May 05, 2022.
A colleague recently shared the following comment ‘MNCs are process oriented while startups are result oriented.’ and that set me thinking if these are mutually exclusive? Is there a gap between process orientation and getting results?
In the early days of a firm, survival demands results. These results typically could come with taking risks and innovation in customers, markets, ways of working… As the firm grows, the need for process becomes apparent to reduce risk and deliver outcomes at a scale, without conflict with other areas of the firm. With growth, increasing layers of process of course, reduce the speed of reaction to opportunities and threats but do they also reduce innovation?
A few years ago, as head of External Programs at a management school, I was following up an enquiry for conducting soft skills training for the Karnataka State Reserve Police. They had 14 battalions with about 1,000 personnel in each, so this was a large value enquiry. We had done many soft skills training programs and as per our internal process I obtained the details of the KSRP requirement, prepared a detailed proposal with quotes and submitted the same after an internal approval.
My meetings and follow-up with the KSRP commandant were limited to relationship building, clarifying issues in our quotation, trying to determine our competitiveness vis our vis other quotes received by them, understanding the decision process and time lines. All these were part of the ‘process’ learnings of handling Organization Based Programs from my past experience.
After about 6 weeks of the initial enquiry, a decision was made by KSRP and the commandant called me to discuss why she had to give the order to another Institute. She shared with me – our competitor Institute had deployed their people over 4 weeks to interview KSRP personnel across the state, recorded these interviews and analyzed the gaps in their soft skills. Their proposal had the data collected by them, analysis of the gaps (region wise) and their final quote was close to our quote.
I had no words but ‘wow’ at this innovative approach! At our Institute, we had a standard soft skills training approach with modules which would have been useful and would deliver an impact albeit, without this deep customization. Did my focus on process block innovative thinking here? Does every outcome in today’s VUCA world absolutely need innovation? Is a startup better geared for such innovative thinking?
It does seem outcomes in today’s VUCA and highly competitive environment need innovation. Of course, outcomes where the problem and solution are well defined and completely known would need little innovation – attendance/ leave tracking for employees hardly ever needs innovation. Here the outcome is well defined and the solution completely known with little ambiguity or uncertainty. So how does one predetermine outcomes that may need innovation and hence possibly ‘outside the process’ thinking? Should we continue with a process focus till an outcome fails? How many times should an outcome fail before we think outside the process?
In my early days at this Institute (2008), the commute from Silk Board to Electronic City was a nightmare and the BETL flyover (inaugurated in Jan 2010) was a blessing. It was a 10 Km flyover directly landing in front of the Institute and was meant to cut the commute time from
over 30 minutes to 10 minutes. Yet there were days when I spent over half an hour in this commute on the flyover! My route and start times for the commute were the same, yet the outcome (commute time), had a high uncertainty at least 2 days every week! The flyover had 2 lanes and slow or broken-down antiquated vehicles, slower 2-wheeler traffic, accidents, road repairs, toll booth malfunction, vehicles with no smart tags, rain all impacted this outcome.
I have no doubt very smart engineers would have spent months studying the traffic flow, the projected increase in traffic over the years and built suitable buffers into their calculations for the design of the flyover. The focus would have been to build a durable commercially viable flyover which could handle the peak volume of traffic (and more!) on that route today and for the next few years assuming traffic moving at high speeds of 60-80 kmph. It doesn’t seem like any events of disruption were factored into the design. The slightest disruption on one of the lanes results in traffic backup and severe delays very frequently.
Would the focus on a deeper and ‘customer’ level of the outcome help us predetermine outcomes that may require ‘out of the process’ hence ‘out of the box’ or innovative thinking? Would a change from ‘build a durable commercially viable flyover which could handle the peak volume of traffic…’ to ‘deliver a solution for vehicles to clear the 10 Kms in 10 minutes, 90% of the time’ have resulted in more attention to the causes of disruption, a more innovative design and a better outcome?
Some random thoughts to help predetermine outcomes that may be more effective with innovation:
Instead of ‘submitting quotations for soft skills training and following up for orders’ – ‘help KSRP personnel relate better with the public’
Instead of the Mayor ordering the BBMP engineers ‘to ensure potholes are filled by so and so date’ –> ‘ensure drivers have a smooth ride on roads in your jurisdiction?’
‘Complete the curriculum as per the sessions plan’ -> ‘get students to understand, appreciate and love the course’
‘Follow up on outstandings’ -> ‘Ensure collections come in by so and so date’
‘Collect data to file an application’ -> ‘Ensure application received by agency by the deadline’
I find the standard 5 why’s technique quite useful to determine a deeper level of the outcome. At times, asking the first level of ‘why’ may produce a mundane objective that possibly means it is already well defined and the process known rarely requiring innovation. If one were to ask ‘why do we want to record attendance and leave’ – the first level of why itself may provide the deepest objective as ‘ensure transparency, fairness and uniform working conditions for all employees in the firm’. Most organizations will have a standard process that ensures this and requires little innovation.
On the other hand asking ‘why do we want to build a flyover…’ may result in a first level answer of ‘to reduce traffic congestion during peak hours’ – another level of ‘why’ may result in the answer ‘to ensure a user clears the stretch in 10 minutes’. The focus of the design team is now a deeper objective that would certainly take into account scenarios that could prevent ‘traffic clearing the stretch in 10 minutes’. One could take this one level deeper to ‘to ensure