real world?
Keep it real
We need to be clear, and credible, about how the process-based management ideas that we are seeking to promote will make a positive difference in key strategic and/or operational ways.
What impact can process-based management have in the real world? We must have a clear answer to the question What's the problem we are trying to fix?
So, focus on a real problem or opportunity, something related to current key business issues. The argument won't be won by emphasizing the 'goodness' of process-based management.
Make it real. What can we do now to be better prepared when the next pandemic arrives? How can we harden up our supply chains? What if we needed to employ several thousand new people to replace a workforce gone to war? It doesn't get more real, or compelling, than these current challenges.
To get the right decisions we must be clear about what decisions are needed and who needs to make them. Who has the authority to approve what we want to do — and who has the power to stop that happening?
What is the minimum viable decision? Be sure to get all the decisions that are needed — people, budget, resources, access, commitment, involvement, etc.
Might be worth thinking that through and developing a decision framework. There is probably more than one decision maker, and there may be series of decisions required over time. How do those decision makers make decisions? What can be done to enhance the chances of a positive decision?
While we are thinking about Who? we might usefully identify our current supporters, particularly in the executive or influencer ranks. Nurture that support; encourage that influence.
Executives are people
Executives are people. Who knew?!
What do they want? How do they work? How would what we want to achieve impact on them personally?
Are we asking a risk-averse executive to take a risk? Does being a champion of a new way of managing sit well with their personality and management style?
Asking a command-and-control manager to endorse a new collaborative management model is probably not going to end well.
We must deal with the fear of it all going wrong, and specifically that it will escalate out of control with increasing demands for budget and resources, and increased intrusion into business as usual.
These are reasonable concerns, and they can be managed well.
Active process management could be rolled out one process at a time. We can be a little more adventurous than that, but I would not start with any more than, say, three processes.
An incremental rollout is the most effective guardrail and will ease the concerns of most executives, especially if coupled with a very controlled change project that allows for rollback for as long as is possible.
Be clear about resource limitations. In particular, what the central support team will do and not do, and how its activities will be mainly focused on building capability throughout the existing organization.
Describe a tight regime of governance, decision making, and reporting. Our general proposition is to change the way the organization is managed, and it's reasonable to want effective control over that.
Success breeds success
Continuous improvement cannot be a longer-term project. "Continuous" needs to start now. Promise and deliver sustainable benefits in the short term.
In a previous column I wrote about the imperative to be delivering Proven Valued Business Benefits (PVBB). For a process improvement to be real and worthwhile it must be a benefit to the business; it must be about the business. It must be valued by the business, not through an act of faith but because of proven process performance data.
Once process-based management is seen to deliver such outcomes, our biggest challenge is to survive success!
Mention the process!
I implied at the outset that we might not want to mention the p word. Of course, I never really meant that. Management is all about process, and if we find ourselves searching for an alternate word, we have a deeper problem that won't be fixed by wordcraft.
So, mention the processes at every opportunity, but make sure it has meaning, context, control, and a real prospect of delivering proven valued business benefits, without asking executives to make potentially career-limiting decisions.
 Roger Tregear, "Proven Valued Business Benefits," Business Rules Journal, Vol. 22, No. 7, (Jul. 2021), URL: http://www.brcommunity.com/a2021/c072.html
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