Workflow Lens – Applying the Arts of Divergence and Covergence

What’s Possible? What’s Probable?

Got a problem? In the business arena, there are plenty of problems. The same is true in government and non-profits. Pick an industry and I assure you it’s full of bugs, issues, inefficiencies, waste, slop and sludge. And each of them is an opportunity for value-creation. However, each of those problems is mired down in habit and institutional behavior. So how do you crack the existing code and create something new? How do you DESIGN a new workflow from slop? You have to be able to widen your lens, free your perspectives, and idealize what’s possible. That’s divergent thinking. What’s possible. Of course, having spent most of my waking hours at that altitude, it’s also important to be able to identify what will work and decide what is probable. Then you execute. Create the opportunity for value-creation and execute it.

Divergent Approach

Don’t always assume there are rules. Some of what you think are rules are actually myths, habits, bad habits, addictions to stasis, and what sheep and lemmings call “the way it’s always been done”. It isn’t pretty. Loosen up. Imagine anything goes. Some people call it Idealizing the Design. Brainstorm. “If we weren’t so bound by our habitual way of thinking, what would be possible? In a dream, how would you do it? Why are we doing this? What does the customer wish we would do?”

Convergent Approach

This part is tricky. You have to identify what will work but refrain from selecting a process or series of activities that are bound by your old habits and sense of what is possible. Your beliefs about what is possible are bound by your adherence to what you think are the rules and your budget, your schedule and your current infrastructure. Designing a new business architecture (enterprise architecture) means believing outside the box. You have to believe before you can think. You need new beliefs. Otherwise, what you build will look alot like what you have always built. So take the risk of suggesting that in order for your new, idealized workflow or business process to work, you will need XYZ. Could be a new system, new interface, new staff, new skills, new B2B functionality. If it’s in the best interest of the organization and its customers, do it. You can always scale back if you have to. 

Facilitation

Applying the arts of divergence and convergence in workflow design may require more than one facilitator. Most people aren’t good at both. It may also require an outside consultant or a whole host of facilitators depending upon how wide you want to throw open your lens. Remember, enterprise-wide design and architecture must be holistic if it’s going to remain aligned and survive. Otherwise, what you design will act more like an uninvited guest in the house.

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5 responses to “Workflow Lens – Applying the Arts of Divergence and Covergence

  1. In my OReilly text on Information Architecture, the authors discuss Fast and Slow Layers, introduced in “The Clock Of Long Now”, by Stewart Brand. Brand describes society as a made up of layers, each changing independently of the other at different rates.

    So:

    FAST CHANGING
    /\
    |Fashion and Art
    |Commerce
    |Infrastructure
    |Governance
    |Culture
    |Nature
    /\
    SLOW CHANGING

    A suggested spectrum of change for enterprises is:

    FAST CHANGING
    /\
    |tools(software)
    |tools(hardware)
    |Workflow
    |Job Skills
    |Policies
    |Job Roles
    |Leadership
    |Mission
    |Products
    /\
    SLOW CHANGING

    You might better identify elements or arrange them to match your experience. This spectrum is just for discussion purposes.

    The spectrum does not show any necessary direction of change:
    *leadership change can effect mission (for example, a new CEO writes a new mission statement),
    *policy change can effect hardware tools (for example, a new employee health policy results in orders for ergonomic office furniture),
    *workflow change can effect software tools (for example, Kapalign creates workflows that rely on knowledge wikis and social networking tools).

    Ongoing divergence begins with the faster changing elements more often than the slower changing elements. If the drivers for change are more than workflow improvements, workflow must change fairly often on its own or the enterprise won’t survive. However, an enterprise needs your expertise to help it create holistic workflows as the it changes. So you identify the points of divergence an enterprise has not taken, and that it needs to take, at different levels of change.

    You wrote that “enterprise-wide design and architecture must be holistic if its going to remain aligned and survive.”

    Holism might be:
    *keeping up with competitive technology changes
    *keeping upstream workflows producing for downstream, and removing bottlenecks
    *keeping small-scale process and large-scale process changes working together
    *keeping customers happy

    Your holistic approach helps you discern when healthy divergence is not happening.

  2. Hi again Noah. Thanks so much for your comments. I really appreciate Brand’s approach to layers. I’m a big fan of Wilber’s All Quadrants/All Lines approach. Of course, he originally developed it to address the spectrum of development in culture, psychology, science and social institutions. In the past couple of years, he’s begun letting business people apply their knowledge and enhance it with economic models.

