I wrote elsewhere that the hierarchical structures of the industrial-age command and control organizations is outdated and we should replace it with networks of multi-disciplinary cells of individuals functioning as dynamic ‘swarms’, spontaneously combining their skills to respond to the challenges of work life. I also wrote that organizations should be process driven, i.e., have their responses guided by simple and clear practices, common to everyone, guiding behavior and fostering coherence.
Now: dynamic ‘swarms’ of individuals spontaneously figuring out how to solve problems sounds somewhat chaotic, doesn’t it? Business processes on the other hand, albeit simple and elegant, are by nature structured and they do establish ways of doing things and thereby impose constraints on what people do. For that matter, clearly established roles are equally constraining. So, here’s the question: are these two philosophies of how to organize work contradictory? Or are they complementary? Do they reinforce one another or are they mutually exclusive?
The answer is: they are complimentary and they do reinforce one another. Swarms are indeed chaotic but chaos doesn’t mean anarchy. Processes are structured but they can – and should – be focused on what needs to be done and more importantly how diverse actions affect one another and not on how things are done.
Spontaneous Association as a form of response by skilled individuals is the greatest weapon of responsiveness and speed for any business. Processes are essential to insure coherence. And there is a clear metaphor that helps understand how these two very different forms work well together to create an Enterprise that is nimble, responsive and highly adaptable but at the same time predictable and focused on specific goals.
Here’s the metaphor that reconciles processes with chaos: in very practical terms, in daily business life, there are things that happen as they should; and then there are things that shouldn’t have happened. Business processes (and the information systems that support them) are great for the part of the world that happens as it should; but in the business reality of things that shouldn’t happen, Spontaneous Association is the most effective way of mobilizing individuals to respond to daily issues.
The two elements of organization behavior work very well together: processes provide a framework of common principles that drive consistency and compliance with the rules of the trade; SA liberates the ability that individuals have to improvise together and instantiate the best way to get things done in an unexpected situation. Without processes, chaos would be anarchy. With processes, chaos becomes coherent and speed accompanies predictability.
In today’s world of persistent, perpetual change, unexpected events becoming the majority and ‘things going according to plan’ a fleeting minority. The idea of business processes was developed and promoted by Michaell Hammer in the early nineties as a way to move away from functional organizations and achieve greater flexibility. But they are primarily a prescription for work and, like anything that people can design, processes describe the desirable, the “should happen”. Nobody spends time in a room designing the way things shouldn’t happen – that would be an oxymoron. Processes define and reinforce how things should be.
But what should be done about the “shouldn’t happen”, particularly in our times of change where this is a major problem to organizations?