Calling a Timeout in the Office
How to improve the process and structure of your organization
There are two concepts in business that have an overarchingly and overwhelmingly positive impact on any business if done anywhere near well.
Similarly, like most powerful attributes, they can also have overarchingly damaging consequences, if not done well.
The good news on both these topics is that there is a wide margin for error, as long as you have what my child used to call at age three “good PP.”
Good PP is defined as: are you Pointed in the right direction and are you making any degree of Progress?
When you have that, it agendas all sorts of wonderful goodwill. People are prepared to keep working and keep focused, because they know eventually they will get “there.” Why? Because you’re pointed in the right direction and everybody concurs that you’re making some degree of progress.
The two concepts are process and structure.
They work together, but they can also work independently. Most positive attributes operate that way. They have huge value in and of themselves, and the synergistic value of combining them equates to one plus one being greater than two.
A couple of notes on structure.
As a blinding glimpse of the obvious: get it right. But right has a reasonable margin of error. The overarching principle is, to quote my good friend Tony Hunter: structure follows strategy. What is your strategy? What are you looking to achieve? Once you know those answers, structure yourself accordingly.
Since I like sporting metaphors so much, here is one that fits. If you’re playing basketball, then you structure yourself in a certain way, different to another sport, say football. And, more detailed, if you’re playing man-on-man defense, then you structure yourself accordingly and, notably, differently than if you’re playing a zone defense.
If half the team thinks they’re playing zone and the other half thinks they’re play man-on-man, that’s going to leave huge gaps that the opposition can take advantage of.
Or, more ridiculously, if you structure yourself in a football setup, but you’re actually playing basketball, you’re definitely going to lose the game. It’s just that simple. So what you’re doing and how you’re doing it: the strategy determines your structure.
Here are a few other principles you may want to consider. One: make your organization chart as flat as possible, without broadening too much the “locus of control.” No one person can have 10 or 12 or 15 people report to them effectively.
Yes, it looks good on an org chart because it’s nice and flat. But practically, that person doesn’t actually do anything. They just sit there coordinating the activities of others.
Next, have clear accountability. I am accountable to X, I am accountable for Y, I am measured by some of those sorts of things. The great author Jim Collins in Good to Great used the metaphor of the bus: make sure the right people are on the bus, and make sure they’re seated in the right seats.
I would also add, make sure you’ve got a good driver for that bus and that the bus is pointed in the right direction and is making some degree of progress. We’re not all just sitting there bouncing up and down in our seats, making bus noises, and singing the wheels on the bus.
That’s an exercise in frustration.
The other element is process.
I like to think of process as rhythm. At the Blinding Glimpse Group, we have a family of agencies and we operate in the creative space. Some would say that good process is a barrier to the creativity. I would suggest that instead, we have a creative process, and when people know where they stand from a structural perspective, they also know where they fit into that process.
They’re more able to be creative because they know where they’re receiving their input from and they know who their customer is or to whom they’re handing their outputs off.
I am firmly convinced that when people know where they stand and know what they have to do and know how to measure it and know what’s around them, they can be better at whatever they’re doing. Be that a factory worker or a creative designer.
Think of process in a purposefully designed, critiqued, bought-into way.
Design your process organically. The process should be designed by those who are doing the work. That doesn’t mean we’re continually tinkering with how we do it, but it grows out of the natural workflow.
Let me give an example.
The usual routine is that someone outside of the process (usually some suit in a corner office) designs it and then inflicts that process on those who will actually do the work. The challenge with that is it comes from a singular perspective and also comes from a singular skill set and usually that person ignores the fact that the people they’re giving the process to don’t have their skillset or their mindsets.
Inevitably, frustration ensues because the people aren’t doing what is asked of them. Because they’re doing it the way that’s assigned by some nobody, the output isn’t what is expected.
Whenever you gather the group, document it. Process it, refine it, and poke at it, so that you can refine the theory, and then go to work. Iterate on it for a little while, take a pause, step back, make the adjustments that are necessary in a “constitutional convention” style of meeting. Then you have a solid process: one that works for the people engaged in it.
You will now have a structured, focused way to continue to improve as you go forward.
As the saying goes…
A mechanic’s car never runs well because he’s always fiddling with it just because he can.
That’s dangerous for your process. Make sure that your fiddling and your refinements are purposeful and have an end result in mind. Make sure that the people that are doing the “doing” are buying into the new changes.
Do not make continual changes. Engage in the process for a reasonable time period, then pause, step back, go over the list of refinements you’ve built over that time (some of which would have passed and are no longer relevant because you’ve learned that the process actually worked).
Publicize those changes, implement them, bed them in and run for another season, until you pause and do it again.
Back to the sporting analogy. Think of it as a meaningful timeout. Yes, there’s coaching going on from the sidelines, but it’s coaching relative to the strategy and the structure and the process that was predetermined before the game, or in the huddle, or at halftime.
When refinements need to be made, you call a timeout.
You make the refinements, then you go to work and execute.
Structure follows strategy. This assumes you have a clear, unambiguous strategy that your team has bought into from which you can form a structure that suits what the strategy is designed to achieve.
A process is made up of the things that we do to fulfill the strategy within the structure.
Yes, certainly bring in the expertise. Yes, certainly have the manager cast and eye over to make sure we’re keeping our ladder up against the right wall, but allow people to own their process and you’ll be amazed, as a manager, how smooth, how efficient and how productive that process can be when the owners are those doing the work in a structure that is clear and unambiguous.
Process and structure are critical elements in any organization, particularly in a business.