Why processes fail us, and what to do about it

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Organizations go through different levels of maturity as they grow. Some will say that they “learn to perform”, others will say that they “become ossified and slow”, yet others would say that they “mature”. In my view neither of these classifications is accurate, they all touch on possible outcomes of a process of “aging”. Organizations grow older, but what dynamics do we see in these organizations?

Organizations grow older, they age just like us!

A recurring pattern in organizations is that they create, develop and install processes. Processes are, for practical purposes, sets of rules that define how work should happen in those organizations. They are the rules we follow daily when we work.

These rules are necessary for a common understanding of expectations and roles for each of us. We need those rules or processes so that we know what to expect, and what is expected of us. Or do we?

What is the role for rules in an organization?

In the study of Chaos and Complex systems scientists have found that Complex or Chaotic systems exhibit infinitely complex behavior starting from very simple – perhaps even simplistic – rules. The most common example of these simple rules in documentaries about Chaos and Complexity is the way ants find their way to a new food source. The rules they follow are simple:

  • Walk around randomly and lay a pheromone path
  • When you find food, turn around and follow your pheromone path to the colony
  • While you walk around, if you find (bump into) an existing pheromone path, follow it

PS: you can find a much more detailed explanation here.

Following these simple rules Ants can not only find food, but feed an entire colony. In fact, when observed from an external view point we see complex System behavior even if one Ant alone follows a very simple set of rules.

The complex behavior we witness is Complex, and Adaptive. Hence the term Complex Adaptive System (or CAS).

What does this have to do with us – humans – and companies?

In investigating CAS we have found that the more complex the rules that we define, the less likely that the system (or company/organization) will be Adaptive. In fact, the opposite is true. Companies often put rules in place to “clarify, and specify” the expected behavior, thereby making it simple – or even simplistic. One glaring example of this phenomena is the way companies develop highly sophisticated goal-setting processes that eventually end up setting goals that distort the behavior of the organization in a way that makes it lose sight of what matters: their adapation to the environment they exist in (customers, suppliers, society, etc.).

The more complex the process and rules, the less Adaptable the organization will be!

But there are more examples of this phenomena whereby defining complex rule systems leads, invariably, to simple – even simplistic – behavior.

What’s the role for rules?

What is now clear from research, is that simple rules can lead to Complex and Adaptive behavior in the “system” or organization. For us managers, this means that we must avoid the temptation to develop complex set of rules and must be on the lookout for rules that add burden to the organization and possibly constraining behavior to the point that the organization is unable to adapt to the changes it faces in the market.

The recipe to foster adaptability in the organization is simple: when possible remove rules, when in doubt remove rules. Add rules only when the cost of not doing so is prohibitive (legal boundaries for example) or when you’ve learned something about your environment that should be codified for everybody to follow (you found out that a certain technology is too expensive or unstable).

But here is the most important rule for you: All rules should be created as a result of a root-cause analysis, never as a result of a knee-jerk reaction to some unplanned or unpredictable outcome.

The most important rule: No rules should be established without a thorough Root-cause analysis!

The quote “Keep it Simple” really means: use less rules and more feedback! Like Agile…

Image Credit: John Hammik, follow him on twitter

2 thoughts on “Why processes fail us, and what to do about it

  1. When master breaks the rules, a masterpiece is created. When apprentice does so, a mess is created 🙂

    Personally I find that “fewer rules is better” approach work good for mature teams. Immature teams need more rules to get working. But as they grow in their skill and competence, rules shouled be relaxed accordingly.

  2. If the organization really exhibits complex behaviors because of rules, then I would not expect there to be a single or even a group of “root” causes.

    The term “network causality” is often used for this situation and it is not easy to identify its components.

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