The Process Pressure Points are Personal

David Allen
Much of what plagues organizations these days has to do with their processes. And the processes have everything to do with the personal processes of the individuals involved. (Read between the lines here: “organization” can refer to two people in a relationship, as well as a multi-national corporation.) Process vulnerabilities are challenged with stress, which is mounting daily in our world because of the increasing volume and speed of input that changes things. Most of you reading this have received more priority-shifting and project-creating stuff in the last seventy-two hours than your parents probably received in a mont.

Change always produces pressure on a system, even if it is totally for the best. Because systems are created to match the needs, direction, and outcomes of the organization at a certain point in time, when times change and those drivers are altered in any way, it puts stress on the organism until it adjusts appropriately. How well does it respond to new situations and input? What happens to the systems, the grooves, the procedures, when something out of the ordinary, something unexpected in substance or scope, lands on the radar? And not just the unexpected stuff out of left field – what happens when already-foreseen new goals and horizons are identified and tossed into the organization to implement?

Pressure on a system will always show up at the weakest connection points. Where are they, organizationally? The same places they are individually – avoidance of decisions; unclear, incomplete, or non-existent communication; ambiguous accountabilities; and swollen inventories of potentially conflicting commitments.

Example: A new situation occurs (a competitive product launched, a senior executive fired, a new regulation enacted, an irate neighbor, etc.) Someone is aware of the situation, senses that something ought to be done about it, but doesn’t decide what, exactly, needs to be done. People who ultimately will need to know about the problem or issue to deal with it are not informed. There is a lack of clarity about who, exactly, owns the resolution of the situation and therefore no one has their gut tied enough to it to move it to completion (amidst the chaos of everyone else’s current set of agendas). And anyone who has any awareness that they have some involvement with the situation or its impact feels the pressure of an “open loop” holding some piece of their psyche hostage, contributing further to overloaded circuits. This then leads that person to avoiding decisions… etc., and the whole cycle becomes contagious. Does any of this sound familiar to you, about something in your universe, as you read this? Virtually everyone I have ever coached has identified at least one if not several such scenarios going on, at that moment.

The insidious factor is that the faster things change, the easier it is for these unproductive and unhealthy syndromes to emerge and multiply. And the more senior the person involved in these less-than-ideal practices, the more they are magnified in consequences for the culture, simply because his/her micro is a lot of other people’s macro. Ever been whipped around at the end of a chain of folks hanging on to each other on an ice rink? One of the greatest sources of stress and saboteurs of productivity is mid- to senior-level people avoiding action decisions about situations when they first arise; waiting until the heat gets so hot (from their boss, the client, or the circumstances) to determine what needs to happen and who needs to do it; and at the last minute spewing the resultant crisis through multiple levels in the organization, creating pain, frustration and the derailment of process and morale.

The bad news is that this seems almost universal, in even the best of environments. The good news is that there are things that can be done to improve those practices. But it’s not handled by blaming individuals or preaching platitudes about productivity and quality. It can only be improved by a change in the behaviors of all the people involved. If physical and mental environments were kept cleaner, focus was more specific on discrete inputs, systems made seamless and more efficient, and kick-start actions were determined and appropriately allocated on open items from the start, these weak spots in organizational process can be plugged up. Whole cultures can move themselves up the food chain in constructive responsiveness to change. We’ve seen this happen in varying degrees, depending upon the buy-in of the most visible players and whether those old dogs are willing to learn new tricks.

The most successful executives/professionals/people keep their decks clear, make decisions on the front end, dispatch the results to trusted people and systems, track commitments rigorously (their own and others’) and get physically engaged taking actions on the projects they own. Those are learnable behaviors, able to be systematized, that build capacity for dealing with the next surprise as the next opportunity.

This essay appeared in David Allen’s Productive Living Newsletter. Subscribe for free here.

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