Frameworks, not Processes!

July 1, 2011

I used to cringe whenever I heard someone say, “The process is the thing.” It was what came next that was the problem: a codified, rigid process that eliminated thinking and discouraged adaptation – at least not without a fight. For right or wrong, the PROCESS had to be followed, and this was with a company that said it valued continuous improvement!

Ever try implementing a change to a process – even one for the better – in an organization wedded to its processes? You need passion and persistence, which means that those small, incremental changes are likely never to see the light of day. The cost/benefit on an individual level is too high. Worse, you run the risk of getting dinged on your performance review for devoting too much time and attention on low-impact initiatives.

This is a shame, because the cumulative effects of many small changes can equate to a significant benefit.

Continuous improvement of any kind should not be an uphill battle. It should be an expected part of everyone’s repertoire and welcomed by the organization. That’s why it is better to use a framework rather than a process, the very approach that Agile development takes. Teams are strongly encouraged to try things and to retain them if they improve their results, adjust them if they feel that they are on the right track, but aren’t satisfied with the initial results, or discard them altogether.

A good framework provides a common point of reference for people to work from, with the flexibility to meet specific conditions and circumstances. Sure, the frameworks have their requirements. Scrum has defined roles and boundaries, for example. They are there for a reason, and it is best to avoid messing with the core, foundational elements of a framework before getting some experience under your belt and developing some expertise.

And that’s the important distinction. Despite their simple appearance, using a framework requires a deeper understanding on the part of everyone involved, not just those special few who designed the process and have knowledge about why things were put into the process in the first place. Using a more generic framework ups the ante and shifts greater responsibility onto the shoulders of the knowledge workers involved with performing their work.

This is not a bad thing, but some people are very used to (and comfortable with) letting someone else shoulder the responsibility and consequences that come with managing the work. They are content to perform work within a narrower range of their specialty. As you would expect, others embrace and enjoy taking greater control and responsibility, and you will find them to be more engaged and motivated as a result.

Ultimately, moving the responsibility and decision-making as close to the work as possible – ideally where the work is being performed – will drive greater productivity and increase retention. It isn’t easy, and it doesn’t happen overnight.

Frameworks are deceptive. They appear simpler than most processes because they are easier to describe on paper. They provide a general structure to work from and less in the way of rules. But understanding what makes those frameworks tick – complexity theory, systems thinking, teamwork, etc. – requires a greater investment in time and effort.

Foster continuous leaning through conversations to share experiences and knowledge at all levels of the organization. And expect people to make mistakes. Managers will violate the concept of autonomous teams by directing the team or setting individual goals that conflict with the work of the team. Some individuals will not embrace the concept of teamwork or operating as generalizing specialists.

Think of it as a long-term investment. Many processes developed by companies attempt to address every contingency, and in doing so remove the thinking and adaptation required by organizations in today’s competitive, worldwide marketplace. Replacing processes with lightweight frameworks is a must for organizations to continually improve, but it is true change that requires top-down organizational commitment to realize the benefits.