Process Lies

There are two ways to slide easily through life: to believe everything or to doubt everything.Both ways save us from thinking.

Alfred Korzybski

Over the last several years, I’ve studied a lot of processes and watched communities grow around them. I've been a member of many of these communities. As processes gain credibility, they generate excitement. As excitement mounts, the human desire for perfection plays a funny trick on us: we begin to identify with the process.

The fact that we get our "blackbelts" or certifications doesn’t help with this. We’ve now invested ourselves in the process and we want to use it. And why not? By and large these processes are pretty cool. We see ways they can make life better. And we love taking the easy way out, so we treat the process as an absolute.

But by now we’ve all read the news that the map is not the territory.

A guy named Alfred Korzybski said this, and if you don't know him, you should. He was a smart guy. He is the father of something called general semantics which basically says that language is fallible and it messes with our minds, our relationships, and our ability to get things done.

This is a big problem for business.

Uneeda burger and business process have lessons

Is this to say we should stop talking or looking at pictures? Is this to say that we should have no process?


What this means is this, and only this: In business, all process is at best an attempt to describe or control reality. It will always be improvable, it will always be fungible, it will always be to some extent wrong.

While we can be well-versed in Agile practices from software,  traditional management from large business and government, Lean practices from Toyota and beyond, newer tools like Positive Deviance, and in a wide variety of creative or visualizing techniques - these aren’t enough.

Every project with every client involves some invention, because the context of every client or team is unique. Business says that it wants predictability and repeatability in its processes across the organization. What ends up repeating is failure – even if the process works well in some places.


Repeatability in process is a range, not an absolute.

In the Modus Press books, we may tackle a concrete concept like Personal Kanban or Scrumban, but our writing always hinges on continuous improvement and process evolution. The goal isn’t to apply a process, but instead to understand our work, our lives, and our relationships better so we can make more informed or enlightened decisions.

In business, we can take lessons from Six Sigma or Covey’s 7 Habits or Extreme Programming and apply them to any group at any time – but only if it’s relevant to their context. I’ve used computer programming techniques with social scientists in Vietnam and manufacturing techniques with technical support groups in West Virginia. The ideas in any process are always to get people to work together. But there must be a healthy ecosystem of ideas for success to flourish.

We should always be suspect of the objectivity of salesmen of a single product.

While that is a nice, quotable, and glib statement (please feel free to tweet it to death), it comes back to what Korzybski taught us. Process is a pattern language. You see – if language is inherently flawed – the more we limit our business vocabulary to a single process, the less language we have to work with.  The less language, the more opportunities to use imprecise words, apply ill-suited ideas, and ultimately and unnecessarily fail.

How to succeed

Success is the actual process. Everything else is a means to that end. Having teams and an organization that understands the current nature of their work, embraces the idea that improvement is always possible, and has a good culture of communication is the only way to start.  Further, we need to understand that failure is a building block of success. Controlled small failures that teach valuable lessons provide the only stable foundation.

Failure is like an explosion. Explosions hurt, they blow things up. So we fear them. But between 1680 and the 1860s, inventors stopped fearing explosions and invented the internal combustion engine. (There’s a chain of them and I don’t want to fight with people’s favorite historic interpretation.) That explodes all the time and has changed the course of history. They key is … little non-destructive explosions.