April 20, 2014

Agile Coaching Blog

Stop Replacing Trust with Process – The Path to Lasting Change

Does it seem you spend more time talking about the work than actually doing the work?

Do you find it takes longer and longer to deliver anything of value to the customer?

Did someone just create a new phase gate or process that you need to follow?

If you answered yes to any of these, your organization my be suffering from a systemic dysfunction where trust is replaced with process. To make matters worse, many consultants who work with large organizations only recommend process changes with little context of your leadership or culture.

How Consultants Work with Corporations

For lasting change you are going to need help with culture and leadership as well. Those take much longer to change and influence compared to following a new process checklist.

Another challenge with process is that your organization has added process on top of process over the years as it has grown into a corporation.

Process Layers in Years

As processes get more complicated and require more sign offs, your cycle time is negatively impacted.

Process Layers & Cycle Times

Worse yet, the average manager life span at an organization is about 3.5 years, so the folks that created the processes in the beginning aren’t even around anymore. No one owns the process or even understands why it was created in the first place.

Processes No Longer Have Owners

There is hope, but it requires an awareness and restraint when dealing with process changes inside your corporation.

Tip #1 – Don’t be quick too create new processes when things go awry.

People are going to make mistakes, but as a manager it is how you respond to those mistakes that will leave a lasting mark on your team. I highly recommend using 5 Why’s to find the root cause of the incident and then making a proportional investment to prevent future occurrences.

Tip #2 – When pushing decisions down, push information down as well

So many times I witness managers attempting to empower their teams and then promptly stripping that empowerment away when they make poor decisions. It isn’t realistic to expect teams to make mission critical decisions without the proper information. Instead of pointing the finger of blame at your team, trying using decision filters or experiment guidelines so the teams have more guidance and relevant information.

Tip #3 – Don’t roll out untested, big bang process changes
I work with teams that are up against several years of process bloat. Instead of doing another big design up front process to replace the already bloated process, I’ve been taking a Lean Startup / Scientific Method approach to process improvement.

a) Who are the users, decision makers, influencers for the process?
b) What is the value proposition of the process for each role?
c) What outcome metrics should be measured?
d) What Minimum Viable Experiment could we run to see if the process can be improved?

Many of the processes you encounter are complex in nature, which means you cannot predict what will happen when you begin to change them. Using Minimum Viable Experiments you can sense and respond your way through the process change, instead of designing the next big process which may make things worse.

About David Bland David Bland

David has enjoyed success using lean and agile techniques at several companies in San Francisco and Washington DC. He joined his first dot com startup in 1999 and helped lead it to a 13 million dollar acquisition in 2006. Currently David brings startup thinking into large organizations to foster corporate entrepreneurship. He can usually be found writing, speaking and coaching around lean startup, business model generation and kanban.


  1. Some thoughts:

    - The larger a company gets (usually a side effect of getting older), the more formalized the processes NEED to be. With 4-10 people, you can talk by the coffee machine and everybody is informed. Once you have > 20 employees, someone will sure be left out of the loop without a more formalized way of communication. However, most processes do not focus on effective communication, but only address the symptoms of bad communication without ever even touching the root cause.

    - The most common “solution” to problems is to add a new procedure. This way, company processes form something like sediments, creating substantial landmass after a while. Instead, I try to look for the root cause of the problem. If the problem was caused by not following the current procedure, you don’t need a new one – teach/train the current one and make sure that the reason behind is understood. If the problem is a flaw in the procedure, adapt the procedure – you don’t need a new one. If the procedure itself is wasteful, remove it (*gasp*) – you don’t need a new one. Only in very few cases a new procedure is really needed, and then it should ideally emerge from a successful project.

    So my focus on process is more on refactoring than on adding – this way, company process stays slim. However, to effectively refactor process, you first need to understand what’s there, or else you will break the system. Unfortunately, most reformers do not take the time to really understand the status quo and go for fast change instead – causing the established system to bounce back with a vengeance.

  2. David Bland says:

    Organizations mimic their communication structures.

    The cycle I see that we need to break is this:
    1. Something bad happens.
    2. Create a process to prevent that bad thing from happening again.
    3. Something new bad happens (related or unrelated to the process in #2)
    4. Add another new process to prevent new bad thing from happening
    5. Rinse & repeat for several years
    6. Realize you cannot do anything quickly that meaningfully impacts your customers.

    Edith, all good points and I like how you described it as “effectively refactoring process”.