Last week, I hosted an extravagant dinner party for the most important people and processes in my life.
The seating chart was far and away the most complicated part of the preparation—On one side I had all the people over the past 20 years of my process career who told me that I care too much about people, that it’s not personal, it’s business, that I laugh too much, and that I am too sensitive to ever be successful. They told me in different ways to stop being me. I love this group of people. It is both their beliefs and their doubts that help fuel my endless pursuit of excellence.
Across from them I sat the most curious, present, mindful, and emotionally intelligent people I know. I love this group of people too. They’ve whispered to me over and over—even yelled—“keep going” and I have listened. And what about the processes?
Should I seat the most utterly complex process at the same table as the die-hard minimalist flow? What about that process that is lighting up my world right now—how would yesterday’s favorite feel asking them to pass the butter? Would the predictable processes eagerly exchange business cards with those spontaneous, risk-loving processes?
As I was asking all these fine people and processes to raise their glasses in a toast, I heard one of the servers ask another server, “Hey, what is process work anyway?” Perfect timing for me to tee up the most obvious of toasts: “Process work is people work. Cheers!”
Process work is people work.
What Is “People Work”?
To be of service to the guests at the party—and be a proper host—I decided to serve up some helpful guidance on the nature of “people work.” If people work doesn’t require us to care, to be personal, and to be sensitive in order to be successful, every day, then I don’t know what does. Always remember—what you do matters, but how you do it matters most.
8 Guidelines for Working With People
Many of us have been following the same guidelines for so long that some of these will seem counterintuitive. We default to removing emotion, avoiding feelings, hiding our fear and scolding people for not following rules. But we’re missing out. There’s a wellspring of information—and energy—waiting to be tapped if we take a moment and use the power of inquiry. It’s “People Work.”
1. Update Your Scorecard
When we ask what a good process looks like, we tend to measure “effectiveness” (does what it’s supposed to do), “efficiency” (does it with speed and minimal resources), and “return on investment” (makes you money). Yet, if we ask the actors in a given process to describe the process, they don’t use those types of words at all.
They use language—both verbal and physical—that tells us how the process makes them feel: passionate, energized, valued, frustrated, blamed, underutilized. It is humans that determine how successful a single process will be, and therefore the success of the overall organization. Every business scorecard can and should lead with cultural and human factors—not on page two or three, but having equal footing with dollars and defect rates.
It is humans that determine how successful a single process will be, and therefore the success of the overall organization.
2. Be Emotional
We spend something like 1/3 of our lives at work (gulp). This means we spend decade after decade under incessant pressure to perform. When our processes are stressed, our people are stressed, and vice-versa. Build mindfulness skills and practices into your process design, management, and measurement. Smiles are free, and so are apologies.
Build in skills and practices—expectations!—around personal accountability, self-awareness, the art of receiving feedback, compassion and self-compassion, and all other EI/EQ goodness. Just as continuous process improvement is, well, continuous, so is this type of skill and practice building. Don’t ever let your foot off this process consciousness-building pedal.
3. Reward the Rogue
Can you think of a recent conversation where someone complained about somebody not following the process? A forwarded email where someone whined about someone else’s work-around? A phone call asking you to talk to someone about breaking the process rules?
I call these “Moments of Process Gold” because our fellow humans are giving us free improvements! Free! They are telling us exactly where something isn’t easy or simple enough for them to be successful. Instead of complaining or penalizing each other, simply smile at their invention, and say “thank you.” Then, get curious as fast as you can and get improving even faster.
4. Beware Overallocation and Underutilization
You’re busy. I’m busy. We all have more to do than can ever get done. This state of “overallocation” is an unsustainable risk for you and everyone else working on your processes alongside you. So, stop it. Right now.
A bigger risk is one we don’t often name or talk about, and that is underutilization. Specifically, underutilizing each other’s hearts, knowledge, skills, and abilities. How many times have you seen a consultant called in to do process work that you could do yourself if given the chance? That’s a gut punch.
To know whether someone is being utilized to their fullest potential, we need to first understand what that potential is. To answer that, we need to understand the whole person and not just the bits and pieces we think we know. We should be asking each other what we want to be when we grow up, reading each other’s resumes, telling stories and sharing hard-earned process lessons from previous work-lives. We should ask others their opinions and to teach us something—every day.
Don’t ever get so busy or so comfortable that you mistakenly confuse busy with satisfied—for others, or for yourself. Major league players will only take farm-team assignments for so long.
A bigger risk is one we don’t often name or talk about, and that is underutilization. Specifically, underutilizing each other’s hearts, knowledge, skills, and abilities.
