On Process and Innovation

Understanding process is a difficult proposition in itself; understanding process as it applies to the effective management of business and Information Technology can be even more challenging; understanding not only the connection between process and innovation, but how to harness process to foster innovation, can seem thoroughly daunting. Fortunately, a systematic and logical approach to understanding both process and innovation, as well as the relationship between them, yields tremendous insight that can be applied to the vision and strategy of any organization seeking to break away and become a formidable leader in its industry.

At a cursory level, process and innovation appear to be mutually exclusive; process is traditionally (and incorrectly) looked upon as a means to constrain and enforce conformity, whereas innovation is viewed in a more idealistic manner, conjuring images of boundless creativity and inventiveness. In reality, process is neither the enemy of innovation, nor is innovation the enemy of process; the two are actually complementary, and not only can a foundation of effective process enable innovation, but innovation can also be leveraged to produce more effective processes.

It helps to understand what process really is in order to envision how process serves as a facilitator of innovation. Conversely, it also helps to understand what innovation entails to ensure that its objectives and scope are not only achievable, but worth pursuing. Process, in its most beautifully simple definition by Dr. Michael Hammer, is “end-to-end work that produces something of value.” Process is not a focus on individual components of the work effort; while components may be critical to a specific process, their value is derived collectively and not individually. The organization of work and the explicit specification of inputs, outputs, roles, responsibilities, dependencies, and sequencing is what The Mikan Group collectively defines as process management.

Innovation is, contrary to potential preconceived definitions, the introduction of a new way of doing something.  Innovation may include new ideas, systems, or techniques, or it may just be a new interpretation of existing knowledge. While this definition of innovation may not be as sexy as thoughts of unbridled discovery and invention, it is nonetheless important to comprehend if the goal is to improve the way an organization innovates or leverages innovation.

When an organization runs on a framework of well managed processes, the people involved in a process are part of something greater than themselves. While an employee might only perform a minor function within the context of a given process, if that process is well designed and well managed, the employee shares in the responsibility for the execution of the entire process and has an understanding of not only her specific contribution, but of the contribution of all employees involved in the process. By understanding what is required to achieve a shared objective and to provide exceptional value on an end-to-end basis, any member of a process has the power (and the responsibility) to ensure that the process is performing at an optimal level; this is where innovation can be used to improve the effectiveness of a process. Any member of a cross-functional process team can contribute aptitude and functional expertise to the design and execution of the process to enhance the value that the process provides; this is innovation at its core – a new way of doing something that improves the output of the entire process.

While well designed and managed processes naturally lend themselves to innovation within the context of the processes themselves, they also enable innovation by eliminating the activities performed by the workforce that do not add value to the organization. These activities may include: Non-value-adding work itself, duplicating work effort due to a lack of visibility into poorly designed processes, wasting time traversing disparate functional silos, performing tasks in an ad hoc and unplanned manner (most commonly connected with an IT “firefighting” culture), or managing the unnecessary complexity of a mass of disconnected moving pieces.

Minimizing distractions and non-value-added work frees up bandwidth and energy; allocating this liberated bandwidth and energy to work performed in support of well designed and managed processes results not only in increased productivity and value, but in increased focus and agility. Focused workers are able to recognize when conditions need to change or are about to change, and agile workers are able to rapidly adapt to changing conditions; a focused and agile workforce sees opportunity in change and adjusts the way it works in a disciplined and effective manner.

As a focused and agile workforce matures, so do its processes; in time, mature organizations stop reacting and start anticipating. Now the relationship between process and innovation becomes abundantly clear: When organizations are able to anticipate change, they are able to find news ways to work – in other words, innovate – in preparation for the expected change. As this cycle perpetuates, innovation becomes ingrained in the processes themselves, and innovation becomes part of the fabric of the culture. An organization with innovation in its blood has long since leveled the playing field – by this point it is dominating the game.

Mike Topalovich Salesforce Technical Architect in Chicago
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Mike Topalovich

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