The Downside of Process

So I’ve been trying to get my head around something that’s been annoying me for quite some time, and it occurred to me that I hadn’t been able to articulate it properly.

How many of you have been annoyed by any of the following lately?

  1. Having to document comprehensive processes for things you do at work, either by management or by other companies considering hiring your company.  (e.g. – “How do you develop the right media plan?”)
  2. Being asked to boil down something you have a talent for into tiny incremental steps  (e.g. – “How do you plant a garden?”)
  3. Being asked to adhere to a process you’re uncomfortable with, and you’re uncomfortable because you do things differently (e.g. – Helping a child with Common Core math)
  4. Insistence on somebody’s part that when something goes wrong, it’s because of some sort of breakdown in a process and not because of a mistake (e.g. – “It’s not Fred’s fault he put the widget on backwards.  He wasn’t given enough time to do the job properly.”)

I think there may be a connection between many of these annoyances.  For now, because I lack a better label, I’m going to refer to the concept as “Process-Dominant Thinking.”

And here’s why I think Process-Dominant Thinking can be annoying in certain situations, staying with the examples above:

  1. Not everything can be accomplished by following a simple process.  Making that assumption is immensely disrespectful to people’s natural talents and abilities.  Being asked to develop a process for everything assumes that people are pretty much interchangeable and that if there’s a decent process for doing something, people with varying degrees of ability in a specific area can achieve similar results.  It’s doubly annoying because if I were asked to develop a comprehensive decision-making tree for developing a media plan, I’d never stop documenting it.
  2. People often years, decades, or entire lifetimes to acquire skills.  If I’m a good vegetable gardener, it’s somewhat rude for someone new to vegetable gardening to ask me to boil down decades’ worth of experience into a handful of easy-to-communicate steps and simply give it to them.
  3. Processes need to accommodate different ways of looking at things.  I think it’s why so many parents are having trouble helping their kids with Common Core math.  Some kids are perfectly okay with understanding subtraction by breaking numbers into tens and ones.  Others understand subtraction more intuitively.  Asking kids how they know that an answer is correct and then ‘correcting’ their understanding is quite simply wrong.  Not everybody who understands mathematics understands it in the same way.
  4. Blaming everything on process deficiencies removes accountability.  In the example I used, what if Fred consistently puts his widget on backwards and his co-workers keep trying to tweak the process to give him more time to get his widgets on properly, they’re rewarding behavior that slows them all down.

I’m usually very cautious about trying to connect dots between issues in my personal and business life, because many times I’m seeing things that aren’t there.  But I do feel there’s a connection between each of these annoyances.  And I think it has something to do with our busy culture and how we all have less time to devote to developing skills.  So we put our faith in process and assume that we can do pretty much anything as long as there’s a quality process we can follow.

I’ve never really bought into this, though.

I’ve never really been able to draw well.  My take on the problem is that other people who are more talented at drawing than I am have an easier time of understanding how objects express themselves in three dimensions.  I’ve left it at that, and I’ve never considered going up to a talented artist and asking “What are all the steps involved in making a really good drawing of a pear?”  “Okay, can you break down how to draw a good apple?”  “How about a banana?”  “Terrific, now I can draw a passable still life…”

To me, that would be insulting to the artist in many different ways.  First, there’s the suggestion that drawing talent isn’t talent at all, but merely an ability to follow steps.  Then there’s the supposition that the artist would willingly share those steps with me, merely because I asked.  Then there’s the hassle of putting the artist through the torture of having to comprehensively list every consideration that goes into a great drawing of a pear.  It’s insulting!

And I think it all comes from overreliance on process.  That comes from a combination of two things, in my estimation:

  1. Lack of time to investigate these things in depth for ourselves, and
  2. The cultural idea that almost everything can be automated.

And the first step in automating something is to break it down into discrete tasks.  Then you find a way to get a machine to handle each of the steps. 

See the connection?  When we try to make things more efficient in our business lives, we turn to process.  And when our personal lives get too complicated because we’ve run out of time to accomplish things we want to accomplish, we draw from our business lives and carry overreliance on process into our personal lives.