    The point is, and this may be where I disagree with Brand, these elements – in my humble opinion – really shouldn’t be viewed as “independent”. That implies that change in one system does not affect dependencies in other systems or in other layers.

    I totally agree with the rate of change model you described. That’s a lovely concept and I watch it unfold all the time. It’s funny, however, to observe people (who have a little training) when they realize that a change in one layer of the architecture will affect – at whatever pace – other layers in the architecture. It’s a treat to watch their lights turn on.

    It’s true too, come to think of it, that an organization can be making terrific strides in one “layer” and actually regress in an other. I suppose I should clarify here. Brand may be saying they CAN act independent of one another. I think they SHOULD not. While they can (for a time), they SHOULD try to act interdependently. If a multi-dimensional system has parts that want to act out of harmony, unsion and alignment, that can certainly happen. That’s called a pathology. It’s frankly all of those patholgical behaviors that fuel so much of our economy (especially creating opportunities for consultants!)

  3. Yeah, I agree the layers are causally related, and that lack of congruence indicates pathology. At the same time, the hierarchy of speed of change does not show any particular necessary flow of pathology.

    Consultants, in this pathological model of corporate function, are really helpers, enablers of healthy change. That’s a very positive model for consultants to operate in!

    -Noah

  4. Sorry ,that was “particular necessary flow of causality”, not “particular necessary flow of pathology”. Although that accident sparks the thought that speedy change in a workflow could have a pathological character, and encourage unhealthy change at other levels. Maybe a kind of negative feedback is important at different levels, to keep them interoperating. Each level’s health might be determined using different criteria, so that improvements at one level create problems at others . For example:

    level | criteria
    leadership | cost reduction
    workflow | waste reduction + responsiveness to customers
    policy | maximize employee morale

    As a workflow consultant, you implement a new knowledge-sharing policy that includes software tools that maximize documentation of workflow. That is boring and time-consuming, which reduces employee morale and lowers responsiveness to customers. Although the changes will reduce long-term training costs, the workflow improvements raise immediate costs, making leadership upset. So the knowledge-sharing policy is revised to reduce the initial documentation effort until other workflow improvements can take effect, raising morale, improving responsiveness to customers, and keeping the net costs of workflow changes negative (saving money).

    There seems to be an order to some improvements using the lean methodology. Do you divide workflow improvements into immediate and long-term activities, and immediate and long-term improvements? Presumably the immediate activities would bring immediate improvements (for example, upgrading hardware boosts productivity), but other combinations might happen (for example, sorting office supplies is an immediate activity, but is useless if office supply use and replenishment is not also decided and standardized,which are both more lengthy activities).

  5. Noah –

    Let me try to address your question – as I understand it. The decision to make business process changes (workflow improvements) is best done in an assembly setting where a cross-functional team of staff and managers weigh-in on what is most important and urgent. The team decides which processes ought to be addressed first based upon:
    1. Pain
    2. Positive Reinforcement
    3. Ease and Readiness
    4. Key Performance Indicators (KPI) vis a vis strategic goals
    5. Relation to other initiatives
    6. Directive, mandate, changes in law or standards
    7. Customer request or Demand

    There may be other drivers – of course – but that’s a pretty good list. I should clarify that # 5 above often involves implementation or conversion of information systems. Automation is a major driver and presents a great opportunity to realign and design workflow in a future state.

    So, to your question, is there a predictable order to the improvements? I don’t believe there necessarily are. It’s convenient to think in terms of short-term “low hanging fruit” and immediate change followed by longer term architectural changes. It really depends on the nature of the “driver” behind the workflow analysis (see list above).

    In other words, if the driver is a mandate for policy change that affects the kind of paint ingredients being mixed or an employee safety regulation, then the orgnaization simply has to skip what would “be nice to have” and must design what they “have to do”. Keep that in mind. I often use that as the first level of inquiry with groups. What do you “have to do” and what would “be nice to do”?

    Most groups do not enter into lengthy analysis and design unless there is some kind of “have to”. The mandates for change can be myriad and the sense of importance and urgency truly varies.

    I think you can imagine or visualize a matrix that captures key processes, features, functions, KPI’s and the driver behind the change. If a work group performs 10 key processes, they will select the 1 or 2 that are most pressing (usually) based upon the avoidance of negative consequences associated with business-as-usual.

    Hope this helps!

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