I understand where this question comes from -- if you're a "collaborator" you must somehow be opposed to process. Not true. A process (in the more ideal than evil world) is an embodiment of learning. It's a way to automatically follow some best practices so that you don't have to expend effort or brain cells figuring out how to do it. It scales very well defined tasks, and ensures compliance with various rules, regulations and policies. Processes have their limitations -- they aren't good at learning, experimenting or adapting. Which is of course what collaboration is extremely good at.

So in this "more ideal than evil" world we try to arrange for ourselves, we want to be collaborators -- supported by processes.

Process Makes Collaboration Efficient

Let me share a recent example. I was working with a design group that was very efficient and process oriented. For good reason. They had a LOT of work to do. But what we were trying to do was well outside the norm. We were trying to create a new approach that embodied a new way of thinking. The design team, having full confidence in their processes, said great -- here's the process we'll follow. The rest of us only had to complete the steps and move along the process, and we'd be assured a timely delivery.

Can you guess what happened? Boxes were checked, but the results were not so good. So then we changed the process. We said, we're going to work through this as a team. We will discuss and review requirements, and we'll discuss and review interim work, gaining a shared understanding of the issues, proposed solutions, subtleties and reactions.

Once we are comfortable that we have found the answers we need, we'll plug them into the process. Requirements will no longer be written and thrown over the wall; results will not be sent via email. All will be discussed on the phone or through our shared workspace, so as to create a common understanding. Then the existing process will get us through the standard production bits.

Now guess what happened? Schedules were met and the outcome was great. We surpassed ourselves. It would not have gone as smoothly without the process, and it would not have mattered without the collaboration. But we needed to make an effort to make collaboration the dominant activity, supported by the process -- not the other way around.

[Editor's Note: Also from Deb Lavoy: Enterprise Collaboration Requires Critical New Skills]

Collaboration Makes Process Meaningful

My esteemed colleague @mpedson (Michael Edson) is a creative, collaborative guy who put together one of the best ditties on process I've ever seen. It's like an amusing, 10 minute course in process maturity models.

Processes are especially helpful when the problem is the same each time you meet it. Let's say you are preparing the packaging for the latest release of your product. Say you sell shoes. The packaging creation process is the same each time you design a new pair of shoes, so it makes sense to have a process for creating the packaging for the shoes.

But now you're trying to go green with your packaging -- cutting your carbon footprint, minimizing materials, ensuring recycle-ability and non-toxicity. Now your existing processes won't work. Now instead of Joe finalizing the text and sending it to Sally, who adds the imagery, who sends it to Trish, who finalizes the overall cut design, who sends it to the printer...now you need to figure some stuff out. Now you don't need a checklist, you need a conversation. You need to discuss, debate, identify and discard possibilities. You need to collaborate.

Eventually, you'll figure out what you want to do, and then you can put that solution back into the process -- send it to the graphic designer, who gets sign off and sends it to the printer, the fulfillment center, etc.

If you're figuring stuff out, exploring, defining, pushing the envelope in some way, you must collaborate to be successful. You will be much more successful if you have reliable processes to support you. If you need to make sure you're doing what you already know to be the right thing, you need a process. Where's the balance point? The goal is essentially to push all the routine stuff into process so that your energy, focus and talent are spent on the good stuff -- learning and discovery. But if you push too much into process, you reduce your ability to challenge assumptions.

Without enough process, you're inefficient and slow. Too much and you're dull and stagnant. As I said, you need both. But in every case, the process should be subordinate to the team. (Things like emergency evacuation measures, are of course, exceptional, but they demand a process because we can't afford the time to think them through when it happens.)

I started doodling some charts below. The more routine and objective the problem is, the more likely process will help. The more subjective or exceptional (or wicked), the more collaboration is essential. Process relieves us of thinking. So here's the question -- do you want to think about this problem or just knock it out? That might be the key question.


Process and Collaboration -- Specific Examples


Process and Collaboration -- Conceptual

Final Thoughts

There is a another wrinkle though. As our world changes ever faster, becoming a world in constant flux, our work will become less and less routine. We are spending an ever greater part of our time on problems which require collaboration than those that can be routinized as process. We must then be ever vigilant at finding tasks that can be routinized, and ensuring that our collaborative work begins with where our colleagues have left off -- finding and leveraging all the value we can.

What's exciting about social media is not the technology. It's that it's changing the way we work, the way we think about work and how we can change the world.

The best is yet to come.

Editor's Note: Additional articles on Enterprise Collaboration