Are processes stifling creativity?

Now this is really an interesting topic and I want to thank Lisa Bodell for bringing it up on the fast company website. How can you make sure that your business is not stifled or paralized by burying it under too many and too detailed processes? For me this is a no-brainer. Processes are intended to make necessary and recurring tasks easier to manage in order to give people more time to focus on creative and productive work!


Good processes
When I work with clients I try not to impose a layer of unnecessary processes that take up a lot of time and resources. In my opinion, the job of any business process manager should be to identify the processes that are already in place. And every business has processes. If you want to break it down into the most basic structure there is at least the need to find clients or customers, to deliver a product or service and to receive some kind of payment (even if it is in-kind).

 And I have never worked in or with a business where this is done only once. So there are tasks and jobs in every company or other organization that are done on a recurring basis. It is essential to identify these tasks, document them and transform them into processes exactly because there is internal knowledge available and because these tasks need to be documented in order to scale up. I cannot see any reason why this procedure of identifying and documenting processes should be detrimental to creativity. Instead it is a way of removing the need to think about how to complete these chores and thus empower people to focus on the creative side of work.In the same way, the next steps in a typical business process project do not cause any severe burden on a business because they focus on making the processes safer and easier to manage. The mapping of the process in a flowchart or swimlane diagramm and subsequent streamlining of all steps and tasks involved enables the process owners to reduce work load and unnecessary aprovals or other points that might impede creativity.

And bad processes
I know only two situations where processes have the potential to become a burden:
One are processes imposed on a company or organizations by government authorities which have to be followed for compliance reasons. And there is not much that can be done about it.
Another situation occurs when processes are introduced in order to enhance accountability and the ability to measure performance. Usually, this includes submitting scorecards and reports, most of the time with detailed but often ill-monitored aditional data points. To measure employee and overall company performance is perfectly reasonable. But the benefits of these insights have to be weighted against the financial and operational costs and – to stay on topic – against how they affect the creativity of the employees. The problem here is that it is difficult to decide what actually helps and what impedes the creativity of your employees. Stay true to the principle that less is more and to keep it simple and you should be able to strike the right balance.In my experience even for highly creative people like designers, musicians etc. processes are perfect guidelines to navigate parts of the workflow that are not at the center of their interest. To use the wording of the E-Myth, these technicians need the help of processes to handle the mangerial parts of business.


So if you feel your company is loaded with bad processes, let’s talk about how they might be improved.



Business Process Kaizen Team in Action

There is not much to be said about this video.

For me, it kind of summs up why BPM is such a powerful vehicle for improoving effectiveness.

I particularly admire the determination with which the changes have been implemented. Redesigning the whole office layout to reflect the improved process is a brilliant move. Spot on!

If you got a similar case study, post a link here. I am sure all readers would love to see more examples of successful implementation of new business processes.


Invent the Wheel!

I saw this picture on and it kind of stuck with me because it shows a sad truth: Too often, we don’t take the time to work on the really important stuff.

I don’t only experience this in my client work but can see me falling into this trap myself time and again.

I am sure everybody remembers a situation where we don’t see the big picture.
How often do we say: I need to hire more people but don’t have the time to find new employees because I am too busy with the work they should be doing?
Who wasn’t in a situation where he realized he needs to delegate a task but felt that taking the time to explain it could be saved by doing it himself?

And thus we don’t invent the wheel and continue wasting ressources.

But these situations are opportunities to improve. So when we feel that we don’t have time to invent the wheel, we should at least make sure to write down the idea. Later, when the time comes and you build it, write down how you built it. Because then your invention can be leveraged and spread.

And when you see someone on the street selling the stuff that solves your problems, at least take the time to consider it!

Why small companies need to think about processes

Meet Jim the baker, who could be a kind of older uncle to Bob the builder. Jim is a role model baker that is featured in a “case study” on the website of the ISO. And he does everything right. According to one caption in the article,  Jim the Baker follows a clear pathway to integrated MSS (management system standards) implementation and, by applying sound management supported by MSSs, his business expands to provide catering services for large organizations.

Implementing ISO 9001 or 14001 from the start might be a tall order for most start-ups. But I agree that including systems and processes in your strategy is the way to prepare for success.

