Meaning vs process

One of the business world’s biggest faults in recent years has been it’s obsession with following processes over making meaning for customers and staff.

I’m not talking about those hippy-trippy sort of things like brand purpose or Simon Sinek’s “starting with why”. Rather I’m talking about taking the meaning from what people want to do and facilitate that in the simplest way possible.

That’s particularly true when you consider that many of the most important things in life don’t lend themselves to a process terribly well.

If you want to know how much tax you owe the government, you need a process and some rules. No question.

But what about if you want to make a customer feel valued, or a member of staff feel motivated, or a member of your management team feel safe enough to speak up to express a different opinion to the boss? There’s not a process in the world that does any of those things.

Of course, you can build in some elements of process if you want. You can start your marketing emails with “Dear Valued Customer” instead of “Dear Customer”. You can make sure your staff comms team puts out a weekly newsletter with happy, smiley pictures in it. You can tell your management team till you’re blue in the face as often as you like.

But, except among the perpetually naive, nobody pays those much attention or believes them even if they notice them. It rarely does any harm, but you’re scratching at the surface at best when you use processes in the hope that will get your meaning across.

Instead you need to demonstrate a pattern of behaviour consistent with the meaning you want to create and people will get on board remarkably quickly.

Want customers to know they’re valued? Introduce them to a new potential customer for their business. Then they’ll know you care enough about them to do something for which you derive no personal benefit from doing so.

Want staff to feel motivated? Demonstrate you trust them by not tying them up in bureaucratic rules and nit-picking management approaches. Then they’ll be motivated to see what positive attributes they can bring to play for the benefit of your business in the time they would otherwise have spent complaining about it.

Want your managers to feel safe to speak up? Have a special “challenger of the month” award with a trophy and a bottle of champagne to demonstrate how much you appreciate people presenting different points of view. Make a big fuss of them and make sure they get treated well in pay reviews.

Most people you deal with are, one way or another, looking for meaning, which is an emotional connection of some sort. When we respond with a clinical process of some description where we expect our staff to behave like robots we’re just not going anywhere near the part of the brain that creates emotional responses.

We might have ensured that nothing terrible happens, we might have minimised any potential downside. But we haven’t tapped into the positive side in the slightest.

When it comes to conveying meaning, the old 80/20 rule applies. 20% of it at most (and usually a lot less in practice) is about the process. 80% of it is how what you do makes someone feel…and if that’s not right, no amount of process can put it right.

What’s more, processes are expensive to administer. They need someone to design a process, track it, manage it, report on it, improve on it…the list goes on. Processes are a lot less efficient than they appear because of all the extra overhead that comes with them.

Published by Alastair Thomson

An experienced Finance Director and CFO for businesses ranging from start-ups to FTSE/NYSE quoted multinationals, Alastair has also served in CEO, Chairman and Non-Executive Director roles. Sector experience includes marketing, manufacturing, financial services, utilities, printing, direct mail fulfilment, contact centres, professional membership bodies, education and training.

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