Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 21, Issue 25;   June 23, 2021:

What Keeps Things the Way They Are


Changing processes can be challenging. Sometimes the difficulty arises from our tendency to overlook other processes that work to keep things the way they are. If we begin by changing those "regulator processes" the difficulty can sometimes vanish.
Portrait of Isaac Newton (1642-1727)

Portrait of Isaac Newton (1642-1727). This is a copy of a painting by Sir Godfrey Kneller (1689). Image courtesy Wikimedia.

If you've ever participated in a workplace change initiative, you know how difficult Change can be. The difficulty of changing organizations raises an intriguing question: Why is change so difficult? One part of the answer might be found in the answer to another question: Why are things the way they are?

When I used to ask clients this question, the most frequent responses related to origin. People tended to focus on causes, authorship, history, and the like. While this information is fascinating, it isn't usually very helpful to the change agent. It's unhelpful because in many cases the original author or the original cause that brought about the current status quo is no longer active in the present situation.

That's why I now prefer a different question: "What keeps things the way they are?" Answers to this question can be more helpful because the question focuses our search on factors that are active in the present situation. They might be acting to prevent change.

The bogus law of process inertia

My own view Over time, processes evolve unless
there are control mechanisms in
place to maintain their integrity
is that things are the way they are because one or more forces act to keep them there. Often, we operate as if the reason why things are the way they are is that they were made that way once, and unless something comes along to change the situation, things remains unchanged. Sometimes I've heard people cite Newton's first law, the law of inertia:

An object at rest will remain at rest, and an object in motion will remain in motion unless acted on by a net external force.

The widespread belief is that organizational processes are also subject to a law of inertia. We might call it the Law of Process Inertia. This "law" would be:

In any organization, a process will remain unchanged unless someone who has the power to change the process decides to change it.

Although this "law" is stated simply, its simplicity is deceptive. Close examination reveals serious questions about its validity.

For example, people — in some cases, many people — are responsible for executing organizational processes. And people don't always execute processes in the prescribed manner, for a variety of reasons. Some examples:

  • They don't remember how to execute the process "by the book"
  • They think of a "better" way to do it, not appreciating all the reasons why the process is what it is
  • They take shortcuts because they have too much work to do
  • They don't fully understand the process, but they do the best they can

The above list is a sample. Clearly, there are many more reasons why people deviate from prescribed processes. Over time, the effect of these deviations is to produce a new process that's similar to the prescribed process, but which can differ from it in important respects. In this way, processes evolve unless there are control mechanisms in place to maintain their integrity.

That's why I believe that the Law of Process Inertia isn't a law. Processes can change even if no powerful individual decides to change them.

One reason why changing processes is difficult

Although processes can drift and change by slow evolution, they can be difficult to change when we want to modify them. "Change" in this sense means "change in the way we want them to change, and in the timeframe we want." To change a process we must arrange for the users of that process to adopt whatever modifications comprise the change. That's the part that can be difficult.

Suppose P is the process we want to change. Difficulty in changing P can arise when there are mechanisms in place in the organization that act on P to drive it to some goal configuration that differs from the configuration we seek. The goal-seeking action of these mechanisms might or might not be an intended consequence of any other organizational process. And the people of the organization responsible for P might or might not be aware of these mechanisms.

Worse, the goal configurations for the different mechanisms acting on P can differ. In that case, the mechanisms seeking to affect P tend to "fight it out." The end result for P might or might not be explicitly a goal of any of the mechanisms influencing P.

Here's an example.

Consider a particular process P. P is documented, but the documentation is out of date. Fortunately, Paula is an expert in P. If anyone wants to use P, and if he or she isn't quite certain how to do it, Paula helps out. For years, Paula's performance reviews have included comments about her cheerful willingness to act as an expert in P. It's a matter of pride for her and her supervisor.

From time to time, process consultants have proposed automating much of P. Paula and her allies, including her supervisor, haven't been very cooperative in these efforts. Indeed, they've often expressed disapproval of the design proposals for Automated-P.

What's happening here is that the performance management system is acting to keep P in its current state, preventing the introduction of Automated-P. Paula and her supervisor base their self-esteem, in part, on Paula's expertise in P. No one designed P this way. Keeping P from changing isn't the purpose of the performance management system, but that's nevertheless what it does.

Last words

Even though processes slowly evolve on their own, changing them in some way can be difficult unless we first uncover the mechanisms that work to hold them more or less in place. In some cases, if you can identify and alter the "regulator mechanisms" first, change initiatives can go more smoothly. If the regulator mechanisms remain untouched, then even if you succeed in changing the target process, it's likely to drift back in the direction of the old status quo. Go to top Top  Next issue: Answering Questions You Can't Answer  Next Issue

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