When Did Process Become a Dirty Word?

by Susan Nemetz, June 2018

We live in a competitive, fast-moving industry. I know I say that every month, but that reality must impact how we think about how to achieve.

The word cloud below is an output of an interactive session with my team where we were discussing the reality of our clients’ complex worlds in biopharma today.

Furthermore, we live in an industry in which discovery and creativity are essential, differentiating, and highly valued. As it should be.

Unfortunately, all of this — the speed, the competition, the constant demand for innovation — can lead to an undervaluing of, if not outright hostility towards, process. Somehow, process has become a dirty word. Is alignment better? What about efficiency? Maybe you like accountability? Or how about culture of performance?

I think it’s a mistake to cast aspersions on process. In fact, I believe it’s precisely because our industry has become so demanding, so fast-paced, and so innovation-focused that we need process more than ever today.

What Do You Mean by “Process?”

The word “process” — and I think this is part of the problem — evokes different thoughts and emotions (and constraints) to different people.

To some, it means bureaucracy — big companies where nobody can make a decision. There is an underlying concern that process implies the imposition of unnecessary rules and procedures.

To others, it just feels “anti-entrepreneurial.” Smart, nimble, hungry start-ups barely have time for hallway discussions, let alone drawn-out meetings and documentation. They may feel a need to move quickly, stay loose, and make changes on the fly. They may fear that process comes at the expense of speed and breakthrough thinking.

To others, process equates to a loss of control. “If I’m the only one who knows how, when, and where we are going — in my group, in my division, or in my company as a whole — then I remain an essential part of every major decision.” The assumption is that a formalized process might minimize the need for one’s unique role.

These are only three possible “definitions.” I’m sure you can think of others.

For me, however, process falls into the category of something useful and straightforward. You wouldn’t begin a vacation by simply showing up at the airport, catching a plane to wherever, and seeing how things play out when you land. What if you also had your in-laws, kids, and boss with you on that trip (don’t panic, it’s a hypothetical)? How would you feel about that lack of process then?

How can we possibly hope to guide a drug through years of development and approval and commercialization (using other people’s money, it’s worth noting), without at least agreeing on how we intend to get from point A to B to C, etc., and ensuring every one of the talented people on our team knows how to contribute?

Process Is a Tool, Not an Obstacle

Here’s how I think of process: It’s a tool for determining how the work will get done, by whom, and when. It includes accountability, resource allocation, and planning. And, most important, transparency.

It explains the timeline and touchpoints along the way; who the decision-makers are; how success is defined; how we communicate the output of our work, to both internal and external stakeholders.

The fact is, not only is process not synonymous with bureaucracy and wasted resources, it’s the device that prevents those things from occurring. It’s not rigid; it’s about adhering to a vision and having a plan. (Recall a few earlier e-conversations where we came to a similar conclusion.)

Without a clear process in place, and in growing companies in particular, people feel they don’t know who’s in charge or where they are going. Instead of being engaged from the start and acting smartly on the big picture, they are pulled in at the eleventh hour, asked to read or write or weigh in on something they didn’t even know was coming.

As a mid-level manager at one of our client companies put it, “We have all of these incredible employee benefits, but no process. It’s impossible to get anything done, and morale is awful.”

How Much Is Too Much?

I’ve occasionally (okay, often) been accused of being a process person. I think there’s some truth to that. Maybe it’s because as consultants we are expected to oversee “the process.” Perhaps it’s just my nature (I am a middle child and if you don’t know what is happening above and below you — you are toast).

Whatever the reason, I’m very focused on building a framework that supports — not inhibits — the ability to respond quickly, stay loose, remain creative, and energize those involved. That’s what process offers.

To me, therefore, the answer to, “How much?” comes down to balance and moderation. Process for its own sake benefits no one. But action devoid of process is equally wasteful.

At a minimum, we should at least agree on engaging in an explicit conversation regarding the degree of process needed in connection with any critical project or goal. Things like:

  • What does success look like?
  • How are we going to get there?
  • Who will be involved?
  • What decisions do we need to make, and when?
  • How will we communicate the output and to whom?

How about you? What’s your view of process? Do you experience too much; too little? How do you find balance in your organization? Click here to share your thoughts with me.