• 01 Mar 2017
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  • Paul Michelman
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Do You Diagnose What Goes Right?

Originally published by the MIT Sloan Management Review February 22, 2017

It’s necessary to review failures to determine where a process went wrong — but don’t overlook the lessons that success has to offer.

“Is it the shoes?”

That’s the question director Spike Lee ponders in a classic series of Nike Air Jordan commercials in the late 1980s and early 1990s in which Lee, playing the fictional Mars Blackmon, considers the mysteries behind the gravity-defying greatness of basketball player Michael Jordan.

And thus Lee points to one of the most persistent, frustrating, and important questions a manager faces: “Is it the person, the tools, or the process?”

Sadly, we are usually asking the question in the negative: Is this thing that went wrong the person’s fault, the tool’s fault, or the process’s fault? Or, more likely, how much of it was the person versus the tool versus the process?

Humans are difficult that way. It’s hard enough to understand what makes one of us tick when we are alone in an empty room. Give us a hammer and a project plan, and the possible causes for a failure become infinite. Then cloud the analysis in a haze of pressure and disappointment, and the barriers to arriving at clear answers become that much greater.

Of course, organizations need to be up for the challenge; when things go awry, we have a responsibility to diagnose the causes. But we may find that answering the question, “What went wrong?” becomes just a little easier if we have already addressed a different question: “What goes right — and why?”

Think of a process in your organization that works well, the first thing that comes to mind. For me, it’s the production of digital content for the MIT SMR website. Our digital-production value chain includes up to seven different human beings, five different tools, and up to 15 different process steps. Time to market for an individual piece of content can range from as few as three days to stretching over several months. It works well. And, shame on me, I’d never thought to ask why.

But analyze it I now have, and here is what I have learned.

First, the process is mostly transparent. We plan a pipeline of content that is stored in a document accessible by the key participants. We track each content item’s progress on a shared project management platform. The few times we encounter bumps, a lack of information sharing is almost always at fault.

Second, our processes are well-documented. Each step in the digital publishing chain is well-understood by all participants and is easy to follow.

Third, we are using tools that fit the process. We employ a combination of spreadsheets, project management software, and editing and web publishing tools that address our digital publishing requirements. The tools are lightweight and flexible.

Fourth, we understand and respect the interdependencies. All participants are clear on their role in the process and how the ways they carry out their role impacts others.

Fifth, it is essentially leaderless. Our digital production chain operates as a bucket brigade in which all participants have equal footing.

Sixth, the talents, attitudes, and communication styles of each participant is suited to our role in the process. To borrow a concept from the management author Jim Collins, we have the right people on the bus, and they are sitting in the right seats. A successful digital publishing process requires a specific combination of technical abilities, yes — but also a commitment to cooperate, to flex when needed, to solve problems on the fly, and to communicate actively. We are lucky to have a team in which such attributes are in abundance.

My analysis is unscientific, incomplete, and perhaps even obvious. But the six drivers I have identified give me a starting point to understand successful processes in my organization. More so, I have made it a priority to identify and understand the components of process success rather than waiting to dissect a failure. And only more good can come from that.

No, Mars, it’s not the shoes.

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