Finding the Right Balance Between Standard Processes and Variation

Women considering yes, no, maybe optionsI was playing Solitaire on a flight recently and was struck by how much I like developing and following standardized processes, yet how likely I am to vary from a process when I think it’s appropriate.

The trouble is this tendency can be particularly confusing and frustrating to others—especially employees! “Hey! You told me to do that, and I did it, and now you’re telling me I should have done…” or “Hey! I just followed the process…”

Well, sometimes you need to stray from the process. The challenge is articulating when, and why, and encouraging risk-taking. Because, let’s face it, sometimes you shouldn’t stray from the process.

For instance, when I play Solitaire I have a “system” I generally use and I try to use it consistently. It’s just how I am.  So, I always pull cards from the dealt piles and not the deck when there are two options available, and I always work from left to right.

Except when I don’t.

And there’s the rub.

So, when I was playing Solitaire on my recent flight, I had a king on the far left, a queen (with no cards under it) next and a queen with three cards under it in the next position. No other kings.

I almost moved the first queen to create a “bare spot” but then thought—hmm, no, I’d rather find out what’s under that other queen, and since I don’t have a king in the deal and none showing (and none up in recent memory), it seemed like an appropriate move.

So I moved the queen with the card underneath. Made perfect sense to me, but even now as I try to explain it in this blog I struggle to convey the logic behind it. It was I think, the right thing to do. And not having any strategy when playing Solitaire, running a business or even running a household is, I think, unwise.

Yet, we all need to have the ability to determine when it’s appropriate to stray from the process.

The trouble is how do you convey that to others?

My challenge as a manager, and now as a consultant, lies in explaining to others how/why I make the decisions/choices I make. They tend to be good decisions and I believe they’re based on logic, but I recognize that to others who are “outside my brain” they may seem capricious or a “leap of faith.” I struggle to find ways to explain why the things that seem so clear to me may not be so clear to others.

There is no such thing as “black and white” when it comes to making most decisions. There are always shades of gray. Yet I believe that following standard processes is important. Still, there is certainly a need to be innovative and to consider—and make—exceptions when appropriate.

The challenge, of course, is defining—and communicating—what “when appropriate” means.

Some random thoughts:

  • Employees must be given the leeway to *not* follow standard operating procedures at times (when safety, laws, etc. are not at risk of being compromised).
  • We need to take the time to learn from these exceptions and to document *why* the exception was appropriate so that the exception becomes part of the new process.
  • We can’t “ignore the rules,” but sometimes an exception proves to be the “right” thing to do.
  • As leaders sometimes we need to “talk it out” with employees, to lead by example and to work through both process and variation to find the best approaches to achieving our shared objectives.

In life there are rarely any real “absolutes.” Finding a balance between standardized process and variation is important so that even the most proven processes can be improved through variation. Isn’t that what innovation is all about?


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