Why processes?

Think about sales systems: communicating the need for a sales & customer service system will lead you to answer questions like: how is the sales process going to look like? What kind of data points do I want to collect? What will the main channels of communication be? You will not be able to answer all questions right away and it is a good thing to experiment with different solutions. Make sure that you don’t lock yourself in too soon. A simple Excel sheet with some conditional formatting will be enough CSMing for many start-ups during the first few months. If you want a web app, make sure it provides export functions via universally accepted standards like CVS or XML just in case you need to switch to a different solution later on. Keep your mind open and take as many notes about your chores as possible. These notes about all the little gremlins, hick-ups and screw-ups will provide valuable insight in where the process is still troubled. The same is true for your accounting, your HR, etc. If your company grows – and you want it to grow – then you will need processes and standards defined for all of them.

Michael Gerber recommends an even more vigorous approach for every small business owner in his book “The E-Myth”: do every job in your start-up yourself first, starting from the bottom and work your way up. Note down all the necessary tasks and qualifications. Use these to define the processes and responsibilities for every position until you reach the top. The result will be a set of documents with clearly defined processes, procedures and check-lists that help you run your business. If you feel overwhelmed, look for a person new to your ranks or an external consultant. They will provide a fresh perspective on how things could be done.

Path to success for small businesses

Why is this especially important for start-ups and small businesses? Many people tend to think that business processes are for large corporations with thousands of employees and a legion of consultants at their disposal. Companies with a war chest. But the opposite is true. Big companies are the ones that tend to suffer more from byzantine approval procedures and strict guidelines. That is why they are forced to spend a big amount of money fixing these problems. If you consider processes and standards in the beginning, you can minimize problems in the future. Your company is still young, eager and flexible. Changes can be applied easily and quickly. So make sure to use this window of opportunity and to prepare for the moment when you roll out a mobile-based sales tool or train ranks of customer-service staff.

Another plus for small businesses with restricted cash-flow is the better allocation of resources. If you got your delivery routes worked out early or have your sales-force following a tested process, you will be leveraging tools that many companies only think about at a later stage, when problems arise. I remember the example of a client explaining why an online tool to manage their developers’ time did not work out: they scratched it when the time slots collided whith reality and needed to be changed frequently. But in the end, the meeting and work times had to be arranged somwhow. The result was that all employees resorted to multiple, hard-to monitor channels which led to confusion, wasted time and a lot of uncoordinated meetings.

So take advantage of your unique position as a small business owner! You know you want to expand (in sales, offices, staff, etc.). Prepare to scale up!

When you already did, please share your story in the comments. It would be great to get more insights!

TED talk: the key to success? Grit

I found this wonderful TED talk by Angela Lee Duckworth that sounds so true. It is not the talent or the intelligence that is able to predict success but “grit”, the ability to live life as a marathon and not as a sprint. And it also very well resounds with the impression I have about highly achieving individuals: It helps to have a demanding hobby where you train your brain to never stop and advance just for the sake of advancing. People who have this mindset will be able to handle almost any challenge they encounter.

Take your marks! Swimlane charts for processes

Questions that always come up once you identified the seperate tasks in a process are: How do I visualize this? How do I make sure that it is in a logical (or at least suitable) order? How can I show this to others and make them understand the connections?

While there may be a lot of different ways to do this, one method has taken hold in the process management community: The swimlane diagramm

What is a swimlane diagramm?

A swimlane diagramm is basically a flowchart with one additional attribute: The tasks are ordered according to roles in seperate rows (or columns) that represent the different roles. These are the swimlanes and it is totally irrelevant wether they are horizontal or vertical. For my brain it seems I can follow the horizontal arrangement better. But the vertical arrangement has the advantage of being easier to lay out on an A4 page. Some people also prefer the vertical swimlanes because it resembles a checklist that can be used in everyday process execution.

Above you see an example of a horizontal swimlane chart for a simplified hiring process in a bigger SME. Note that the horizontal lanes are labeled according to the role that is responsible for the different tasks.

