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Monday, May 11, 2009

Managing People Who Resist Process

This is about what really goes on in effective management.

Very few managers actually have a process devoid of people. A process is a defined set of sequentially dependent steps that produce a predictable outcome. Process improvement is making the steps clearer and more efficient, thereby making the result more predictable with less input of time, effort and resources.

In short, a people-free process rewards knowledgeable tinkering, and sits there waiting for you -- unchanged -- between tinks (new word; add it to the dictionary). Managing such an unadorned process is what managers often yearn to do -- and in fact is what many go ahead and do, ignoring the fact that there are lots of people hanging around the process.

And there's the rub. I once had a manager who was responsible for the work of nine people. He said to me, wistfully, "If it weren't for the people, this job would be perfect." The problem was, of course, that the people WERE the job. The process being conducted did not exist without the nine people. The manager was superb as an individual user of the system, but not as a leader of the people.

People are improvable, but they also are unpredictable and often not very logical or efficient. A tight process annoys many of them, and triggers resistance (or worse).

So, for the vast majority of workplace organizations that consist of people wound around a process (or vice versa), what is the secret of good management?

The answer starts with accepting the fact that managers reside uncomfortably, often painfully, on the seam between process and people. Their job is to get the maximum output from people who can't operate effectively without process, but who may resist learning and following the process.

This relationship often is negatively affected by the manager's personal mastery of the process, meaning there is a constant temptation to "do it myself." That attractive mistake produces narrow success and systemic failure. Worker bees lean on their shovels to watch the process-perfect manager turn out fine work, and devise ways to evade criticism of their own less-exemplary efforts.

Nobody tells newly minted managers this. The job, properly defined, is quite short of fun, at least at first. The primary workstyle requirements of the true manager, especially early in such a career, are patience and tolerance, followed by flexibility and persistence. Subject-matter knowledge is a given, but often it need not be top-drawer personal expertise.

As a manager, you're measured by collective results. Your individual managerial contribution usually is invisible. Some of your bosses --senior managers -- know the properly functioning group can be that way only because a master manager is inside there, constantly balancing people and process. Many bosses don't understand that, though, and many who do know tend to take the excellence for granted after while.

Sad. Welcome to life on the seam.

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