Donna Fitzgerald

A member of the Gartner Blog Network

Donna Fitzgerald
Research Vice President
5 years at Gartner
31 years IT industry

Donna Fitzgerald focuses her research on strategies and approaches for using program and portfolio management as a way to create unique business value. Read Full Bio

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Living in the Shades of Gray – or Why we Still Need People to Make Decisions

by Donna Fitzgerald  |  July 19, 2010  |  2 Comments

I was sitting on the plane last week trying to get some writing done and as it always, one thought lead to another until I realized I was contemplating why organizations fear shades of gray.  All the incredible emphasis on process is designed to eliminate human judgment and ensure consistency but if we’d ever stop kidding ourselves, the truth is all this emphasis on process isn’t actually getting us the result we claim to want.  Every time I think about this topic I imagine a closed tube being squished flat.  There is a 100% guarantee that the tube will spring a leak and that the contents will ooze out until the tube is flat.  It’s the same thing with most business processes.  Since the process is always under pressure there will always be a leak somewhere.  By encouraging people to “follow a highly prescription Process” (and capital P processes are always highly prescriptive) there’s nobody who believes he or she has the authority to either relieve the pressure in the first place or at least take the cap off the tube and catch what squirts out.

Don’t get me wrong – I believe in process (with a lowercase p). So why do processes work when Processes don’t?  The answer is actually rather simple.  A process (small p) says begin by establishing if the thing that is happening is abnormal in any way.  If so go into problem solving mode immediately.  Apply judgment, knowledge and experience until it’s fixed.  If it isn’t abnormal – follow the standard practice.  Anthropologically this works very well because human beings are hard wired to do very rapid problem identification.  If you tell them there are bad things in the proverbial bushes they will keep their eyes peeled.  At this point some of you are probably saying “But that’s what I’m afraid of…  When they take independent action they just make things worse”  and my answer would be,” possibly true”.  And here is where we come full circle.  If you reserve problem resolution to management (as defined as those individuals who get paid to think about what they do”) then all the problems are going to come to your desk anyway, so tell me again what the big P Process actually accomplished? 

By the way I should mention that the litmus test on what’s a big P process is always the fact that somebody somewhere feels the need to do a compliance audit to ensure adherence to the Process (not success in creating the results of the process but adherence to the Process itself.)  I understand that for many people the advantages of compliance auditing for adherence to process boarders on religious faith and I am normally open minded enough to entertain that there are many paths to the same outcome BUT I absolutely draw the line on this one when it comes to PPM processes. 

I should say very clearly that this is MY OPINION.  It is not a Gartner Position.  There are lots of folks inside the company who feel just as strongly in the other direction.  My reasons for airing the issue are that I think we as a community need to discuss it.  My objection is that we are wasting time, money and  people, none of which we can afford to waste now or in the future.  On the other hand, there’s always an open mind hidden beneath my diatribes and if there’s a middle ground I’d love to find it.


Category: Agile Organizational Development PMO     Tags: ,

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Doug Hadden   July 19, 2010 at 1:00 pm


    Couldn’t agree with you more. BPM has become a cure-all in enterprise software. This has become a serious left brain vs right brain problem for many organizations. There are diminishing returns to articulating business process to the atomic level – if, in fact, this is possible.

    Many business decisions require human judgement because of the broad canvas of dimensions in play. Humans are often able to recognize changing conditions, recall historical precedent and process body language and facial expressions. The other problem is that business process articulation cannot define creative tasks.

    The use of macro business process makes a lot of sense. As does, the happy path or standard path. Exception handling is best accomplished by humans. And, processes that include creative pursuits such as the development of an advertising campaign should have black box stages. I think that the middle ground is somewhere around here.

    Imagine an life insurance underwriting process. It will be clear from data that most people are either very high risk or very low risk. The process for these people can be easily articulated – the “happy path”. Risk characteristics can be processed via neural nets or classification trees to provide some scoring. But, it is the underwriter who speaks with the potential client who can come to a more effective decision.

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