This chart was created with the free software yEd graph editor. But swimlane diagramms are not a matter of dedicated software. There are a number of Powerpoint templates out there that include all necessary boxes and connectors. In a team environment a simple whiteboard with stickers is probably the most flexible and practical way to establish lanes and order tasks. And don’t forget: there is still pen and paper to do it!

Sample Hiring Process-Paper-V1


Now that you identified and documented your tasks, understand what a swimchart diagramm is and got your weapon of choice to put it down, how do you actually write one of these things?

Creating a swimlane chart

A swimlane starting point is always a round shape that represents a trigger event for the process. It is a good idea to also immediatly determine which event defines the end of the process and put it right at the end of the diagramme in the according swimlane. Use a round shape for this one as well. The seperate activities in between are normally displayed as rectangular boxes. Decision points are represented by diamond shapes. After you identified start and end points and put in all tasks and decisions you need to connect the seperate fields with arrows. The general rule is that there is only one connector coming in and one going out from every rectangular box. Decision diamonds have one arrow going in and (usually) two going out, representing a yes or no/true or false decision. In many cases a no/false will initiate a feedback loop back to an earlier stage of the process. But there are also situations where such decisions would mean cancelling the process or a initiating a different process.

To summarize:
  • swimlanes: rows or columns labeled according to functions
  • start, end point: round shape (One arrow coming out)
  • task: rectangular box (one connector coming in, one going out)
  • decision: diamond shape (one connector going in, two going out)
  • connectors: arrows between the boxes

You can see all these elements in the example above. This is a simplified process, though. Complex processes in large organizations or for webbased services might contain more than a dozen swimmlanes and hundreds of nodes. Such diagramms might require the depiction of further aspects like material flow or data base queries.

If you want to learn more about swimlane charts, there are hundreds of tutorials on the web. Or just get in touch with me and I will answer your questions personally.

Please remember one thing:

You have to do that first! When you are fairly confident that you got all the necessary information, then it is time to map it out in a swimlane diagramme. And while mapping out you will most certainly stumble upon areas in the process where information is still lacking or unclear. But don’t consider this a set back! Instead, think of it like this: you just started to actually work on your processes and not let the processes determine your work!

Another important point to keep in mind is that while trying to gather as much information as possible about your processes, not all of it needs to be integrated into your swimlane chart. Don’t confuse the different functions of process maps, check-lists and procedures. (See a general introduction to the differences here)

Follow this blog as I will give some tips on the first steps when identifying and documenting processes in another post.


Tags vs. folders

Tagging is one of the most important productivity hacks that modern communication technology has to offer.

And yet, it takes some time to grasp the vast opportunities of this habit. Tagging is also one of the most important points I talk about in my trainings. It took me a while to make the switch myself and I don’t know how many hours I wasted by doing it late and by doing it not right in the beginning.

So with this piece I hope to help people make the switch from a folder-hierarchy focused approach to tagging digital information.

As a first step I want to explain the difference between tagging and storing files in seperate folders. And this difference is very simple:

So the smart thing to do is file everything in one or a small number of folders and assign a number of distinctive tags to it. Sounds simple? It is. But the ramnifications are enormous! Just look at the illustration on top of this post.

The one document can only go into one file folder (or you save multiple copies in different folders which complicates version management). But the document has 4 different labels (tags) attached: Client X, year 2014, Quotation, Project A. So if you are looking for the document in your file folder structure you will have to click through a hierarchy of folders (probably something like Clients > Client X> 2014> Communication > Quotations> Project A and only then you have reached the actual folder where the document is filed. This is the reason why filing had developed into a science of its own in the 20th century and new employees had to spend hours learning the filing structure of their employer before being able to work efficiently. Now, all of this is still ok as long as you are familiar with the context of the particular file. The situation is totally different if you are looking for a file that has not been touched for three years or if you want to re-use sections from a number of quotations for a new document. In this case you are likely to work your way through a lot of folders before being able to retrieve all the information you need.

Now imagine you are using tags instead of a folder hirarchy. You would just input the terms Client X, Quotation and Project A and the software would lead you right to the file you were searching for. Replace Project A with 2014 and you get a list of all the quotations for that particular client in 2014.

Potential pitfalls

Pretty neat, isn’t it? There are a number of potential pitfalls, though.