5. Simply Being Good at Something Doesn’t Mean You Should Do It
This was my first hard-earned lesson as a rising professional. It’s also why I left a company that I loved so deeply that I used to claim I bled in corporate colors. Client after client, I was put on jobs that sure, I could do well, but that felt like I was being pecked to death. I knew I was capable of growing and learning—and failing—faster and further.
The result is a nerdy little homemade quadrant that I have carried ever since. I use it as a decision-making tool for myself and for process programs I have led, for project teams, and for individual process teams. One axis is what you like, what you are curious about, what brings you passion and joy. The other axis is what you’re good at it, what you want to be better at, what makes you feel positively challenged.
Then, you ask questions, listen, and try like hell to ensure that 70%+ of what you do or ask others to do in their performance excellence journeys is in the top right quadrant—like and good at, and want to be better at. The rest can be a spread. We all have to do things we’d rather not, but when that is your whole day, your days are numbered. Be someone who is always growing and learning—working towards your fullest potential. And be someone who makes sure everyone around you is growing and learning in ways that are meaningful to them.
Be someone who is always growing and learning—working towards your fullest potential. And be someone who makes sure everyone around you is growing and learning in ways that are meaningful to them.
6. If You Hire Experts—Let Them Bring Their Expertise to the Table
There may slightly overlap with a couple other items—but, humor me on this soap box. Organizations spend a lot of time and energy, and take a fair share of risk, in who we recruit. Pick any process and look at the people to the left and right of you, they were each hired with care. They were hired for who they already are, and, of course, for their continued potential.
We have the best, and we are growing the best. I beg of us all, therefore, to build the habit of looking for the experts amongst us. Forget the hierarchy and forget the egos. Don’t go external first and don’t go to the same group of trusted thinkers again and again. There are so many minds in immediate proximity. Ask for your internal experts’ help and listen like your success depends on it, because it probably does. I repeat, the expertise and solutions are amongst us.
There is always someone in the room who knows when the experts are or are not there—speak up! When decisions are made, collaborations are progressed, and those who should be in the room are not—you’ve killed something. Hope, trust, passion, pride, and all things “performance.” The overcorrection is to only have the specialists in the room, and that does not work either.
7. Empty the Cup of Fear
The enemy of excellence is fear. You would be a fool to think there isn’t fear inside of your most critical processes. Fear lies inside the status quo and holds success hostage. There’s fear of acknowledging how we wished things worked and there’s fear of process change that wasn’t initiated from within. We fear the “What If” and we fear each other.
The enemy of excellence is fear.
I once held an offsite meeting with some of the finest performance accelerating practitioners I’ve ever had the privilege of leading. I asked everyone to write down their biggest fear—what stood between them and the success they believed possible—and place each note in a cup. I took that cup back to my hotel room and felt like the world’s worst leader when I read the contents.
I thought I had my finger on the pulse. I thought I had been actively asking and listening, and while I did know enough to address fear, these tiny slips of paper were razor sharp. I returned to the meeting and read each fear aloud. The shared purpose in that moment was not to figure out who said what, but to listen, to exercise compassion, and to commit to each other to do better—dramatically better. And so we did.
Be the leader who tips over that “cup of fear.” It’s not easy, so don’t do it alone. Ask for help and don’t qualify or compare fears—if they are real to someone, they are real. Demand a culture that talks about what’s difficult. Demand the tools, training and culture that make it possible to talk about the hard stuff.
8. Stand on the Edge of Something Every Day
Being in constant pursuit of excellence means you are never comfortable—at least not for more than 36 hours or so. There are too many moving parts, unknowns, disruptions, and customers that need us to understand them, predict them, and delight them—every single global second.
Get your adrenaline going, your focus focused, and your creativity flowing by standing on the edge of something every day. I mean literally. Climb a ladder, lean over a balcony, hike to the top of a big rock and turnaround to look down. Lean over the end of the fishing pier, climb to the top bunk of your kid’s bed, scramble up that old oak tree, and find somewhere that feels like you are literally on the edge because you (safely!) are.
Remember that this feeling is what you love and why you work so hard. Otherwise, “The Grind” will grab you by the ankle and hang you out to dry. Be the person who says, “Hey, come stand next to me and check this out.” Invite your process team and fellow adventurists-in-excellence onto that edge. Then, bring those swirls of energy straight back to your drawing boards and do even greater things together. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Back to the Party
Back to my extravagant process dinner party. Somewhere between the “process work is people work” toast and the serving of the dairy-free, gluten-free chocolate lava cake—hey, process people have their requirements, too—it became clear why us process die-hards do what we do. We all want to make a tangible, forever difference. We want to leave things better than when we found them. We are a curious, stubborn, motley group of sometimes-loud sometimes-quiet optimists.