TBM 205: "Process" vs. Systems & Habits
Sunday morning musings…
Team A writes a 1-pager as part of a heavyweight annual planning process. No 1-pager, no budget. Hurry! Hurry! The leadership team has a hundred 1-pagers to review! Be first in line! What have you got? Does this fall into investment bucket 1 or 2? Hurry!
Team B writes 1-pagers to workshop and shape ideas. They do this all the time, not just when leadership makes an ask. People read carefully and provide thoughtful feedback. The 1-pagers reference stable strategic pillars known across the organization—a strong foundation. The team opts to "pass" on most 1-pagers, but when they do commit, it is with high resolve and excitement. Team B keeps its honest 12-month roadmap up to date and can answer "what would you do with more funding?" at the drop of a dime—anytime. But they do that mostly for themselves. It helps their work.
See the difference?
Team A's process is not customer-centric. Imagine a customer peeking in on the annual planning process and seeing all of this performative rushing, writing, and box-checking. What would they think? Team A's leadership team sees this as a necessary evil—"it sucks; that's why we can only do it once a year!" Team A probably views this as "administrative overhead" and jokes that the whole plan will fall apart in two months anyway.
All in all, it's institutionalized mediocrity.
Team B’s process is “just how they work.” It is valuable, not one-sided. It is part of their work culture. They probably don’t even call it process (despite there being sequences of things they do).
But let's dig deeper.
Team A (and their company) exists in a wicked loop. They have no incentive to keep their house in order because top-down, reactive changes will mess everything up anyway. Why spend time being thoughtful when no one reads these things anyway? Why spend time agreeing on stable input metrics when they're told to Build X? Why do learning reviews when teams must jump to their next project? Why have a strategy when the strategy is dictated and overruled? "Oh, and have you seen our calendars? Who has time for this 'thinking' stuff?"
Meanwhile, imagine you are in the C-suite of Team A's company. I can guarantee someone is saying something like:
Well, I'm not sure Team A has a strategy, and they're immature. So we will have to provide one!
It is a sticky problem. Without a strategy, Team A is flailing. Yet, they are experiencing pragmatic learned helplessness and learned futility. Why have one if it will be overruled? Why work 80hr weeks to do "business as usual" AND "all of that good stuff no one cares about"?
Team B, on the other hand, benefits from layers of positive habits. They are likely to say things like:
Writing is just how we work.
We have our system, and there aren't many surprises.
We have our share of problems, but things mostly get fixed over time.
We have our way, and we keep adapting it.
People are generally clued in.
Team B has invested the time to build positive habits and establish a system. They run their team like a mini-business—designed to be autonomous yet aligned with the company. Sure, sometimes they get top-down "asks", but those are the exception and not the rule.
Importantly, when they DO need to adapt their approach, the delta is small—they can incrementally improve instead of withstanding a large-scale reactive shift. Team A, meanwhile, is caught in a perpetual reactivity with no incentive to improve. Realistically, it would take A LOT of work to get to where Team B is, and they don't have the support to make that leap.
The upshot? You have to figure out how to break the loop and establish human-centric systems and helpful/valuable habits.
In most companies, the burden falls on newly hired leaders expected to fix the train while it is barreling down the tracks. "If Team A had a strategy, then we wouldn't have needed to do all this! Oh, and you also need to fix all the morale problems, fix broken systems, manage up, and in the meantime, participate in all the heavy-handed process hoops we've set up!" Yes, this is doable, but only in sporadic cases. Many skilled leaders brought in to fix a team have lost this game.
Those who make progress typically figure out how to persuade people (including their managers) to slow down to speed up. You can only build positive habits when your team has bandwidth. We can't solve these problems with big-bang offsites only to return to "business as usual" the next day.
No, you need a prolonged commitment to establishing the proactive systems and habits necessary for better ways of working.
And that’s the difference between reactive, non-value-add “process” and effective ways of working.
The post we all need John. The inability to differentiate processes vs systems is so prevalent. And it goes both ways - legit systems often fail to launch because they’re naively perceived as “process” by folks who haven’t seen the difference.
Nice post; it reminds me of this quote.
You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems. — James Clear