Breaking Free of the Process Trap

Last night as I was listening to Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, I thought of the quote, “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” I could tweak Albert Einstein’s quote to make it relevant to my situation, “Insanity: listening to a Bob Dylan album over and over and expecting to hear different songs.”

This process got me thinking about how important disruption is to innovation, and how simple acts can re-energize and boost creativity. As we are challenged to constructively break free of order to innovative at our organizations, I began to draw parallels to my music habits.

Thanks to a simple twist fate, I have plenty of opportunities to find new music, since my Dad has passed down to me his entire record collection. I’ve now started randomly pulling out a record and sit and listen through the entire album. Just this simple act of pulling out a new record has become disruptive to the music I listen too.

It’s also taught me quite a few things about innovation, and how to avoid the process trap. Oftentimes, we start to fall into a typical pattern on projects, and default to following a familiar process. We may not even explore the process’s validity or if it’s actually helping the team achieve its goals.

Wondering if you’re stuck in the process trap? Here are some of the symptoms:

  • You hear the phrase, “it’s the way we’ve always done it.”
  • You religiously reference a flow chart during projects.
  • You feel like everything is running smoothly.
  • You’re not asking questions.
  • You’re asking the wrong questions.
  • You’re getting bored.
  • Projects have that feeling of “we’re missing something.”

But being stuck in the process trap might not necessarily be a bad thing. It’s a hard paradox to navigate. Your team might be excelling. You might be hitting all your goals and meeting mandates. You might have put in hard work to reform a service, and it’s worked so well it’s become second nature. You could even be getting more work done faster and more efficiently.

These are all great things that our organizations strive for. Yet it comes with a risk of getting stuck in process, and not being able to seize opportunity and build on success.

That’s a situation that no one wants. Do you want to break free of the process trap? Here are some ideas:

1. Be Disruptive

How can you change anything if you’re afraid to be disruptive? Disruption has a somewhat negative connotation, but it’s essential to break free and innovate. It may even be something as simple as moving a meeting time or going for a mid-afternoon walk. Do something that triggers your brain to think a bit differently, and take a look at projects from an alternate perspective.

2. Constant Quest for Excellence

Being on a quest for excellence means that you are taking your organization to new heights. You’re not afraid to push the bounds and refuse to settle for meritocracy. This means you are always looking for new ways to improve your product, how you engage with citizens or new ways to deliver services. But this also means you have a way to celebrate success, and build momentum going forward. It’s a fine balancing of honoring good work, and pushing the team forward.

We’ve all been there when we are pressed to hit deadlines and we rely on the tried and true. But to excel and take your organizations to new heights, it requires you to think larger, and push yourself outside your comfort zone. Helping your team to break out of the process trap is the first step to unlocking creativity and delivering even more success.

3. Fail Fast, Fail Smart

Not everything you’re going to do is going to work. If you find yourself running in circles, and projects and process are failing, don’t wait to interject and fix them. Be smart on failure – accept that it’s inevitable when you’re trying new things. Some context: about a week after I gave a presentation that wasn’t my best, I asked a colleague for some speaking tips. “Pat, sometimes you’re just going to tank,” he said. “You have to realize it’s ok, and move on to the next opportunity.”

The same is true in any project or process – move on and look for ways to improve. You can’t get hung up on a failure. And you know what? The next presentation I gave was one of my best. Bob Dylan sums up failure perfectly: “There’s no success like failure, but failure is no success at all.”

What’s holding you back?

Photo credit: FlickR Creative Commons, Record Player, License, posted by: Hoffnungsschimmer

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Mark Hammer

I think one of the obstacles to being free of “the process trap” is that the process is often owned by multiple stakeholders, each comfortably ensconced in their own silo. Breaking free is easy enough to do if one is the entire owner of the process. But when the components of the process are distributed amongst many, change is hard.

Of course, the difficulty with government is that the process IS often broadly distributed, ostensibly in the interests of “efficiency”. Ironic that it becomes the barrier to efficiency so often.