Dirty Words: On Becoming a Process Queen
“Dirty Words” is a series that explores organizational development, leadership, and productivity concepts that get a bad rap, but have the power to transform you, your work, and your organization.
The year was 1986 and I was following a blue line down a long hospital corridor. The line, approximately four inches wide painted on the linoleum floor, stretched out as far as my eyes could see. It felt like miles to my five-year-old self. But I carried on. I had a job to do: navigate my mom and my grandma to whichever department the blue line would take us.
I used to have all the colors of the lines and their meanings memorized. Blue, green, red, orange, brown. One was for radiology, one for oncology, one for the laboratory, and so on. I remember my pride at being able to recall each one of them. Mom always said she couldn't remember and thanked me for helping. Whether she really forgot or not, allowing me to take charge turned our countless trips to the hospital with my grandparents into an adventure.
For Grandma Alice, it was West Allis Memorial. For Grandpa John, it was the VA. For me, it was my pediatrician's office when we had insurance; the urgent care clinic when we didn't.
I observed everything. The systematic flow of patients from check-in to the waiting room to their appointments. The methodical transfer of paperwork between doctors and medical staff. The movement of bodies through different departments, to specialists, and back again. I made mental notes about the efficiencies and the inefficiencies I witnessed.
Following that blue line helped it all make sense to me, solidified the rhythm of it all. Regardless of the reason for being at the hospital or the severity of the diagnosis, the blue line was always there. And if I followed it, I would always reach the same destination.
And thus began my love of process.
Process brings clarity, consistency, transparency, and safety to a tumultuous world. Process is the set of agreements we make with other people about how we are going to work together, what we can expect from each other, and how we hold each other accountable. Process is all around us - in our families, our friendships, our workplaces, our governments, our world. It is the foundation upon which everything is built.
Developing a solid process before launching directly into the work creates an opportunity to identify what you need to successfully accomplish your goals, anticipate and prepare for potential problems, ensure you're including the right people and perspectives in your work, build buy-in from your team, boss(es), members, etc., and increase your overall efficiency in execution. And when things don't go the way you thought (because life), you have a process to either assess potential new paths forward or cathartically throw out the window and start over.
A process can be as simple or complex as you or the task at hand requires. For example, the process I used to draft this blog post involved several writing and revision sessions, gif selection (super important), review by a friend and colleague for an outside perspective (thanks, David!), staring at the publish button for an awkwardly long period of time, and then hitting said publish button. That is a vastly uncomplicated process compared to the one I use to develop a new training curriculum, which involves many more individuals, intensive goal and metric setting, trainer and participant recruitment and onboarding, and...well, I think you get the picture.
Too often, "process" is used as a pejorative. We “process people” have been described as obstructionist time wasters who don't value getting the work done. Process is also a gendered concept in our society. Women are often portrayed as process oriented and also less effective leaders while men are portrayed as decisive leaders who eschew process and deliver tangible results. This dichotomy has never been more tangible to me than in our current presidential election.
The difference between process and anti-process people isn't actually about the process — it's a difference in leadership style and values. Leaders who integrate multiple people and perspectives in their work, who strive to create a shared understanding of goals and expectations, and/or who appreciate timelines and gaming out potential scenarios gravitate towards process.
It is true that process takes time. But I contend that the additional time spent on the front end to design a successful, thoughtful, and comprehensive process, will save time and energy in the end. And the team of people working together will have a more positive, productive, and engaging experience.
Sometimes even when people put the time in to develop a solid process, they still get stuck. They go round and round about different process options, unable to agree on actionable steps, timelines, or assignments. Even if they can agree on those elements, they may get stuck trying to develop contingency plans for every single possible scenario. Either way, the team has reached process paralysis.
I am to process what a canary is to miners: I love process so much that if even I think things aren't going well, get out. If I say you've gone too far on process, warning bells should sound and a search team should be sent out to ensure you safe passage home.
When people get stuck on process, it's not usually the process that's the problem. The challenge is more likely a lack of alignment on goals and outcomes. In other words, the person or group doesn't agree on what they are trying to do, why they are trying to do it, or what the results of their work will be (or some combination of the three). Without answering those questions, it is nearly impossible to develop a successful process that everyone can agree on and execute.
So the next time someone suggests you spend some time on your process, thank the process person for saving you time down the road and then make sure you agree on your goals and outcomes before you dive in to create your own version of that blue line that will guide you and your team to your desired destination.
And if you are in need of a process queen, I know just the person to talk to.