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Perhaps We Should Welcome ‘Process Saboteurs’?

Image Credit: © Denis_Kavyar — #231355635

As anyone who has implemented a business process will tell you, whenever humans are involved there will be variation.  It doesn’t matter how well-documented or well-drawn a process model is, people will put their own interpretation and their own ‘flair’ onto a process.  This can lead to a temptation to continue specifying the process in increasing levels of detail until almost every movement and every keystroke are documented.  It can lead to a temptation to rigidly enforce standardisation, to ensure that all processes are consistently followed irrespective of who is undertaking them. 

There might be specific contexts when this level of control is necessary, particularly in safety critical applications.  Yet in many others it is overkill, and this level of rigidity can act as handcuffs that constrain staff from actually meeting real customer needs.  However many personas we create, however much data we collect, we will never uncover every customer need.  There will be circumstances that we couldn’t have predicted, and this might involve us needing or wanting to service customer needs that we can’t easily predict in advance. These tricky situations might be ‘moments of truth’ from the customer’s perspective.

This is when our customer-facing colleagues are faced with a dilemma: should they do what the process (and by implication the organisation) is dictating that they should do? Or should they find an option that is more suitable for the context that they find themselves in.  Should they use their own judgement to balance the customer’s needs against those of the organisation?

When processes are designed rigidly, this can lead to situations where it appears—on the face of it—that people actively sabotage our carefully designed business processes.  All sorts of unofficial workarounds emerge.  People start to work around the process, work is done in spite of the official process not with the process.  Some organisations then respond by ‘enforcing’ standardisation and lambasting those who vary.  Yet perhaps we should be welcoming these people who are undertaking subtle sabotage on our processes.  It is quite likely that they know something we don’t know.

The Importance Of Stakeholder Engagement

A controversial, but perhaps true view, might be that the ‘saboteurs’ who build workarounds are only doing so because the process (or the way the process was documented and communicated) was not adequate in the first place.  These ‘workarounds’ can be symptomatic of bad design, or a lack of engagement of the right people at the right times.   If we do not fully understand the types of variation that the process needs to cater for, then it is tempting to build a seemingly ‘efficient’ process which looks great on paper (but is clunky and unworkable in reality).

Rather than increasing controls and making things more rigid, an alternative approach is to consciously engage with the stakeholders who created the workarounds.  We can ask why they were created. What problems emerged that the process couldn’t cope with?  Is more autonomy needed on the front-line, and if so, how can the process facilitate that?

This enables us to start working with those who do the work to co-create a better process.  It is very tempting and often easy to design a process from the comfort of an office or a meeting-room with a small group of invited attendees.  Yet to do so robs us of the chance to understand the range of perspectives that exist, and the real-life complexity that the process will need to handle.  Once we have understood any workarounds, and worked together to create a better process which is better aligned with our stakeholders needs, it is then crucial to model it in a consistent way.   It is beneficial to adopt a modelling approach across the organisation so that different stakeholders can have a consistent view.

In summary, overly-rigid processes will often lead to workarounds emerging.  There can be a temptation to quash these (and the folks that create them), but by working to understand them we will gain a richer understanding of the true situation.

What are your views? Please add a comment below, and let’s keep the conversation flowing!

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About the author:

Adrian Reed is Principal Consultant at Blackmetric Business Solutions, an organisation that offers Business Analysis consulting and training solutions. Adrian is a keen advocate of the analysis profession, and is constantly looking for ways of promoting the value that good analysis can bring.

To find out more about the training and consulting services offered at Blackmetric, please visit

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8 thoughts on “Perhaps We Should Welcome ‘Process Saboteurs’?”

  1. I once encountered an organisation that actively encouraged employees to find new ways of improving the process. They were encouraged by bonuses, in some cases hefty bonuses. They were also guaranteed that if the improvement did away with the improver’s job, that he/she would be relocated to the job of their choice (within reason).

    After all, the people doing the work are often best placed to see how to improve it. The manager told me that he liked “intelligent, lazy people”, as those were the ones that could figure out the best shortcuts to a process.


    1. Thanks James, I love that expression “intelligent lazy people”. Perhaps a mixture of intelligence, laziness, dissent and purposeful innovation is what organisations need….

      1. Would like your permission, James & Adrian, to borrow the pithy descriptor “intelligently lazy, purposefully innovative dissenter” for my LinkedIn profile!

  2. Workarounds happen because the documented process was never right in the first place, or haven’t kept up with change. Processes are often documented to satisfy ISO 9001 or other standards but may have a little relationship to reality. Then you get the development of business process tangles: ‘A complicated and confused interaction of activities without clear accountabilities, owners, inputs and outputs’

    Those that implement the workarounds are looking are often looking at the required process outcome and checks rather than the defined sequence of steps. But this is typically a clandestine activity which if discovered could lead to instant dismissal as rule breaking rather than initiative and customer focus. Some of the large organizations that I’ve worked with have tightly defined and very inefficient processes and and an army of people to enforce them. Streamlining business processes can identify wasteful people and activities and this may be resisted or sabotaged by those who gain from this e.g. by employing people to fix problems that shouldn’t be there in the first place.

    I set up a website, Business Process Tangles which that explores these issues. And of course, I did a webinar with you on this. The slider on the website is broken at present (wordpress upgrade has broken the plugin) but the content is still there.

    As UK gets back on its feet after COVID-19, the need for efficient processes from sale through to delivery of product and/or service are critical. But currently too many inefficient and wasteful activities are within this chain and will need to be flushed out.

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