Battling The Blob

Left to natural evolution, new processes can balloon to ridiculous and unmanageable proportions.

“The new approval process is completely overboard!” the Project Manager proclaimed.

I was skeptical and suspected this was just pushback against change. Eight months earlier this firm had revamped their process for evaluating capital projects and making presentations to senior management. Given the large dollar amounts and complex decisions they dealt with I felt the new expectations were reasonable.

I asked the Project Manager for specific examples of expectations that were unreasonable. Instead of pointing to the process’s written guidelines, he pulled out a stack of recent proposal packages and I knew something was afoot. When arranged chronologically, the size of these packages was rapidly increasing!

Heard It Through The Grapevine

It didn’t take long to understand what was happening. The new process had generated plenty of unease among Project Managers. Fearing they might miss something important, they sought advice from their peers – those who had already recently secured approval for their projects under the new process.

The unintended consequence of this peer-to-peer sharing was that an informal list of ‘best practices’ was growing by leaps and bounds. The first projects followed the new guidelines closely. Occasionally, an unusual situation warranted some additional work. This wasn’t a problem – until their proposal was passed to others as a good example to follow.

The next Project Manager followed that example to a tee, but then added their own extra work to reflect unique circumstances of the new project. Like the movie monster, The Blob, the process was growing by absorbing everything it touched. As you can imagine, it took only a few generations of projects until the current ‘gold standard’ they passed around contained every prior tool employed to date, most of which were completely unnecessary for the projects!

Preventing Process Creep

There are two solid defenses against process creep when implementing new expectations for capital evaluation and approval:

  1. Expert Guidance: Assign an expert resource who advises Project Managers on what is and isn’t applicable. This can defuse the anxiety that temps managers to include everything, “just in case.”
  2. Executive Feedback: Decision makers typically praise good work and point out gaps. Less common, however, are comments on which components were unnecessary. Hearing this from the decision maker himself/herself carries even greater impact than the expert resource.

Our natural tendency when faced with uncertainty is to compensate by doing more. Folks need ongoing guidance of both what is needed as well as what isn’t needed.

© Dave Wittenberg

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