If you’re employed, you’re likely among the 99% who struggle daily with processes and systems that are broken. From too many hours spent in meetings to mandated "proprietary tools" that don’t actually lead to better work, they can throw a wrench into the day, the week, the month. They made sense to some smart someone(s) when they were created, originally intended to do awesome things like get to better solutions, save time and money, bring order to chaos. They helped solve problems until they became the problem. And now it’s in like cement—the thing that can’t be challenged because the CEO put it in place or it’s what the client is used to. It’s just the way it is—another unpleasant, unchallenged reality like rush hour traffic and high ratings for Honey Boo Boo.
To most of us, the idea of disrupting the status quo would never occur. It looks for all the world impossible to blow it up, and we don’t feel empowered to do anything about it anyway. "Who am I to challenge it"? So time-wasting, mediocrity-fuelling, soul-sucking processes just stay in place, in perpetual un-motion. Poised to undermine success, maybe even costing business and good people.
A good leader checks in regularly with the status quo, prepared to stare hard and invest some energy into considering other ways of achieving the objective of the dysfunctional process. The leader doesn’t need to have ‘leader’ printed on a business card—he or she could be a new grad with the huge benefit of fresh eyes.
Recognizing that processes aren’t working, and that they can be reevaluated by anyone—yes, even you—is half the battle. The person fearful of being seen as a troublemaker in actuality has the get-out-of-jail-free card when better work is the motive for their challenge. When there’s a compelling case made for the need for change and a better idea is laid out, employers can have surprisingly open minds. And no boss is actually trying to perpetuate barriers to success.
One group we worked with recently turned up a badly broken process seconds after being asked, "What’s standing between you and your best work?" It was explained with heads in hands; this couldn’t be changed. These senior people were spending most of their daylight hours in meetings. They described the hours after 6 p.m. and weekends as the only time they were actually doing their "real" job. How did this become an acceptable daily routine? At what cost?
It didn’t take long to conclude that this was no way to get to the company’s best possible product, or to see that the team was headed towards burnout. Could a damaged client relationship be far behind when less-than-stellar work was the regular outcome? With so much at stake, everyone agreed it was time to get past "it can’t be changed." To take personal responsibility for wrestling the problem to the ground, even though it looked to them to be outside their job descriptions.
We all thought through the root of the problem. Why were there so many freaking meetings? Why was this group accepting all the meeting invites? ("We have no choice.") They agreed that the motivation of the meeting makers was reasonable: to share status on complex projects, to document progress and anticipate problems. The fatal flaw was the means of achieving their objectives. "Lots of meetings" had become the entrenched, unexamined routine that all sides bought into as "normal." The struggling team members had always had the choice to say, "I’m not coming," or to challenge the need, but they couldn’t see that. It had become auto-pilot. And for all the time spent around a boardroom table, they had relatively little to show for it. "Productive" wasn’t how anyone would’ve described the tower of meeting hours.
Getting to a better way started with crafting a persuasive story about the price being paid for the habit. No one had ever painted a picture of a group of senior people spending most of their days not producing work. Nor of the human cost: strained relationships at work and at home, poor morale, burnout. In surprisingly little time, the team was able to create a new process that meant a much smaller daily window for meetings. They proposed set hours with no exceptions. By approaching their leaders and co-workers with a well-considered, vivid picture of the problem and the consequences, followed by a clear, simple solution complete with a blueprint to implement it, they found a receptive audience. Far from trying to block it, the plan was accepted virtually instantly. There would be no penalty for coming forward with a better way. Only weeks later one of the team members told us, "I got 60% of my time back to focus on the work."
Here’s a little how-to for what we fondly call the Un-process. You can use it with a small group of co-workers (or a big one for that matter) to evaluate whatever system is broken, and create a better one. (A diverse group is always best—younger, older, men, women, various disciplines. Ideally, include someone far away from the problem.)
- List the perceived benefits of the existing process or system. ("It’s designed to save time and money.")
- List the actual outcomes that are negative. ("It actually adds time and doesn’t lead to good outcomes. People resent using it, they feel handcuffed.")
- Ask yourselves, are the costs outweighing the benefits?
If the answer to 3 is "yes," the team should then list all the reasons the process is still in place and challenge the legitimacy of those reasons. "It’s how it’s always been done,’" for instance, won’t hold up in a group discussion when the result is lost time and money. Almost nothing stands up to that, even "The CEO came up with it."
Having taken these steps, give yourselves just 10 minutes to create new ways of achieving the goals of the broken system. It sounds counter-intuitive, but the really interesting thing you’ll discover is that with intense time pressure to solve the near-impossible problem, ideas fly. The lack of time rules out premature editing and over-thinking, two big creativity killers. The power of quick collaboration helps to catapult past the personal "can’t." At Swim, we’ve yet to see even one group fail to have promising new ideas using this exercise. At the very least it’s a big first step in a better direction.
It sounds so easy. Well, it is. Make a date to rock the boat. In the time it takes to get through the line at Starbucks you could stop the madness.
Nancy Vonk and Janet Kestin are the cofounders of Swim, a creative leadership training lab that works with people in advertising, marketing, technology, and beyond to create fearless leaders. They were previously the co-chief creative officers of Ogilvy Toronto, the agency behind Dove "Evolution" and other famous work for Shreddies, Maxwell House, and others. Their career-long involvement in mentoring, teaching, and training resulted in Pick Me, an advice book for advertising professionals based on their popular blog, Ask Jancy. They are currently writing a business book on women, life, and work for Harper Collins.
Read more from Nancy and Janet: Why Saying No Is Key To Your Long-Term Success.