24 August 2009

One Man's Poison...

One of the fundamental beliefs of the process-centric, best-practices-oriented worldview (such as Hammer’s Business Process Reengineering concept) is that imitation is the highest form of performance.

I’m not saying this is necessarily what the theory recommends, at least not explicitly. It’s just what happens when the theory is put into practice. When the organization’s highest values include compliance and conformity, when the organization rewards following best practices rather than discovering new ones, then creativity, imagination, accountability and initiative are stifled, no matter what the theory says.

The late Michael Hammer described BPR as an “antidote” to chaos and conflict. If chaos and conflict need an antidote, I guess that makes them a poison. And sure, in excessive quantities, they probably are. So is alcohol. On the other hand, an absence of chaos and conflict might not be the right answer either, anymore than prohibition was a good idea. Dee Hock, the wildly successful founder of Visa, talks about “the chaordic organization,” which is a combination of chaos and order. Not a balance, necessarily, because how do you “balance” chaos? Rather, it’s a harmonious coexistence between chaos and order. There's no room for such harmony in BPR.

As for conflict, Jerry Harvey argues that our main problem in organizations is not how to handle conflict, but how to handle agreement. Specifically, how to handle disingenuous agreement, in which people go along to get along and end up on the road to Abilene. Let me say this clearly: Dr. Harvey is right. Dr. Hammer is wrong. Conflict doesn't need an antidote. Neither does chaos.

So, I’m deeply disinterested in driving out conflict and chaos (or administering the antidote). In fact, in the kind of work I do, I insist that there be some chaos, some conflict, some confusion. These strike me as essential elements for discovery, creativity and rigorous performance.


Andrew Meyer said...


interesting and I agree with you. I would add one idea you might not have considered. What precedes process centric environments?

It could be called chaos, but that doesn't appropriately describe the situation. I've found it to be more an individually creative and aggressive approach where each person's individually creative approach conflicts with every other persons approach.

Imagine, if you will, ten dogs standing on a water bed. One dog moves, which disturbs the dog next to them. That dog starts getting frantic trying to regain it's balance, which disrupts the dogs around it. Each dog is individually trying to do it's best to regain/maintain it's balance, but soon enough there's yapping, snapping and feathers flying everywhere.

Process are created specifically to solve this problem. The successful introduction of processes into this environment is seen not only as a solution, but literally as salvation. If you've never gone from a pre-process environment to a process driven environment, it would be difficult to comprehend the change.

I have no way of knowing for sure, but I believe the amount of pain endured in the pre-process environment influences how rigorously processes are adhered to in the process centric environment.

Pre-process centric environments still exist and there are places they make sense. The environment is very creative and people can do far more innovative things then they ever could under a process centric environment. prima donna's are heroes, they build fiefdoms and can literally change the world.

However, pre-process environments are highly unpredictable, they don't scale, they don't keep schedules, can quickly become massively expensive and most people can't exist comfortably in them for long periods of time. i.e. more that 3 or 4 years.

Starting a software company, you want maximum creativity and flexibility, but just about the time you do the first release and have to support it, your start having to implement processes.

Processes are necessary, but they certainly have costs. Yes men, mindless agreement, lack of challenging ideas, lack of innovation and only repeating what was done previously are all part of the costs.

As Mom always said, you can't have your cake and eat it too. If you want predictability, scalability, efficiency, repeatability and coworkers who help each other rather than competing and snapping at each other, process are the way to go.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go tend to some ravenous dogs. Sit Fido, sit...

The Dan Ward said...

@Andrew - Love the dogs-on-a-waterbed imagery. Brilliant!

Processes are sometimes created to solve that problem. But sometimes they are created in reaction to an overstated problem, a misunderstanding of the problem, or an inordinate desire to imitate someone who seems more successful and stable than us.

I'm sure there are plenty of situations where process helps. My big criticism is at the inappropriate application (and over-application) of process, which I often describe as a "process-centric" approach. Using formal processes to provide standardization, quality, etc, is fine. But treating process compliance as more important than results (i.e. being "process-centric," rather than results-centric) is bad.

And sure, some heroes are prima donnas. Some aren't. Frankly, some process gurus are prima donnas too.

But the only thing I'll really take issue with is the statement that a pre-process environment doesn't scale, unless we introduce processes. I humbly suggest that process is not the only game in town. There are other options, and it is entirely possible to take a creative, flexible, chaordic environment and scale it up without becoming a Process Enterprise, ala Michael Hammer's vision.

Check out books by Ricardo Semler, Dee Hock or Gordon MacKenzie for specific examples of how & when such things happened (and keep watching this blog - I'm sure we'll mention them again).

Andrew Meyer said...


I agree with your description of process overuse. As with most things in this world, the law of declining returns sets in quickly.

I'm a huge Semler and Hock fan, but the context is important to understand.

Semler works in high complexity areas where the barriers to entry are high and his company can charge a premium price. He will not enter a market where that's not true. He is very careful about the markets he enters and this is critical to how his business operates. Take this very refined market selection out and his approach will not work. He follows the same pattern 3M followed successfully for a long time until their leadership misunderstood the importance of market selection.

His teams are independent and autonomous and he frequently spins them out as new companies when they get too large. This is all critical to understanding why he is successful.

Likewise with Hock, his ideas flourished because there was an excellent fit for disciplined and independent banks.

This is not to discount the brilliance of what they did or the success they've had, but simply to point out that there are environments and types of workers that lend themselves to these approaches, but I would contend that the environments and types of workers are not so common.

The Dan Ward said...

Good observations - context certainly matters.

My only reply is that Semler and Hock did not simply find those uncommon contexts... they created them. And they would not have created these contexts if they'd taken the best practices / process-centric approach. It's precisely because they embraced chaos, uncertainty & freedom that they found themselves in such situations.