Processes not things

Yesterday I said that trying to find a ‘solution’ to the problems that confront our world was like looking for a shade of light that our eyes cannot see. Or like trying to detect something that our bodies cannot sense a field (like an electric or magnetic field). And I also noticed that in sitting down to write about it, I felt myself under pressure to come up with ‘the answer’, instantly.

Finding ‘the answer’ in a single post is obviously ridiculous. And yet the pressure was there.

It must be something cultural — something I have picked up in my thinking along the way. Could that be part of ‘the problem’?

Our culture certainly does contain the idea of ‘the silver bullet’ that will defeat the werewolf. The crucifix or clove of garlic that will hold back the vampire. The talisman. The quick fix. The miracle cure. The magic wand. The elixir. The hero. These are all examples in our consciousness of expecting a single item, an object, a thing, to overcome and defeat a range of circumstance.

But the reality, surely, is that it is only the process of writing this blog that has any chance of uncovering what I am looking for. It is only the process of writing this blog that can hope to uncover insights that will help us to move forward.

Our language tricks us. It teaches us to think about a ‘yellow plastic duck’, even though reality is that the duck itself is not actually yellow.

The same language tricks us into thinking about processes as if they are objects.

We say “I am writing a blog” as if a blog were a thing. In a sense it is. But the thing that is useful about a blog is the process of engaging with it — both for the writer, and the reader.

We say that “Love is a many splendoured thing.” But love is a process, an interaction, a relationship — not a thing.

The world is littered with processes that our language talks about as if they were things: a river; a tree; an aeroplane.

In business we talk about a ‘product’ and that stops us dead. The product is a fixed object in our minds. But if we think of it as a ‘service’ then we can start to think about the process by which the customer uses the product. That instantly gives us the opportunity to improve.

If we focus on the process that the customer goes through when she uses the product (or her experience when she uses the service) then we can easily look for ways to make it easier to use, more user-friendly to operate. We can then add functionality that we didn’t realise was needed before (and remove functionality that doesn’t get used). We might realise that there are different groups of customers who use the ‘product’ in different ways, and that allows us to bring out different versions, each better-tailored to their particular customer group.

We can think about the process by which the customer goes about choosing the product, and add better packaging or choose different ‘channels to market’. If we think in terms of process then we will turn retail shopping into more of an ‘experience’, while online shopping will become more focused around customers who are looking for a buying process that is time-efficient. (And we might design an auction process on e-bay as something that provides both.)

And if we think about the process of what happens to the product when it breaks down, or after it is finished with, then we can shift our focus on the customer’s ‘whole life cost’. And we can think about whether a product that is finished with goes on to become pollution, or a raw material for a new product/process.

Thinking in terms of process empowers us. Thinking in terms of things fixes us in the way things are.

The same thinking can be applied to people. People are processes too. I am not the same person now as I was when I was six years old. Or sixteen. Or twenty-six. We change as we grow older. Organisations that facilitate that change can gain more support.

General Motors famously realised that its customers wanted different vehicles as they grew older. We take it for granted now that car companies provide a range of models, but General Motors’ was the first to provide a range of models that gave the different levels of comfort and functionality that people needed as their lives changed as they grew older. As a result of this innovation they overtook the incumbent Ford Motor Company.

Employees are ‘processes’ too. Companies that think about their employees’ needs for career development and work-life balance, for example, find themselves being voted ‘best company to work for’, which then helps the firm attract the best talent.

We can see the world around us as being filled with processes, or things.

Seeing a world filled with things allows us to dominate and control them at any one moment in time.

Seeing a world filled with processes allows us to innovate and change.

More on this tomorrow.

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