As meeting professionals, our attention is constantly pulled in many directions at once. To deal with this, we develop systems and processes to streamline the way that we work. Familiar patterns and processes make us more agile and efficient. That agility is necessary for us to work at the break-neck pace that we so often do, but it can sometimes come at a cost. Far too often procedures and processes become so familiar that we stop evaluating and improving on them.
Sometimes we forget the fact that what we do is infinitely more important than how we do it. Breaking out of ruts like these to get to a place where we can objectively judge, streamline and improve our business processes gets more difficult the longer a process has been in place. When we, or the organizations that we work for have been doing things one way for a long enough time, it becomes incredibly difficult to break the cycle and either change or completely discard a long held policy, process or procedure. Physicists refer to this phenomenon as inertia, so for a fresh perspective, let’s look at our policy inertia through the lens of one of the most brilliant human beings to ever live.
In his masterwork, The Principia, Isaac Newton unlocked several of the deepest secrets of the universe, but it is probably best remembered for his three laws. Here’s a quick refresher:
- An object in motion will stay in motion until acted on by an outside force.
- The force (F) of an object’s motion is a function of its mass (m) multiplied by its acceleration (a)
- For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
In one way or another, these laws are all talking about inertia. Balls roll downhill, and the heavier the ball, the steeper the hill, and the longer it’s been rolling, the harder it’s going to be to stop or make change direction. The reason that this is important for us here is that Newton’s laws don’t just apply to galaxies, planets and freight trains but they apply also to us and our habits and most importantly our business processes.
The key to growth is change, but change in any group or organization or even for an individual is often hampered by inertia, the exact same kind that Newton spoke about. While Newton described his inertia by using numbers and formulas, the kind of inertia that we’re talking about here often gets expressed by using six of the most dangerous words in business, “We’ve always done it that way.”
Just as a heavy rock rolling down a steep hill can be stopped with the right plan, tools and effort, so too can we overcome the inertia of outdated and inefficient processes. Before you can figure out how to overcome inertia to improve your processes, you need to do a targeted, detailed and brutally honest analysis of how you work. In some cases, the pain points might be obvious but not always. You need to dig deep and actively go looking for places and ways that you can improve. Here are some key red flags to keep an eye out for.
Where are we still using paper?
More often than not, this is one of the first indicators of a process that can be improved. Now don’t get me wrong; I love my Moleskine as much as the next guy. Despite my affinity for tools like Evernote and To-Doist, there’s still no replacement for a notepad to keep track of your thoughts and ideas – as long as they’re getting digitized in some way at some point. (If the term “digital notebook” is new to you, might I suggest you check out another article of mine outlining the benefits of Evernote.)
Where paper is absolutely not appropriate is anywhere that information needs to be shared, discussed or collaborated on.
What processes are a mystery?
We’ve all been in situations where policies and procedures seem like a total mystery, and this in and of itself isn’t necessarily a sign of a poor process. However, if you go looking for answers as to how and why something works the way it does and you’re either met with blank stares or high level overviews that don’t really answer your questions, then you may have found another place where you can look at doing a process overhaul and tighten things up.
What don’t we need?
More often than you’d think, “do less” is the answer to so many problems. More often than not, business processes are created in much the same way that stalagmites (these things) are – built up over a long period of time, by extending and building upon existing processes. The issue is that very often, as processes grow and expand, very seldom do we look backward to see which of the initial parts of the process are out of date or bloated or unnecessary. Removing these outdated or no longer efficient pieces will make the overall process that much more efficient.
So now what?
So now that we know what to look for, let’s concentrate our efforts by again looking at Newton’s Laws:
An object in motion will tend to stay in motion.
Nothing is ever going to change without effort. A crummy process will not get better with time, and waiting things out is always a losing proposition. An inefficient process is like Newton’s apple; it’s going to continue falling until it hits something. You’ve identified the issues. Now make a commitment to changing things. Set timelines, get things on paper, do anything necessary to get started on change.
It may sound obvious, but nothing in the way you work is ever going to change if you just keep doing things the way you’ve always done them. Yet people and organizations do this all the time. They identify issues, inefficiencies and shortcomings, and then do precisely nothing to fix it. And while it’s impossible to improve that way, it is understandable because…
When you’ve been doing something the same way for a long time, it can have a freight train’s worth of inertia behind it. If you’re thinking about getting in front of that train to try and make it change course, you’d better be ready to deal with all of the force behind it. Affecting meaningful change whether in an organization or in your own personal workflow is going to take a lot of time, effort and money. This is where the commitment to change and improvement is incredibly important. You need to be willing to work, spend, possibly fail and then keep right on going.
For every action…..
After reading those last two sections, you might be re-thinking the wisdom of starting a project like this, but fear not because according to Newton’s third and final law, the tougher a change is to implement, stick with and see through, the bigger the reward to you and your organization. There’s no trick to doing this. You just need clear S.M.A.R.T goals and the determination to see them through.
The takeaway here is that whether you’re a business of one, or part of a larger organization, you need to constantly evaluate the way you do things and have the willingness to change processes that aren’t helping you work better. The longer these processes have been in place, the greater the inertia you’ll need to deal with to change course, but as shown by one of the most brilliant human beings to ever live, the tougher the effort, the more worthwhile the change will be.