Addressing Fear and Confabulation In Business Process Management When Times Are Tough

Happy Halloween. I am writing this post in the wake of some pretty harsh economic indicators. This week has not been good for BPM. For the most part, the news has been about consumer confidence and consumption being at all-time lows and news of lay-offs and job losses peaking at nearly 750,000 in this calendar year. BPM initiatives in this climate are deeply challenged to keep people engaged, productive and cooperative. This is especially true if what you’re doing has even the slightest appearance of cutting costs. Executives are thrilled with the idea of cutting costs but you can expect all of your stakeholders will identify themselves as a cost in the process. And what do people do when they’re afraid for their jobs? They modify their behavior.

Fear and BPM?

Fear evokes instinctual reactions in everyone. The very fabric of our being is primed to fight or flee. So much is at stake right now that it is only natural for people to struggle with objectivity and complete honesty. They become protective and defensive. Some people become angry, some blame others, some withdraw and lose their confidence and will to compete, and some lie like there’s no tomorrow. Either way, if fear is running amok in your shop, your BPM hopes for lasting improvement are being compromised.

I met with a public health client this week who is beginning to show signs of wear and tear. It’s more difficult than ever to get subject matter experts in one room with all of the competing agendas they now have. Budgets lack certainty so it’s harder to commit to plans and strategies. Heavy questions like State financing hang over projects like brooding storm clouds. People doubt and that doubt is a mind-killer. Process improvement and doubt are nearly mutually-exclusive phenomena.

Confabulations!

To confabulate is to tell people what you think they want to hear about the way things are and the way things ought to turn out. You’ve heard of people doing this in psychotherapy. Well, it happens in BPM projects even in the best of times and circumstances. People – particularly managers – tell process analysts and consultants what they want based in large part on what they think the rules of the game demand. Basically, if I think you want to model a current state that has certain features, I will make it up as we go along so the model comes out looking like I think you want it to. It’s because people do this that I invite as many experts to process documentation meetings as possible (within reasonable constraints). I want to hear what everybody has to say about the process. It’s also why I don’t include the boss in the first session. They fear for their lives so I bring them in toward the end to validate what their staff have told me. Staff are so much more candid when their boss is out of the room! If this sounds like an intervention on an alcoholic it’s because the approach is similar. Only the problem is not the manager. It’s a less-than-ideal process that some managers believe reflect poorly on them and their performance.

What To Do About Fear and Process Confabulation?

  • Make some strategic decisions at the executive level about the viability of your initiative. If it’s best to hold off for a few months, then wait.
  • Go easy on terminology like “eliminating waste” and even “automation” for that matter (unless you’re clear that is what you’re after and you’re prepared to deal with the fall-out)
  • Communicate, market and promote your BPM initiative in positive terms. Share the benefits, value-add and goals for organization. Have your executive sponsor write a short, persuasive and motivating letter and make sure everybody reads it or hears it.
  • Observe workflow and process by means of direct observation first
  • Document process with the help of non-management experts. Be inclusive and cross-functional in who it is you invite.
  • Validate processes with managers and directors
  • Identify process-related data and metrics and validate your model and assumptions by reviewing the data. The data rarely lies. If you have 100 customer complaint letters and a manager telling you people complain “once in a while” then you can deal with that discrepancy. If a manager tells you their staff processes 10 invoices per hour each and there are 5 staff working 7 hours per day, then somewhere there should be data supporting 350 invoices per day. Close the loop and don’t get snookered into believing without evidence of performance.
  • Be objective, firm and confident.
  • Lead by example and engage others in the same productive, positive behaviors.
  • Believe that BPM projects and initiatives that overlook human behavior and organizational dynamics like these are guaranteed to flop. This is not an IT project.
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