Monday, May 19, 2014

The Big 3 Questions of Consequence

I had a great conversation with a new client today.  It was a pre-workshop call to solidify the agenda for our upcoming process re-engineering workshop.  The discussion turned to how we transition from the old processes to new ones.  It's one thing to design a new business process.  It's another thing entirely to put that process into practice in a manner that optimizes the likelihood of success.

In addition to some standard organizational change management suggestions, such as communication, training, etc, I mentioned the importance of identifying consequences associated with the old procedures.  I said something along the lines of, "It's just as important to understand the positive consequences some staff get for behaving inappropriately."  I did't mean legal or ethical inappropriateness, but behavior that is inconsistent with the desired process.  I asked the questions:

  • Do people on your teams ever get praise for putting out day-to-day fires?
  • How often do they receive praise for doing the right thing so that the fire-fighting situation never arises?

The answer to question 1 is frequently "all the time", while the answer to question 2 is frequently "never".

A while back I wrote about some practical considerations for process and culture change.  One part of that post was about consequences for appropriate and inappropriate behavior.  I find that the most overlooked part of organizational change is that of consequences and rewards.  I thought about it some more today, and realized that almost every example I've seen of failed process change did the following three things poorly or not at all.  Conversely, in addition to clear measurable goals, every successful major process/organizational change did each of these thoroughly.

Three Questions of Consequence


  1. When developing new processes, are you including positive consequences for behaving appropriately?
  2. Does your current process have positive consequences for behaving inappropriately?
  3. Does your current process have negative consequences for behaving appropriately?

Let's take a brief look at each question.

When developing new processes, are you including positive consequences for behaving appropriately (and negative consequences for behaving inappropriately)?

This can manifest many ways, but it is critical to include clear expectations of positive and negative behavior.  How do you appraise employees?  Do you include appraisal criteria for process changes? For example, when re-defining change processes, have the relevant employees' job descriptions and/or performance assessment criteria been updated to reflect desired behaviors under the new process?  I am surprised how often this is overlooked, or considered minimally important.  Process folks all too often assume that everyone else gets the importance of process change the same way we do.  At the very least, we assume that process compliance is out of the scope of any process (re-) engineering project.  We must work with the personnel supervisors to ensure that compliance expectations are documented on a role-by-role basis.  An additional benefit is that you can also determine whether the supervisors are on board.

I can't state this strongly enough: Your process re-engineering or improvement project will fail without clear behavior expectations.

Does your current process have positive consequences for behaving inappropriately?

These are the most dangerous consequences, and the most important to uncover.  As you address organizational change, look for the hidden positive and negative consequences embedded in the current process.  Are there a few "star" performers who are always called out for exceptional fire fighting?  If I'm consistently rewarded for my fire fighting efforts, why on earth would I want to help make a transition to a more consistently applied process?  Don't forget that everyone else notices the rewards and accolades given to those who work outside the boundaries of the preferred system.  What makes it even harder is that we're also talking about perceived positive consequences.  Of course I don't intend to reward the system administrator that routinely takes on requests that should go through the service desk.  As a manager, however, I may forget the occasional process lapses and focus my promotion efforts on all the glowing customer feedback.  What happens when other staff perceive that the rule-bender gets more positive attention and even promotions?

Equally important in this assessment is a determination of why the rule-bender bends the rules in the first place.  Are there problems with the service desk to the point where customers understandably seek out help elsewhere?  Are there issues where, in the best interests of your business, the service desk should be bypassed?

Does your current process have negative consequences for behaving appropriately?

Just as baffling is the idea that there are actually negative consequences for performing appropriately.  These can be the most difficult to uncover, as they are usually the least intentional.  Again, these can be perceived or purposeful, and are frequently associated with positive consequences for behaving inappropriately.  Is someone following expectations around change request lead time also being punished by their boss for slow throughput?  Maybe a service desk agent is evaluated poorly due to a lower volume of incidents handled, while all along they were following the defined expectation of minimizing ticket re-assignments.  Can you add any of your own examples?

Being purposeful about formal and informal consequences is a critical part of any process re-engineering, improvement, etc. program.  The most thoughtful and well designed process changes are doomed to fail without thorough assessment and, if needed, remediation of competing and conflicting consequences.

What are your thoughts?