It’s a distressingly familiar sensation. We find ourselves sitting in a meeting, filling out a form, or prepping for a presentation and we ask ourselves, “Why am I doing this? What’s the value here? Who thought this was a good use of my time? There has to be a better way.”

The irony is that most of these situations started with a good idea: a new meeting to ensure coordination, a new process to improve communication, new software to capture and record vital information, a new training program to establish shared understanding. New requirements start out strong: people understand the intention of the new paperwork, team review or orientation session so they’re willing to put up with the extra work.

But inevitably, new processes lose momentum: the reason behind the extra work is forgotten and complaints arise. Do we really need to do this? Isn’t there a better way? 

The organization usually responds in one of three ways:

  • Compliance. Folks at the “top” see value in the process, so in order to ensure it is followed, they measure compliance. The focus shifts away from the intention of the process and towards demonstrating that the process has been followed. Take this path often enough and team-members get the message: what matters here is the paperwork; check all the boxes and the bosses will be happy.
  • Optionality. Folks at the “top” are sympathetic to the complaints, so they stop forcing the issue. They look the other way or duck tough conversations about rules and processes. Do this too often and word spreads: some things matter here, and others don’t – it all depends on what your boss wants.
  • Flavor-of-the-month. Folks at the “top” are committed to improving, so they convene a group of smart people to come up with a new good idea to address the complaints. And the cycle begins anew: a new meeting is scheduled, a process is revised, software is purchased and a training program is launched. Do this often enough and people begin to get it: what matters here are initiatives and programs and whatever ideas the bosses come up with each month.

This may be a cynical take on management and bureaucracy, but think about your own organization: think about the “rituals” your people follow each day, week, month and quarter. How often are folks going through the motions, pencil-whipping forms, deciding which rules to follow and chasing a silver-bullet system improvement?

The answer involves two vital, yet subtle forms of leadership:

  • Clarity of intention. It’s not enough for management to focus on desired results and necessary actions – leadership must also ensure team-members understand why these results and actions matter. Most companies have a mission or vision statement – the same clarity of intention is needed throughout the organization. The most effective leaders don’t talk about what to do and how to do it… they talk about why! They clarify and communicate the intention of meetings, processes, systems and programs.
  • Engagement of People. It’s tempting to view organizations like machines – collections of processes we can adjust and redesign. But work occurs through people not processes. Improvement begins with engaging people – asking them for their needs, for their ideas and their support.

The next time you find yourself asking, “Why are we doing this?” or the next time someone on your team says, “Isn’t there a better way?” pause for a moment and consider intention. What was the good idea that led to this requirement; what was the problem this was intended to solve? And then think about engagement. What conversation can we have to help people understand why this matters and is worth doing well?

People, more than processes, hold the solutions to our most perplexing organizational issues. Before we chase a new idea, lets engage our people in a conversation about why.

Interested in learning more? Ready to overcome compliance, optionality and flavor-of-the-month in your organization? We’re ready to help. 

About the author: Andy Erickson is a founder and principal consultant at Humanus Solutions, a consulting firm specializing in people-centric leadership. He can be reached at aerickson@humanus-solutions.com

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