The many and varied skills needed for successful process management efforts are not “easy.” Including soft skills can reduce the difficulty and sustain effective process improvement.
As in life, many skills are needed to be successful in process management and improvement and they seldom come to full force naturally, needing to be discovered, valued, and nurtured.
To be successful in process-based management there are many competencies required around IT and data management, statistical and financial analysis, process mining and modeling—the so-called hard skills.
However, much of the success of process-based management depends on the development of good interpersonal communication and relationship skills—the so-called soft skills. In much process work practitioners are more likely to be arguing with another human than a spreadsheet or a modeling tool.
The skills required to have difficult conversations, to resolve strongly opposed opinions, and to deal empathetically with diverse personal challenges are regularly called soft skills. But they shouldn’t be. Soft skills are hard – difficult.
If arguing with a database seems ‘hard’, try explaining to a functional manager that her department needs to make big changes to solve a problem in someone else’s department (and budget), or to the folks on the front counter that although the new customer management system is more difficult for them it will be great for their colleagues in marketing. Hardly soft messages.
Process work is different
Here are eight reasons why additional soft skills are needed to be successful in establishing and sustaining effective process-based management.
An extra perspective
Traditional, or functional, management is shaped by the organization chart, and related activity is mainly up and down that chart. The process view adds an additional perspective looking across the organization chart and seeks to optimize the performance of cross-functional processes.
This requires a significant change in mindset which may be seen, by some, as loaded with challenges and complications. It need not be complicated or challenging, but to achieve that change of mindset requires special skills.
A change of values
Process-based management brings a new way of valuing and measuring performance. The dominant objective now is to optimize the performance of the cross-functional processes by which we create, accumulate, and deliver value to customers and other stakeholders. We value contribution to the end-to-end flow and not just to the isolated performance of a business unit (person, team, department).
This asks managers at all levels to work in a collaborative way with others in the best interests of the larger process. Such collaborative working does not come naturally to everyone, even in the best of times. In the more difficult times where urgent practical differences need to be resolved, special skills are required of all involved.
Who’s in charge?
The addition of a horizontal management mode can create friction around the question “Who’s in charge?” Is it the functional managers tasked with executing the parts (subprocesses) of the end-to-end process? Or is it the process owner appointed to oversee the cross-functional operation? What about stakeholders?
Without litigating the case either way one can state that any solution will require a higher degree of practical collaboration across the organization chart. This will be a new experience for many managers, maybe even threatening for some.
All the people
Various experts have often been heard to say that “we don’t want 5 process analysts, we want 5,000”. This means that everyone in an organization should be involved in some way in process management and improvement, and not just the central BPM team.
Be careful what one wishes for! What if the organization has 5,000 process analysts? What if it has encouraged everyone to be involved and they have accepted? That’s a lot of people and ideas which can make for a rich and productive discussion leading to exceptional outcomes. It might also lead to chaos and continuous argument without developing the skills to listen, empathize, and find a way through for everyone.
The curse of knowledge
The curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias that leaves someone who knows a lot about a subject unable to explain it to others because it is difficult to imagine the position of someone who knows very little about the topic. It is difficult to find the right (lowest level) starting point at which to begin the explanation, and then to proceed at an appropriate pace.
Process management professionals should be very conscious of this tendency. Experts can rave about the joys of process governance while the audience is still thinking “what’s a process?” Same for anyone explaining or discussing process management concepts. Because process thinking is quite different, there will be many levels of understanding—and confusion.
Not now, I’m busy
There is additional work to be done when the process view is added to a management model. Particularly in the early establishment days there are new meetings, workshops, and discussions. In the longer term there may be a net reduction in effort required as performance improves, and problems are intercepted before they materialize.
However, in the short term it is important to motivate busy people to invest their time and energy in ‘yet another thing’. Finding and telling the well-targeted and compelling story is a vital skill to get past this initial increased workload.
The process view requires a new set of process KPIs and targets. Nothing productive can happen unless this data is collected and analyzed with consistent and widely accepted metrics.
This data collection and analysis work can be simplified (the process can be improved) and perhaps some of it can even be automated, but there is still work to be done continually and on time in support of process-based management.
After the initial high-energy work of establishing process-based management, enthusiasm must be maintained for the relative drudgery of ongoing measurement logistics. Too many process-based management initiatives suffer from enthusiasm fadeout, often fatally, in the absence of effective communication and leadership.
The language of process
Miscommunication due to different understandings of words, terms, and concepts is an everyday occurrence in process-based management. For many it’s hard enough dealing with the new cross-functional ideas, but when that is complicated by unknown differences in understanding, we are tap dancing through a minefield.
Ideally every organization would have a well-maintained glossary of terms (perhaps with a concept model) covering all process language—and insist on it being used.
Responding to the difference
What can be done to develop the ‘soft skills’ required for effective process-based management? Of course, there are measurement tools and training courses that can be useful. As well, the very personal nature of these skills and how they are used means that they need to be observed and experienced to be properly understood.
An important way to build a culture that values these skills, and is proficient in using them, is to observe them in real life and absorb lessons from what is experienced. Look for examples of where they are used well, and not so well. Talk about those examples in work groups.
A simple and powerful idea…at the end of a meeting take five minutes and select someone to mention an example they saw in the meeting of good soft skills in action. When this has become comfortable. Include some poor examples—doing so will require enhanced soft skills!
Much of the success of process-based management depends on the development of good interpersonal communication and relationship skills in conjunction with the practice of process management capabilities. Adding focus on the soft skills can help advance the success of any process improvement initiative.