1) One of the most important issues is that your tags need a structure as well. If you just tag every note as you feel like when you are at it you might end up with a number of related tags like lead, prospect, opportunity or response, answer, reply, etc. In such a situation you will waste a lot of time thinking about which one you used for a particular file.

2) To be really effective, when searching for tagged files, the software needs to able to include more than one tag at every search. Think about our example above: if you are only able to search for one tag, you would end up with either all quotations, all files from 2014 or all files related to client X, etc. as search results

3) There seems to be a psychological barrier to using tags as well. Studies show that many people prefer putting a file in a single folder because a) it is faster than attaching multiple labels and b) it gives them a feeling of this item being put out of the way. The last point is most obvious in the obsession with a “zero inbox”, i.e. the pursuit of placing all processed mail in a specific folder outside the general inbox in order to get a feeling of accomplishment. Whoever is interested in this cognitive aspect of filing vs tagging might find some valuable insights in this article.

4) Not every software that you use and creates files will support tagging. At least the implimentation of tagging is very different in different operating systems and software. Also naming is not consistent. What is called tag in one application might be called category or label in another one.

Tagging in different operating systems and applications

See the following links for tips on tagging in some of the most popular operating systems and desktop applications:

Tagging of files in Windows 7 or higher.

Tagging files in Yosemite.

One of the most important everyday application where we handle a lot of different items are email clients. If you are an Outlook user, you will have to use categories and you can find some insights on how to put them to use here.

It seems like native tagging is not possible in the Apple email app but there is a 3rd party plugin called MailTag.

Here is how to use tags in Thunderbird.

Fortunately, many of the most popular SaaS applications (like Gmail, basecamp, evernote,, etc.) support some sort of tagging by now. Use your favourite search engine to find tutorials on how to use tags in the SaaS application of your choosing.

I myself am an avid user of Evernote and this is where I was converted into a “tagger”. The obvious advantage is that you can put almost every file into Evernote and tag it in a universal environment where it can be found easily via a powerful filtering and search function. And you can share these files (or to be precise: the notes that represent or contain the files) with other Evernote users.

It goes without saying that using the same set of tags for files and emails will save a lot of your brainspace and time. Many people have shared their tagging setup online (just as other people did with their file folder setup) and it is not easy to give any specific recommendation. But I found that most people who really dig into it end up with something that resembles the Getting things Done system. A powerful example on how to implement GTD in a digital environment is “The Secret Weapon” that aims at feeding all your files, emails and notes into Evernote where they can be tagged and processed consitently.

Converting to a tagging approach instead of placing every file into one specific folder has saved me a lot of time. I hope that this blog post inspired you to do the same. Or have you already made your switch? Or maybe even tried it and moved back to file folders for some reason? Let me know and share with others to discuss the pros and cons of the two approaches!

Happy tagging!


Cool Tools

I love tools! I use them for organizing my work, present it to clients and recommend them in my trainings all the time. One cool new tool I have kicking around is a printed copy of the blog Cool Tools.

It calls itself a catalog of possibilities and is truly inspiring. Need the best axe for lumberjacking, wonder what tools to use when designing a logo yourself or looking for the most efficient way to produce your own podcast? You find all the tools and many more in here. In general, the book gives a choice of the best there is, the cheapest (but still reliable) there is and the best bang for the buck solution.
This catalog has become my first choice of reference when ever I am thinking about buying anything that is supposed to add value or help me doing stuff more efficiently. Browse the blog for the latest tool reviews or buy the printed version if you are looking for a truly useful coffee table book.

