A Flipper or a Chef? by Arnab Banerjee

The Business Transformation Network has many excellent articles on the three pillars of People, Technology and Process. And while some focus on one functional area, most recognise that activity, more often than not, is made up of a complex mix of all three. 

I ‘grew up’ in the sales world in the nineties – high value, infrastructure sales rather than low value, transactional – where ‘process’ was anathema. I did not know much then about process and no one ever asked me to fill in forms. My sales director’s strategy was POST – ‘p*ss off and sell turbines’! I then moved into a Corporate role and worked on the development of a global account management system. Base data was supposed to come from the enterprise’s CRM system of the time – unsurprisingly, most of it was empty as the sales population consisted mainly of cowboys like me! 

I then moved into the world of project and programme management. Here, surely, I would find discipline and rigour. But despite the panoply of tools that exist in the project management world, my experience of process compliance and ‘doing things right’ has been mixed at best. The attitude was, in fact, similar to my sales experience. ‘Why do we need all this (process), we know what we are doing?’ ‘It got built didn’t it?’ are actual statements made to me. If and when things go bad, ‘process’ is tightened/increased and the vicious circle continues. The environment is akin to a fare dodger jumping over the fence, getting caught on the platform and complaining that the barriers were not high enough – increasing the height might stop that one person but also makes life difficult for many others. And the lesson is that barriers may defer and deter but they do not stop poor behaviour because we – as humans - are more than process. 

The latest research – Cause and Cures of Poor Megaproject Performance – does not provide much comfort. One of the report’s main themes is ‘Decision Making Behaviour’ – which is closely associated with process. It states that ‘This theme rejects technical explanations as the main reason for inadequate forecasting and discusses poor performance as a result of psychological and behavioural reasons and how those affect decision-making. The three most predominant concepts in this theme are: (1) optimism bias (delusion): executives are overly optimistic and thus overestimate benefits and underestimate costs; (2) strategic misrepresentation (deception): executives strategically misrepresent the truth and seek to satisfy their own interests; and (3) escalating commitment: executives continue to follow the pattern of behaviour leading to unsuccessful outcomes rather than follow an alternative course of action.’ 

Often, it seems to me, corporate teams would like a process to be like a train – simply choose the right one, get on and, generally, objectives will be achieved and you’ll get from A to B – process above people. But life simply is not like that. ‘Process’ in anything other than routine and repetitive tasks is more like a car or a bicycle - it is a vehicle to be used, it has all (or most) of the tools to help teams to achieve and reach their destination. But it is the skill of the practitioner that will allow the journey from A to B to be achieved efficiently and safely, and different teams will succeed differently because of their inherent abilities. 

The truth is that in any sophisticated function, following a process, no matter what process people tell you, will not of itself deliver a good result. There is always a balance to be achieved. Sales, project management, strategy, innovation, risk management; all a process can do is provide an aide-memoire, a set of minimum requirements, a setting of the context of the particular business or activity. 

If you and I were flippers at a burger bar, we would follow a rigid process and our burgers would taste the same. Give us a recipe and ingredients, however, and while they also constitute a process, the end results would be very different. Those are the elements of skill and professional judgement, allied to process, that results in magic. 

The world needs both types of process and both groups of people in different contexts but let us not confuse the two, and we have to remember that behaviours will beat process every time – and it is in the former where the focus must be, aided by good tools. 

 

This article is exclusive to The Business Transformation Network.

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Arnab Banerjee (51) is an experienced professional who has worked in core business functions - strategy, sales, delivery - at both operational and corporate levels. He has worked internationally, including expatriate positions, and led virtual global as well as direct teams. Common themes throughout his life have been stakeholder management and change – developing the story, building consensus and delivering to agreed objectives. His focus is on appropriate engagement, effective embedment and doing the basics well. Arnab is currently an independent consultant working in the areas of change, assurance, governance and programme management. He is an accredited P3M3 Assessor, P30 Practitioner, a Fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, MBA (Warwick) and, in the dim, distant past, holds a Masters in Engineering from Imperial College, London.

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