Friday, April 20, 2012

O, The Exquisite Agony That Is Workflow (In Government Or Anywhere)


So lately I've been thinking about the exquisite pain that is document generation, collaboration and final approval in the typical organization. 

(While I work for the government I now, I cut my teeth on this problem in the private sector, so it is not only a "Beltway bureaucracy" thing.) 

To continue the dental metaphor, one wonders why we put ourselves through the equivalent of root canal every single day. 

When you hear that a new policy has to be generated, or sent around for approval, do you not groan? Of course you do. You do!

Consider that, unless you have a very small organization or a very good collaboration system (or both), you are doing things the old-fashioned way. Which means the process looks something like this:
  1. Identify the collaborating parties.
  2. Schedule a kickoff meeting by email. 
  3. Negotiate the competing schedules by email and/or phone. 
  4. Book a room.
  5. Arrange for dial-in.
  6. Have the meeting.
  7. Experience telephone problems either dialing in or hearing the dial-in participants. "Could you speak up?" "How do you work this thing?"
  8. There are pre-meeting meetings to influence the scope of the project.
  9. Show up for meeting. Who has the room key? Go get it.
  10. Pre-meeting chatter while we wait for everyone to show up.
  11. Have meeting.
  12. Argue over scope.
  13. Realize that there are disagreeable people in the room.
  14. Come to some sort of agreement about scope, but not really. Some disagree.
  15. Leave the room with "assignments."
  16. Determine the real assignments by speaking to people who weren't there.
  17. Initial round-robin email to "confirm" what everyone is doing.
  18. Everyone ignores.
  19. Next meeting: Where's the first draft? It's nowhere.
  20. Panic mode as people put stuff together for the next meeting.
  21. At meeting, discuss what people put together.
  22. Decide that we will put difficult issues in the "parking lot" and "be productive."
  23. Discuss further.
  24. And we don't even have a first draft yet.
  25. Someone, or a few people, take it on themselves to deliver a draft.  
...and now we are ready to consider Version 1.

Of course if someone would just decide a document was needed, assign the writing of the document, then have the writer post it online, there would be fewer stages to the above.

But we don't. And on top of it we collaborate on everything by round-robin emails. Which means you see stuff like

Original text here
And commentary text in another color here

From what could be half a dozen, a dozen, two dozen people or more.

There are of course serious costs to all this inefficiency:
  • Document delivery is delayed, meaning projects are delayed
  • The time of knowledgeable staff members is wasted on administrivia
  • There are competing versions of documents since people may have edited the "wrong one" - so ultimately nobody knows which one is actually "right"
  • The collaborating group loses trust with every "edit" that is "lost" - even if it would be humanly impossible to find the edit
  • The team experiences greater and greater stress as deadlines loom, the process gets more and more confused and confusing, and competition for one's ideas to be heard and adopted grows greater.
So we lose time, money, accuracy, morale, trust, and the opportunity to learn. 

Why do we put up with all of this?

  • Most people would rather suffer the pain of the known (stable dysfunction in which we feel necessary and important) because it is more comfortable than the pain of the unknown (unstable function in which we may be un-necessary and un-important).
Further hypothesis:
  • Subconsciously we are afraid what would happen if processes were rationalized because then we would have to ask the difficult question: "Why are we writing this document in the first place?" Which means we challenge our own assumptions - the decisions of those in power - the reality of the organization. Which could lead to our being excised.
Consider that the law of organizational bureaucracy dictates a completely paradoxical mode of operation:
  • On the one hand we seek greater and greater efficiency.
  • On the other, if we reach peak efficiency then the people within the organization are no longer needed - the company runs itself.
  • Therefore people at every level of the organization who are invested in participating in its continued existence will collude (mostly subconsciously, because consciously they could not tolerate the contradiction) to keep it going - even if the way it operates makes no sense.
  • And, because the collusion is subconscious, they will continue to ask, "Why are things so messed up around here? Why can't we change?"
Without checks and balances on organizational function, therefore, dysfunction will inevitably reign (unless you have a benevolent and all-powerful leader, which is impossible).

And this is why, although people say that inefficiency stresses them out - they will resist giving it up. Even if it means they operate at the cost of common sense.

If you think about it, it is better to plan one's obsolescence than to perpetuate one's dysfunction. Eventually dysfunction is found out by external watchers, who will do something to curb it. 

Better to practice "creative self-destruction," find ways to best yourself, and continually reinvent the organization. Find ways to be relevant, and always stay a step ahead of the critics.

Think about it - it's not an easy choice - but it's ultimately more rewarding. And you have the side benefit of being able to look in the mirror with self-respect.

Good luck!