A Great Work Culture Demands More than Fixing Bad Processes

I have found that the word “process” can have a very polarizing effect on people. There are those who like to follow a process and feel lost when one is not clearly defined for them, and there are those who feel unreasonably bound by the process, and generally dislike having to conform to it. I have found very few people in the middle.

The first group tend to approach their tasks as a series of steps. When talking to them, it is easy to visualise a traditional process flow with boxes and arrows flowing between them. They visualise how they work as a systematic, logical, and sequenced list of business activities needed to achieve a desired outcome. They also know their place and are comforted by it.

For the second group, the intent or outcome of the work itself is of the key driver of what they do and how they do things. Often, the desired outcomes they are looking for vary with specific circumstances, and therefore they believe in adapting their approach and action steps to achieve the appropriate results. Many in this group believe that following a set process would stifle creativity, and results in too much “sameness”.

When things are going well within an organization or a team, it means both perspectives are in  balance and are working together. However, when things don’t go so well, when, for example, sales or profit targets are missed, or quality and customer satisfaction issues arise, it is invariably the “process” that gets blamed by both sides. Questions such as “who is responsible for this?”, “why do we need this step?”, “why wasn’t this done?” or “why does it take so much time?” get asked. These are all process related questions.

This is when my team often gets called in to sort it out. As Process Renewal Group, we are asked to deal with this issue called “bad process”, and find a solution to this so-called broken process. However, we find close to 90% of our projects are not about sequences of the activities, and not about clarity of roles and responsibilities. The key issues are often about the intricacies of  the circumstances and conditions in which the processes are performed.

After drilling down to the root causes of symptoms and filtering out all sorts of noise, we end up with the following main types of real issues. These are typically tough issues to solve; issues that nobody wants to deal with. So the next time you think your team has a broken process, don’t just blame the process for the stereotypical flow issues, and look into the following areas as well:

Business Rules are not established, not clear, or simply make no sense

Often in organizations that are struggling to achieve desired results, business rules may be outdated, imbedded into the information system(s), unknown, unclear and not consistently applied. To survive and get by people figure ways to work around them.

Business rules are the basis for sound decision making. There are many successful organizations without fully documented processes, and these organizations may not have written rules. However, the rules are still known and followed. The rules provide the guidelines for both operational activities as well as the behaviour of the individuals.  If the rules make no sense and the process flows consistently we may just be good at making the wrong decisions! A detailed review of business rules can uncover some of the root causes of missed targets.

Incentives not aligned

It is human nature to want to be good at things for which we are incentivised. This is not only limited to material incentives such as bonus structures, commissions, etc, but also softer yet real reward systems in terms of who gets acknowledged, noticed and promoted.

We are still very surprised by how many large organizations in particular believe in the benefit of “positive tension”: the idea that conflicting incentives between teams of an organization are beneficial to achieving an optimal solution. Think of motivating one team on sales, and another team on profit. The result is rarely the idealized balance point of both highest sales and highest profit. The result is much more likely to be periods of high sales followed by periods of high profits, and very confused clients. Similarly, when a team gets conflicting goals of reducing the time we talk to clients in the call center while increasing customer service we know that we will get neither. Teams simply don’t function well with conflicting incentives. Sustainable, long term results are achieved through alignment of incentives with the business objectives. As mentioned earlier, it is also critical to align non-monetary incentives as well.

Individual skills and attitudes are misaligned with the role requirement

Typically, individuals are hired based on a few hours of interviews, maybe some tests and evidence of certifications and credentials. When hiring an individual, we are often looking to replace a particular person who left. We are looking to fill a space that was shaped by the previous employee based on their individual abilities, relationships, talent level and interest to perform certain tasks.

Assuming that the new hire manages to fit sufficiently to make it through the probation period, regular fit analyses are rarely, if ever, done. The roles may change, the processes may change or the business environment may change, however, it is unusual that anyone goes back to assess the skills, interests and attitude of the individual performers to see if they continue to be a good fit for the changed roles.

Culture change is not addressed formally

By far the biggest impact to how an individual will perform and behave in the workplace is not dependent on what is taught at a training session, or explained by a manager. Behaviour and performance are shaped by observing the overall work environment, and blending in where possible matching perceived behavior of the group and its members. First awareness is at a very conscious level; Is everyone coming to meetings on-time? Is it OK to speak-up before the manager does? Are there consequences to providing negative feedback openly? Eventually, all these observations meld into the subconscious, and form what may be referred to as the culture of the organization. What we have learned in multiple situations is that it is very difficult to make process changes and deliver performance enhancements, or any change for that matter, that is counter to the culture. Changing the culture is possible, but requires a concerted effort and commitment to change and adjust over a period of time.

Process is only the beginning:

A broken process can cause many issues regardless of the type of organization or the type of team involved. However, it is imperative to look beyond the tasks, and flows of activities, and look deeper into the rules, incentives, skills and the overall culture of the team. Rarely are there quick solutions to address these issues. Executive sponsorship and some very difficult conversations are usually needed to solve them. However, addressing them is critical to have an adaptable organization and achieving long lasting results.


Sasha Aganova, MBA, is the Managing Partner of the Process Renewal Group. Sasha has successfully implemented and executed Process Management best practices for organizations in multiple industries, countries and cultures. Her current focus is on helping her clients get ready for the Millennial generation, become agile and become more process centric. Sasha is a frequent conference speaker where she shares her experience and passion for achieving long lasting and sustainable change by aligning and combining business process management with cultural change.