The Teamwork Myth

I was thinking of doing a general introduction but then I stumbled upon a german radio feature and decided to jump right into what most of this blog will be about: the challenges we face in our work life and hacks to overcome them. The topic of the radio show touches upon so many aspects of modern life that it is hard to imagine someone building his or her business not being affected by one of the points the feature makes.
The German title of the piece is “Mythos Teamarbeit” (The Teamwork Myth) and was aired on german public radio station BR2. For all of you who speak german or want to practice your listening comprehension, give it a go.
For all the others, I hope my short summary below helps to clarify the line of argument.
The whole feature uses the soccer team analogy and starts with soundbites from the female soccer team of Wacker Burghausen. Just two examples: “You never win a match alone” or “team spirit helps to give the last bit in a match”.
It then makes a point that in modern times many business people use team sports analogies. Obviously, the modern private and business world is growing more interdependent by the day which is eventually leading to more and more team work. And it is common sense that working in teams provides a wealth of synergies. The only thing is – when we look at our experiences in the workplace, at home or with fellows in cluns and NGOs we kind of get the feeling that there are quite a number of pitfalls to navigate when working in teams.
The authors move on to dissect four of the most common myths about teamwork.

Myth number 1: The whole is greater than the summ of its parts

Straight away, this myth is declared busted. Teams are actually more inefficient when it comes to tasks that could be solved by a single individual. This has been prooved as early as the 1910 in experiments including rope pulling teams. These experiments showed that the performance per team member declines with every member that is added to the team.
One factor that is to blame for this decline is a loss of coordination: one team member might pull a little more to the left, one a little more to the right, they don’t pull at the same time, etc
But there are also loss of motivation where individuals hide and loaf in the group. (This is known as the Ringelmann-Effect)
The interesting thing for the readers of this blog who are concentrated in China is that loss of motivation is only observed in groups comprised of members from western cultures. Especially in asian cultures, individuals show a stronger performance in the team than as an individual.
The feature quotes a scientist explaining the main differences in mindset: In some cultures, people want to show their skills as an individual whereas in others they rather contribute to the success of a team. As a consequence, some people would even disguise their individual prowess when performing alone in order not to embarass others.
The authors make a point of saying that it is possible to form teams who perform better than the individual members combined even in western cultures. The problem is that this is far from being the rule. The phenomenon of free riders in western cultures is well-documented.

Myth number 2: Brainstoming in a group achieves the best results

This idea was introduced by Alex Osborne (founding member of BBDO and father of “brainstorming” ) in the 1950s. He was convinced that people in teams produce more and better ideas than individuals as long as certain basic rules are followed. One rule: withhold criticism in the brainstorming session and reserve it for a later stage in the process.
The problem is that scientists have been unable to proove this thesis in experiments. As a social psychologist Michael Diehl puts it: there is no proof of a quantitative or qualitative increase in output of groups as compared to individuals. Researchers fopund that two people in a team still produce about the same output as when combining the individual results. But when the number of team members increases, the productivity per person decreases. The main reason seems to be that to develop your own ideas and keep track of them while listening to the stream of thought of another team member is an extremely difficult double task for the brain (I personally would like to reccommend Daniel Kahnemanns’ fine book “Thinking fast and slow” for everybody interested in how the brain filters information and tries to make decisions). This is illustrated by the fact that as soon as a group obeys the “one person talks at a time” rule, productivity decreases dramatically. As a way to increase output per team member the feature suggest to let them gather their ideas seperatly beforehand or at the beginning of a brainstorming session and then collect these ideas for critical editing.
After that Michael Diehl continues to explain the illusion of the team effect: In normal business life there is no controll group of people working at the same task individually. If it then turns out that four members of a team achieved 300% of the output of an individual there is a strong sense of achieving more than an individual, which is technically correct. The sad truth is however that you have been 25% less productive than when working alone.

