A matter of gravity

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Gravity, according to Sir Isaac Newton, is a force. Einstein’s general relativity describes it as curvature of the space/time continuum.

In the world of business, process is a matter of some gravity, and not only in the sense that it’s important. Gravity is why maintaining a healthy level of process so difficult.

With process, as with garlic, Vitamin A, and Will Farrell, more is not necessarily better. All, Will Farrell excepted, are examples of moderation being the right target.

Imagine an organization with no sense of process. It’s the ultimate results-oriented environment. Employees “do what makes sense,” based on the exact circumstances each faces, their mood, training, experience, and how each did a similar piece of work yesterday. The organization has no institutional memory, no consistency, and little ability to learn and improve.

Call it chaos.

Now imagine a different organization — one with lots of process. There’s a process for accepting work, for setting priorities, for determining how each and every task and responsibility is to be performed, and how to build a salad from the salad bar in the cafeteria. In this organization, employees don’t really evaluate situations. They mostly apply whichever policy or procedure seems least likely to get them into trouble. All that matters is following the steps. Results are the last thing on their minds.

It’s both the definition and root cause of bureaucracy.

Neither chaos nor bureaucracy is a desirable state for an organization. They are, however, desirable states for different sorts of employee.

Chaos is fun, exciting, and unpredictable — enjoyable for those with a sense of adventure and a low boredom threshold. Too bad it doesn’t work all that well once the work expands to a point where more than three people have to handle similar responsibilities.

Bureaucracy is stifling, choking, and delivers poor results, but for employees who don’t like to take risks and like coloring inside the lines it’s safe and secure. It has, however, the unfortunate downside of putting the entire business at risk.

Which is where gravity comes into the picture. Except that unlike physical gravity, which results from the curvature of space and time that occurs in the presence of mass, organizational gravity results from the curvature of preference that occurs in the presence of a mass of like-minded employees.

You can visualize the situation as a hill. The two plains flanking it on either side are chaos and bureaucracy. The peak in the middle is a healthy level of process that helps employees work more effectively while allowing them the flexibility they need to adapt to different circumstances.

If you, as a process-oriented sort of person, want to institute this moderate level of process in a chaotic organization you’ll be fighting gravity all the way. To the employees who enjoy things the way they are, you’re trying to make their work more bureaucratic and they’ll resist. Were you to stop pushing the organization up the process hill, gravity would pull it back down to chaos.

But you persist, and finally reach the top of the hill, achieving the optimum level of process moderation. You are to be congratulated — not many managers achieve this transformation. And so, satisfied, you rest.

At which point gravity takes over, pulling the organization down the other slope of the hill, turning it into a bureaucratic quagmire.

The same dynamic takes over if you start from the other side, too. Bureaucracy busting is hard and thankless (but worthwhile) work as anyone who has tried to do it will tell you. It can be done but it requires relentless attention, boundless energy, and usually a change in personnel as well.

If you push the organization up the process hill in this direction, to try to get it back into balance, you’ll also end up fighting gravity: Stop for just a few moments and it will roll right back down. Bureaucracies are notoriously self-perpetuating.

Whether you start with chaos or bureaucracy, if you stop too early the organization will fall back to where you started. Push too long, on the other hand, and it will keep on rolling, down the other side, to an end-state that’s just as undesirable as the one you started with.

As is so often the case, maintaining a sense of balance, which is the most desirable place to be, also requires the most ongoing effort and attention. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s due to gravity.

It’s built into the space/time continuum.

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