tBA9: Process isn’t boring

Simon Wakeman
3 min readMar 2, 2023
Photo by Nik / Unsplash

Working with process gets a bad press in many creative businesses.

Process work is stereotyped as stifling creativity and restricting individual autonomy.

Laying out processes that surface how things are done in a business right now can be a helpful thing to do.

It helps set boundaries for people in their work if done collaboratively. This can help enable autonomy to a degree.

But if you stop there, that’s when process can become a bad thing.

What if you saw that as the starting point for a journey of improvement?

Once you know how things are happening now, then you can start making changes.

Opportunities for innovation and improvement become clearer.

Friction due to inconsistent delivery and repetition previous mistakes is reduced. The business can move faster.

And once you understand process, you can peel back the layers. This’ll reveal what’s really going on.

Behind every documented process there’s a messy mix of humans and technology.

That’s where things get interesting.

It’s where you’ll be able to get to the fundamentals of why your business works the way it does.

And that enables you to work with those realities to drive growth and change.

Exploring the iceberg

The iceberg model is a useful tool to get behind processes in business.

Rooted in systems thinking, it encourages you to delve deeper than what appears on the surface:

Having a process in place gives clarity and visibility to what’s going on.

Thinking about the iceberg is about going beneath the surface.

What are the patterns of behaviour or the trends that you see going on?

This might show up as people not working within a process. They spend time finding workarounds to the system you want them to use.

Here’s one I see a lot in digital change. Data is recorded in a workaround tool — maybe paper or a spreadsheet — as well as in the system where you want it to be.

Then you go behind that trend. Why are people doing that?

It might be because their experience of the system you’re trying to get them to use was poor when they first used it. Maybe you used an MVP version or a flaky dev environment for their training.

And once you’re clear on that you can probe the mental model behind those trends.

For system avoidance people may hold a deep belief that a system is unhelpful to their day-to-day work. What values, beliefs, and assumptions do people have about that system?

By understanding this you can then take action to address the underlying belief.

This’ll work a lot better than directly pushing for process compliance. That would fail because you’d be trying to work against an underlying belief that the system isn’t up to scratch.

Three questions to ask now

  1. What are the key processes in your business that create value?
  2. Do you know who is accountable for each of those processes?
  3. When is it OK for someone to ignore a process in the business?

Get deeper into this

1. Process mapping doesn’t need to be hard. But legions of industries, methods and certifications make it seem hard to help sell their wares. This is a practical summary of methods you might need. Levels and swim lanes are particularly worth thinking about.

2. There’s an interesting relationship between process and anti-fragility. That’s a topic for another day, but for now it’s worth exploring what anti-fragility means as you think about process.

Originally published at the Business Aside.
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Simon Wakeman

Consultant, fractional COO and non-executive director for scale-up businesses. NED @ National Support Network CIC. Trustee @ Caldecott Foundation.