Myth number 3: Unity makes us strong

The radio piece acknowledges that from the outset teams seem to be more intelligent than an individual person because they bring together a wealth of diverse experiences and specialties. Researchers proofed however that unshared knowledge is not shared in teams. The sentence might sound self-referring but it is not. What it is trying to explain is that groups only discuss knowledge that is shared by all members. So when team members meet, they normally spend most of the time discussing stuff that everybody can contribute to instead of briefing each other about their personal special knowledge and points of view. And gone is the assumed informational advantage of teams!
One experiment that is given as an example is of a fictional HR selection committee: when every member knows that applicant A does not have a lot of humor and creativity then other, positive traits that only one member was informed about is not shared. Instead, everybody only talks about the knowledge that is already shared with the other committee members.
The explanation the authors are trying to give is mainly along the lines of:
– there is a higher statistical probability that these points are mentioned
– then everybody feels comfortable contributing
– there is a strong built-in confirmation bias in our brain that only wants to hear things which confirm our biased point of view (this again leads us to Daniel Kahnemann)
So what can be done to overcome this dysfunction?
The first recommendation given is to introduce a moderator/facilitator for important team meetings. This external role can focus on keeping track and inquiring about stuff that has not been mentioned. In an ideal world, teams would combine not only members with different background, experiences and knowledge but also dissenting opinions. Because – again – experiments have shown conclusively that team members with divergent preferences for sub-optimal options achieve better results than teams where all people share the same preferences. In other words: if all team members go into a meeting and mentally are already settled for option A, they will not consider advantages of option B or C in enough detail. A team that has no clear-cut idea in the beginning will explore more options and will make a more informed decision.
And with this notion, we arrive at the fourth myth about team work that is busted:

Myth number 4: the most important thing is harmony within the team

This myth prooves to be wrong because teams that are too focused on an harmonious atmosphere and not ready for conflict are more likely to sweep problems under the rug and to delay critical decisions. Unfortunately such unadressed problems develop a life of their own.
When a leader does not encourage dissenting opinions, delivers orders and reduces feedback to a short “any questions?” lip-service at the end of meetings then the team members will discuss unsolved questions at the water cooler or during their cigarette break. Small groups whispering in cubicals are a strong indicator for unadressed conflicts within an office.
The makers of the feature cite social psychologist Michael Diehl again who goes on to explain that a strong focus on team spirit and harmony creates an atmosphere where teams are more likely to make mistakes and are more hesitant to correct their errors. As a result there is more investment in suboptimal solutions. This phenomenon has been studied by Irvin Janis with the decision making process of the US governments during war time. He was able to show that “groupthink” – as it was later called – produced non-optimal results. Groupthink describes a situation where team members are very cohesive and insulated from external expertise and input.
One approach to minimize the effect the authors suggest is to rotate team members or let two teams work on the same problem.
In the next section, the feature is zooming in on the the often-heard notion “I don’t want to hear about problems, I want to hear solutions” and states that this approach is very dangerous. In this kind of environment team members will not dare to raise any difficult topics because they are afraid of being criticised for having no solution at hand. As a result, the authors suggest to make clear and open communication on of the main pillars of your team culture. Ask yourself for which tasks team meetings and workshops are actually necessary and when it is better to work as individuals.
The final statements refers to our nature as social beings which makes us feel comfortable in a group. This might be one more reason why the productivity of teams is overrated. We just want the cosy team to be a valid option. But successfull team work is a challenging and complicated management task. Constant fine-tuning of the group setup as well as processes and rules is necessary to make sure the whole actually gets bigger than the sum of its parts.

I loved the half-hour feature and it confirmed my distrust in lengthy meetings. (Is this my own confirmation bias making a point here?) But on the other hand I have seen incredible productive and helpfull workshops and brainstormings. I agree however that they have been most productive when it was a team jumbled together from lots of different backgrounds and ervybody was ready to listen and to share unshared knowledge. Facilitators or moderators always contributed a lot to the success of these kind of meetings.
A very important point is the observation of the strength of team in asian cultures. Thias is definetly a point to consider when working in teams in China. People pay a lot of attention to the dynamics and balance of teams in their work environment. And they can be incredibly motivated in team efforts.
One more thought that came to my mind when I listened to the last section about group think is the idea of the advocatus diaboli. A nice example how this could work is the episode about Israel in Max Brooks “World War Z” (big horror movie fan blogging here. The movie is fine but the book is much better. The Israel episode is featured in both). The israely character explains that the Jewish people had learned from history that they can never be sure of anything. Because of the constant threat of annihilation they supposedly set up a system where even when everybody in an advisory team agreed on a given explanation or solution, nevertheless one member was appointed to evaluate all other possibilities. This is definetly not a bad idea and the role of the Devil’s Advocate could be actually quite fun when implemented in a team with an open mind.
I notice that a lot of time is spent in meetings. Hell, sometimes I have the feeling that my day consists of nothing more than meetings. Let me know if the abovementioned facts helped you with making at least your team meetings more productive!