Practice excellence – Manage diversity at the point of diversity

August 22, 2011 at 8:22 am | Posted in Blogroll, Practice Excellence, Systems Thinking | Leave a comment

Whenever there is a discussion about processes, it invariably gets around, as it happened recently, to whether the “people aspect” is adequately being covered. It would be useful to think through what exactly we mean by the people aspect so that we know what we are missing when we don’t consider it as well as to know how we can take care of it.

In my opinion, two major factors that come into play in people aspect are human diversity and adaptability. To some extent, the processes do try to take care of variations in situations covered by them. However, the variations provided for by the processes are nowhere near the complex variations amongst different persons. These variations are in terms of needs as well as capabilities. Different individuals have different needs from a process; some will find it quite useful and would like to continue using it while some others may find it cumbersome and would look for ways to bypass avoid or even sabotage it. Similarly, those involved in executing a given process may have their preferred ways and if the process is too rigid or restrictive they will look for ways outside the defined process.

That is why it is important to consider practices, which are what we do in a variety of situations. They are far more flexible than processes and can account for a wide range of variations. With practices, individuals are free to choose which mode of execution they find useful to achieve a given result. They are free to make full use of their adaptability as they learn from experience.

With this background, let us now look at how processes and practices can co-exist to make best use of standardization and at the same time deal with immense variations. Diversity does not occur in discreet steps but is on a continuum of variations along many dimensions. The needs & capabilities of an individual differ from situation to situation; similarly they also vary for a given situation from individual to individual. Our mind is incapable of dealing with this magnitude of variations and deals with this complexity by trying to find patterns. These patterns form the basis of standardization. What is lost in finer details is gained in human ability to deal with it.

Let’s take an example from business organizations to understand this better. There are multiples teams working in an organization. Each of the teams is in turn made up of more than one individual. Each team has certain standard processes to be followed by all the team members. This defines a shared basis of dealing with each other and provides certainty & predictability to their interactions as well as helps improve the productivity of the team. In addition, each team member is free to follow their own practices to deal with different situations as they arise. The same applies at the organization level as well. Each organization defines the standard processes for use by different teams while dealing with each other; while each team is free to follow its own practices.

Thus in its external interactions, a team tries to evolve its way of dealing with others within the structure of the organizational processes; at the same time matching it to its own unique needs and capabilities. Internally it provides the structure of team processes to its members and should provide enough freedom to its members to evolve their practices within this structure. The same approach can be generalized to any human system where on one hand it provides a structure of processes to the participating systems and on the other evolves its own practices while interacting with other systems.

For the above example with the team as a system, the team members are participating systems while its ecosystem made up of other teams, the organization and external agencies like the customers are the interacting systems. We can apply this systems approach to family and other social organizations as well. Evolving and maintaining this fine balance between the structure and freedom, or in other words the “Structured freedom” is the key to the health of a system.

To summarize, the processes which cover the common aspects amongst diverse elements and their interactions provide the structure and practices which are adapted to unique capabilities and are designed to fulfill unique needs represent the freedom. When a human system is conscious of the need for a fine balance between the structure and the freedom and works to achieve it by managing diversity at the point of diversity, it would have adequately taken care of the people aspect.

Your views and inputs are valuable; please share.



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