Process Over Outcome

Consider a group that is attempting to create organizational or political change. I typically see the leaders of these groups take one of two approaches.

The first is to get a bunch of like minded people together in an attempt to “make things happen”. These types of groups mostly agree on what needs to be done. But this approach often suffers from two problems.

First, there are other groups of stakeholders who may not agree that the proposed solution is the right one. Since most situations like this require buy-in from many different stakeholders, this lack of buy-in dooms the solution to failure. Second, even when the group does have the ability to “ram through” their solution without securing broad support, their solution is often missing key perspectives or makes invalid assumptions, which render their solution ineffective.

The second approach is to bring a diverse set of stakeholders together and attempt to get alignment. This approach addresses the problems above but often runs into its own challenges. In many cases each faction has their own favored solution that they “know” is the right one; each group is just waiting to take the floor so they can explain why their solution is the one that will work. Groups may question the motives of the other groups and trust can often be strained.

The Power of Process

The power of the scientific method is that – at least nominally – scientists are not wedded to a specific “answer” but instead are aligned by their agreement on a fundamental process: they agree on a set of methods and processes for determining what is true.

It seems like this would be a better approach to change management as well. Rather than starting by trying to agree on a solution, start by getting agreement on the process by which we will arrive at a solution.

Note that in some cases this approach might mean using a different set of criteria for who is invited into the group. Perhaps it might mean splitting folks into two different groups: a content group who are experts in a given area or representatives of a given constituency, and a process group whose job it is to take the information provided by the content group and use it to inform their process.

Getting key stakeholders in each group to agree to a process achieves two things. It negates any specific emotions or biases that the group might have for or against a given outcome. And it creates psychological commitment to a process, making it more likely that they will agree to the results of the process, regardless of outcome.

This approach does have downsides. First, it requires that each party is willing to give up its “known” solution. It would be naive to think think that ego and self-interest aren’t often at play in these situations. But through a combination of reasonableness and peer-pressure (who wouldn’t want to follow a logical process to get to an answer? *wink*), perhaps these dynamics can be mitigated. Second, because the parties must first agree on a process rather than jumping straight into the content, this approach can seemingly take longer. Of course the only time measure that matters is the time to achieve the desired outcome. And I’d argue that this approach will lead to better outcomes more quickly.

Getting alignment is never easy. Nor is designing solutions that work. But it seems like focusing on process over outcome might help.

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