I didn’t know if I should write about ambivalence or not. I didn’t seem to feel too strongly about it one way or the other.

Ambivalence seems to be creeping into almost every aspect of our professional world. I can this tell by the number of times that I hear comments along the lines of “It is what it is…” or “We are where we are…” We seemed to have stopped learning, risking and striving. Instead of making things happen, we are now following a process and waiting for them to happen. What’s worse is that it seems to be a malaise borne trend that is increasingly difficult to counteract.

I don’t know if I can truly draw the analogy between the rise of the process driven organization and the perceived rise in ambivalence in the organization, but it does strike me as potentially more than coincidence.

Before the rise of the process, it was incumbent on the leader to drive the business machine. Creativity, anticipation and a drive to achieve the goal were the keys to their success. Mistakes were obviously made, but so was considerable progress. When looking at Jobs, Gates and others, they chose to break new ground, not follow a process. It was because of their new approaches to goal setting and problem solving that they were successful, not in spite of it.

There seemed to be no question as to what needed to be done and how to do it. They were going to get it done regardless of the adversity and it was going to be done their way. They were the ones that were Accountable, Responsible, Consulted and Informed. (That’s a reference to the ever more popular RACI matrix, where depending on the process being followed, there can be separate entities established for each of those topics.)

I think ambivalence comes from a loss of commitment, and the loss of commitment comes from the loss of ownership. It seems more and more that people no longer own the problem and solution relationship. They don’t even own the process of arriving at the solution. They are only required to follow a proscribed set of steps associated with the process that has been developed to enable the team to reach the solution.

When this happens it becomes that much easier to say “It is what it is.” It becomes sort of the modern mantra for saying “I was doing what I was supposed to do, so it is not my fault.” It is the acceptance of saying even though I was doing my job; I’m not responsible for the results.

I have written (ranted?) in the past that not quite good enough is now the acceptable standard. I am beginning to believe that the process based organization may also be at least partially at fault here as well. We seem to have shifted the focus away from actually getting things done and now focus more on the way things are done.

This behavior results in the rewarding of those that conform and administer the desired process the best as opposed to those that can creatively solve problems by taking ownership and driving the issue to resolution. And if you are only going to be recognized for how well you can follow a process as opposed to what you can actually conceive, do and solve, what sort of commitment are you going to have?

I suppose there are those that can in fact be fully committed to a process but I think the majority prefer to commit to a goal. This is where that inspiration and commitment thing comes back into play. I believe that people get inspired and committed to goals, not the process.

In May of 1961, then President John F. Kennedy set this memorable goal:

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”

He did not commit to the process of launching rockets. He did not commit to the process of training the best astronauts. He understood that while these processes would be a key to the Space Program*, he also knew that they would inspire neither the participants nor the public (who were in this instance the stakeholders that were being asked to pay for the expensive project.) He committed to the strategic goal of the Space program: namely getting to the moon.

*A little information on the difference between Programs, Projects and Processes. It may be a little arcane, but please bear with me as it will help with the example, as well as with better understanding the ambivalence in business today.

The definition of a program is usually that it is the sum of a related group of projects. The Space Program included a number of contributing Projects and sub-projects. Building the rocket was a project; however that project was further broken down into sub-projects such as the building of the command module, the building of the booster engine, etc.

The definition of a project is usually that it is a unique endeavor with a beginning and an end undertaken to achieve a goal. The building of a command module was a unique endeavor as it was the section of the rocket that would house the astronauts and control the flight. It contributed to the overall space program.

The definition of a process is usually that of a repetitive collection of interrelated tasks aimed at achieving a certain goal. The building of the command module was the project. The way that they built it was the process. I am not so sure that there were that many repetitive interrelated tasks associated with building these command modules as they were all essentially hand, but I think you get the illustration. Actually upon reconsideration when you start thinking about all the construction, installation and testing functions involved with the assembly of the command module there may have been ample room for many processes.

In a more business and organizational example, Steve Jobs set goals for his organization regarding what computing and personal devices should look like and be capable of in the nascent electronics markets. Bill Gates set goals for his organization regarding what operating systems should contain and how they should perform in the new software markets. Kennedy set goals for NASA (and the country) in what has become known as the space race. There was a total organizational commitment to the goals set by these respective leaders.

No one looked around and told Kennedy we are where we are, or it is what it is, when faced with the competitive successes of Sputnik or Yuri Gagarin at that time.

I think that as the Space Program progressed it should have taught us that as our goals advance, the projects and more importantly the processes must also be redefined on an ongoing basis. Just as the Gemini Program gave way to the Apollo Program which in turn gave way to the Space Shuttle Program, there was a continual refresh of the supporting projects and processes.

Allegiance and commitment are always made to the goal, not the process. I think ambivalence starts to creep into our structures when the new goals are only incremented from the old and the objective becomes more process oriented and less goal focused. I also absolutely believe that process will continue to be a key to the success of almost all future endeavors, both business and national. It is the way we retain what we have learned from past goals and apply it to the future goal to avoid making the previously encountered mistakes.

My issue is that when the following of a process gets so rigorous and is so focused on avoiding past mistakes that we are no longer making any new mistakes we begin to become process bound. When that happens we are arguably no longer making progress or owning the goal. We are instead focused on the process, and we become somewhat ambivalent to the goal.

I am pretty sure I know how I feel about that.