Understanding how process impacts outcome can help avoid useless meetings

Management is full of mechanics that could easily become process performances.
Management is full of mechanics that could easily become process performances.
Image: Jopwell
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Earlier this year, when I was learning how to facilitate a specific type of workshop, a colleague revealed the secret to making it great: understanding the outcome and keeping it in mind throughout the entire process.

If the team isn’t focused on the outcome, than they’re just performing a process.

Now, I see this phenomenon not just in workshops that I attend or facilitate, but everywhere.

Management is full of mechanics that could easily become process performances. One-on-one meetings. Feedback cycles. Team meetings. Retrospectives. These are not inherently useful activities (and I’m sure we’ve all been in some of these that felt extremely pointless). They are useful only in service of some kind of outcome.

The key is to consider the outcome as you design the process, and to pay close attention to the behaviors that emerge as you introduce the process. Behaviors are the link between processes and outcomes—processes encourage behaviors that create outcomes.

Example 1: Standup meetings

Process: Everyone posts a short update in Slack at the start of the day.

Behaviors: Team members start the day with some kind of intention, and proactively communicate with each other based on the information that surfaces in the meeting (and conversation around it).

Outcomes: A collaborative, communicative team where misunderstandings are quick to be surfaced and resolved

Example 2: One-on-one meetings

Process: A weekly (or bi-weekly) meeting between manager and employee that is focused on the employee

Behaviors: The employee gets the feedback they need in a timely way, and their concerns are surfaced and addressed or supported.

Outcomes: Trust and open communication between manager and employee: The employee feels supported and has space to grow their responsibilities; The manager has good insight into the strengths of the employee and his or her experience at work.

Example 3: Retrospectives

Process: At the end of each sprint (a set period, normally one or two weeks, during which a defined amount of work is expected to be accomplished with a review at the end), the team gathers to look back and discuss and agree together on what went well and what could be improved.

Behaviors: The celebration of positives, open discussion amongst the team around areas for improvement

Outcome: The team learns and adjusts together, becoming more effective over time, and more able to predict what they can—and can’t—accomplish.

Linking process and outcome

Good process is sometimes invisible. It often gets called “culture” because the behaviors and outcomes are so much bigger than the process itself.

If the behaviors we encourage in standup meetings are corrosive and micro-managey, we’ll encourage people to hide their struggles behind overwork and excuses. If the behavior we create in one-on-one meetings is to diminish or judge, we’ll erode (or never build) trust. If we turn retrospectives into forums for blame, we’ll create a corrosive environment on the team.

Process itself is only useful when it serves some kind of outcome, and that must be kept in mind from the beginning, and re-enforced in the behaviors we encourage (or discourage). As teams discuss process, or leaders introduce it, it’s important to talk about what purpose the process is supposed to serve, including the underlying problems or desired outcomes it is supposed to address. Then we need to be willing to review and adjust as we see what happens when the theory meets reality—a process that is faster and easier with the constant of an outcome in mind.

Cate has led the mobile team and Jetpack engineering at Automattic.