Tag Archives: process thinking

Process thinking – take the right steps in the right order

Welcome to the next installment of the thinking styles for success series. Today, we are looking at process thinking – this is all about making transformations: essential in today’s hectic world. We often hear about transformational leadership and transformational change but what does this mean and how well equipped are we to deal with it.

Process thinking is based on understanding the steps in any change activity, the ingredients required and the skills needed to effect that change. It’s a bit like cooking: you need to know what you are trying to produce, have the best ingredients and the skills to pull it all together. It is critical that you provide the right conditions for each step in the process and do them in the right order.

You need process thinking to understand the sequence of activities and the methods used for each transformation. Doing the right steps at the wrong stage, using the wrong ingredients or the wrong conditions will not produce the right result. You need to get the conditions for transformation right as well, if the oven temperature is not right, you may under cook or over cook your meal – with potentially disastrous results.

In change processes this implies picking the right actions in the right sequence, involving the right people and creating the right conditions for success. Consider:

  1. If you make your mind up about the approach you are going to adopt before consulting with those involved, then you are sowing the seeds of discontent, opening the risk of resistance and potentially thwarting new ideas.
  2. If you introduce a critical issue in a light hearted manner – you may lose support.
  3. Responding to a query in the wrong way at the wrong time may stifle debate and reduce co‑operation.
  4. If you don’t build a supporting network before starting the process, you may never gain the momentum you need to drive things through.
  5. If you don’t think about the possible sources of resistance in advance, you are likely to be blindsided. Whatever the positive aspects of your proposal, there will be some people who will oppose your ideas because they:
    1. Don’t see the need
    2. Don’t agree with your proposed approach
    3. Don’t see what’s in it for them and
    4. Increasingly these days, they are bored, frustrated or overwhelmed by change

Thinking things through in a logical manner, identifying the necessary steps and the right conditions for change will help. You might find producing a flow diagram will help.

Ask yourself “If I do that, what will happen? … then what? … then what?”

Problems normally arise from the issues you’ve not thought about rather than those that you have given some attention to. A few minutes of carefully directed thought can save you a lot of time, effort and heartache!

So the next time you need to set a change process in action, think about it from a process perspective:

  • What are the steps you need to take
  • Does the sequence matter
  • Who needs to be involved?
  • What are the right conditions for success?
  • Do you have the skills to make it happen?

If you don’t it might make sense to call in some help – don’t cook for an important dinner party if you don’t know what to serve or know how to make it. Call in the experts!

Project Planning – you need be sensitive as well as critical

Planning Process

In an earlier post, I suggested looking at planning as map-making for an expedition. Planning also requires elements of “Process Thinking” as it incorporates three key functions:

  1. Identification of all activities and constraints
  2. Development of the project logic
  3. Estimation of task duration

The key objectives are to identify the required sequence of events, assess the interaction between them and determine the overall timescale for the project.

Planning Problems

In my experience, three things go wrong in this process:

  1. Participants don’t fully understand the interactions between the various activities, especially the “virtual” constraints – where nothing physical happens (e.g. getting planning permission, awaiting drawing approval etc.)
  2. Over optimistic assessment of durations
  3. Fixation on the “Critical Path”

The Danger of “the Critical Path”

This may lead to over ambitious timescales being promised, excessive focus on a few issues and an over emphasis on physical activities. Often it is forgotten that the calculated “Critical Path” depends on the accuracy of the estimates of task / activity duration – change the estimates: change the critical path. Estimates by their very nature are approximate and therefore the impact of variations in these estimates needs to be evaluated.

In consequence a delay may occur when some virtual activity over runs, causing an activity well off the calculated Critical Path to affect the entire schedule.

What is needed, in addition to rigorous investigation is to undertake some sensitivity analysis and recognition that:

  1. Estimates are only estimates
  2. The implementation may take a different route to that planned
  3. You may be “fooled” by the technology – just because it looks neat on the printout, it doesn’t mean it will be plain sailing.
Typical Project Schedule

Project Schedule

It’s the quality of the thinking that matters

What matters is that you think about your plan effectively. Planning is about thinking processes not software.

For the sake of a nail

AFalling Rocks Road Sign common feature of delays in “virtual” activities is that durations can expand in steps, they can accumulate and affect broad sections of the project. The non-arrival of vendor drawings could prevent an application for planning permission causing a a scheduled council meeting to be missed. A delay of one day in one task may lead to a delay of a month or so in the next activity. You might term this a landslide, which emphasises the need to understand the landscape of your project rather than the route map!

You need to be sensitive to the potentials for delay and don’t focus solely on the calculated Critical Path. The real route will be different to the planned journey. Be prepared for the rocks that may fall in your way, you will need to find a way around them.

Think about it – 8 ways to enhance your thinking

When you are faced with a critical decision in your business, you probably recognise that you will need to give it some thought but how often do you think about how you need to think about the issues involved?

That’s right! Do you think about how you need to think?

In his seminal work, Six Thinking Hats, Dr Edward de Bono highlighted the need for different modes of thinking at different points in the process and in particular the need for everyone involved to be thinking in the same way at the same time.

I’d like to build on that idea by suggesting eight key thinking styles that you should apply to any critical decision you need to make – I call this Pivotal Thinking. The key themes are outlined below and each will be explored in detail in subsequent postings.

The thinking styles are:

  1. Critical
  2. Strategic
  3. Creative
  4. Systemic
  5. Project
  6. Lateral
  7. Process
  8. Reflective

Critical Thinking

This style is particularly useful for examining information and testing assumptions. It is exemplified by the approach of Henry Fonda’s character [Juror #8] in “12 Angry Men”, probing, challenging and taking nothing for granted.

Strategic Thinking

This approach is crucial for looking at the big picture and long term. It means standing back from the detail and looking at aims, objectives, trends and capabilities. It also means looking at opportunities, threats and options from the perspective of all stakeholders.

Creative Thinking

To get ahead of your competition, avoid getting into a rut and find better answers to the challenges you face, you need to think creatively. Contrary to popular opinion, this can be helped by a structured approach which balances and sequences divergent and convergent thinking, selecting appropriate tools and techniques at each stage.

Systemic Thinking

You probably learned to think systematically at school / university but sometimes there is a need to think about the system as a whole, the interactions between the various parts and the causes and consequences of particular options. This style goes hand in glove with both strategic and creative thinking.

Project Thinking

Managing projects needs a different style of thinking to most management situations. Project thinking requires you to pay attention to the sequence of events, the flow of information and the interactions between events. It is highly relevant to the implementation of strategy and requires focus on objectives, roles and resources.

Lateral Thinking

Your closest competitors are likely to come up with similar strategies and solutions to those you arrive at through logical analysis, so it can be useful to use lateral thinking to arrive at better, non-intuitive solutions. This thinking style, invented by Dr Edward de Bono, encourages you to arrive at better solutions by attacking the issue from completely different perspectives and often through an intermediate unworkable solution.

Process Thinking

In many cases, it can be very useful to use these thinking styles in combination or in appropriate sequences. This is where process thinking comes in – a bit like the Blue Hat in Six Thinking Hats, it will help you select the right thinking style for the situation and decided on the order in which to apply them [and recycle if necessary]

Reflective Thinking

To help you learn and benefit from previous experience, it can be useful to adopt a reflective thinking style. This will allow you to look at what you have done in the past and the results you have got. If you combine it with a critical approach, you may get to the real causes of past failures and successes and develop much improved approaches.

So the next time you think you need to think about something – think first about how you need to think.

Think about it!