Process: Safety blanket or wet blanket?

There are a fair few tropes that remain perpetual battlegrounds in the world of L&D, HR and OD: profits vs people as an over-riding focus and talent’s opposing ‘nature’ vs. ‘nurture’ battalions spring immediately to mind. One of the more abstract of these perennial topics is the divide between process and creativity – or perhaps we should say the perceived divide. We’re not the only people to have trotted round the block a few times on this one: indeed, we’ve written about it before here in several contexts – including HR’s impact on innovation, Google’s Innovation Time Off policy and the story of MIT’s Building 20, and jazz (not once but twice).

That this is an issue that will probably never leave us is well-illustrated by a blog post by Todd Williams, although the apparently inflammatory title – Process Stifles Creativity – was perhaps a rather knowing case of squirting lighter fluid onto the bonfire. Todd’s themes are more balanced than his title suggests, but one sentence very much stood out for me:

People are not rewarded for being creative with the process; in fact, the reaction is quite the opposite.”

I think Seth Godin inadvertently gave us one clue as to the persistence of the debate when he started using the word ‘tribes’: when it comes to this issue, two tribes can be particularly vocal –

  • Those for whom process is anathema, and are drawn to freeform, creative, experimental and open-ended working practises (those who disagree with this viewpoint tend to call its adherents ‘creatives’ on a good day, and ‘anarchists’ or ‘hare-brained’ on a bad one)
  • Those for whom process is the means by which sanity can be injected into the world, order wrenched from the jaws of chaos, and for whom ‘compliance’ is indubitably a good thing, rather than something that carries a suggestion of checklists, black books and perhaps thumbscrews (those who disagree with this viewpoint tend to call its adherents ‘Personnel’ on a good day, and ‘philistines’ – or even ‘nazis’ on a bad one).

Most of us probably accept – even on bad days – that a few rules are required to prevent everything spinning off into chaos. Indeed, the history of leaderless groupings is fraught with structural disintegration: getting somewhere in any sense requires at least some degree of discipline. Scratch any intelligent creative and they will also tell you that their work requires a constant flow of decision-making, usually guided by some sense of prevailing values – even if they may find these difficult to clearly articulate. Despite their detractors’ opinions, most creative do not spend a lot of time ‘messing about’. Unless they have a substantial private income or are self-employed …

The downside of process is more likely to be predictability: not in itself grounds for divorce outside the workplace, but a contributing factor to its literal or emotional workplace equivalents on many an occasion. Processes that leave too little room for experiment or serendipity can create a tendency to similarity and repetition: follow the same process and you’ll most likely get the same result. Sit through one too many episodes of X Factor or The Voice (or, for that matter, The Apprentice) and tell me if you disagree. If you don’t want diminishing returns, try altering the destination.

I suspect the problem that underpins this on-going divide more accurately belongs on the other side of the chasm. Those that are most drawn to the benefits of process are also most likely to just plain like the idea of process: after all, anarchy – from a perfectly respectable Ancient Greek word that means ‘without rulers’ – is defined more frequently by its detractors than its adherents. It’s a little like the Fight Club joke: the first rule of the process-fan is not to disagree with the process.

Dan Rockwell once discussed the rightful place of rules (another blog we’ve commented on), and re-reading his post reminded me of something entirely different: a music hall song by Marie Lloyd:

I always hold in having it if you fancy it
If you fancy it that’s understood
And suppose it makes you fat? I don’t worry over that
‘Cos a little of what you fancy does you good.”

Allowing both sides of the creative/process divide to have ‘a little of what they fancy’ is probably a pre-requisite not just for output but for some sense of harmony. But beyond tittering in my creative fashion at the hidden innuendos of Victorian light entertainment, I’m struck by a point that both Dan and Todd make: the relationship between process and leadership. Compare the following:

I am suggesting many organizations rely too heavily on restrictive rules that alleviate leaders of their responsibilities.”
[Dan Rockwell]


Leaders take responsibility for reaching a goal; team members take responsibility for their actions contributing to that effort. The rules are scant. People are accountable and trusted. In this environment, there is little requirement for process. […} Maybe process, by removing the need for leadership, is the reason so many projects fail.”
[Todd Williams]

Isn’t the real key here purpose rather than process? Processes are a form of management: appropriate for tasks, but less so for people. What people require is leadership, and a leadership that is aware of what everyone is trying to achieve: one that also recognises that it is guiding individuals and human beings. Moreover, if they are to have something to lead for longer than the short-term, leadership that values ends more highly than means. Anyone that finds themselves in the queue for Jobseekers Allowance consoling themselves that they did everything by the book should pause to ask themselves if a different shelf of the library might not be a better idea next time round.

And I think there’s another argument here too: that responsibility might be more effectively achieved by having as few rules as possible rather than a process for every circumstance. That this line of thinking might encourage people to focus less on the pages of the process handbook and more on the desired outcome. (If this argument seems completely illogical, it’s not exactly without precedent: consider the work of Hans Monderman in traffic planning – an experiment now being introduced in some areas of the UK.) Maybe we need a handy acronym along the lines of JEEP (Just Enough Education to Perform)? All I can come up with are GPO (General Principles Only) or VERA (Values Everytime, Rules Appropriately), but your suggestions would be very welcome …

A final thought? OK, try this one … Processes encourage compliance. A dose of creativity encourages us to achieve something slightly more.

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