Process is a term often misunderstood.

Most people in business hear it and imagine Six Sigma black belts running around with visio diagrams, proclaiming process efficiency and such.  While that’s not wrong (for efficiency certainly has its place), process can and should be much more than that.

When I tell people that I’m process-focused, it means that I’m less concerned with the end result than with the how of getting there.  I don’t mean that you should ignore the result completely.  Far from it, in fact – a broken process can consistently yield terrible results.  But a broken process can also produce the desired end-game results.  This is an illusion; one that will be revealed in time, as the results begin to fade.

Nick Saban, the head football coach at the University of Alabama, is constantly espousing the benefits of “the process.”  Even his players talk about the capital-p Process during ESPN interviews.  It’s unlikely that Saban is referring to an advanced process-flow diagram.

Saban is instead referring to the same thing that legendary acting teachers like Constantin Stanislavsky, Stella Adler, Uta Hagen, and Eric Morris refer to: the technique you use on a consistent basis to be better at what you do.  That’s it.  Refining your process in acting is about doing the essential.  Non-actors might have heard of this as “the method.”

What’s essential in acting?  Normally it starts with communicating to your scene partner.  Karen, one of my first acting teachers, used to have us sit facing a partner, and repeat words back and forth with each other.  No inflection changes.  No “acting”, please.

If you modified your partner’s word in any way when you repeated it, Karen would say, “bullsh**”, and then you had to start over.  The process of repeating something said over and over to each other forged a connection to the other person.  It enabled the essential – communicating to another human being.

Only after communicating with someone can an actor develop more of her process: How does the character move?  What does she want?  Why does she want this?  Why does she feel this way, and what in my experience can I use to play the same?  Actors must move through the stages of this process in order to fully develop themselves as performers.  When that’s done, they’re ready to really play a part.

Similarly, Saban’s process at Alabama is about breaking down the complexities of football into building blocks: blocking, tackling, proper foot and hand placement, etc.  Only then would Saban and his staff focus on schemes and strategies.  When everyone has developed their own potential, by following the process, good things happen.

But the outcome of the entire process is, in a way, secondary.  For actors, focusing on winning awards or getting a starring role is the wrong way to approach things. Sure, you might stumble into a plum role, but then what?  How will you ensure that you’ll be successful, and that you’ll enjoy the experience?  By having solid process.

Saban’s process speaks for itself – his football program achieves a level of consistent success that is almost historic in its precedent.  Some might say, “But if he wasn’t winning football games, all his talk of process would be meaningless”.  And this is obviously true.  If he wasn’t winning football games, it would mean that the process was broken!

Fix the process, and focus on that, and the results will take care of themselves.  If they don’t, iterate the process, and try again.

So what, you ask?  What does a post about acting technique and a football coach’s osbession with process have to do with the rest of the world?  Most of us work in “results-oriented” environments, so it’s crucial that we root ourselves in solid process thought in order to be consistently effective.

I created this simple model for a struggling operations team recently, and it helped everyone focus on what could be controlled.  In time, results improved.

  1. What are we dealing with?  What is it, literally?  Do I understand it?  This might be a client request, or a widget.  But before you take action on it, you must know what it is.
  2. What does this mean?  This is trickier, but we should always look for ramifications of what we’re looking at.  For the operations team I helped, we often found widgets that were delayed.  What it meant was that we were in danger of missing client deadlines, and in turn, upsetting those customers.  There is chain of possible events.
  3. What must be done?  Are there set actions I should take?  Maybe it’s a new event and I need someone’s opinion first.  But if you don’t know what to do, find out!  Ask questions, and be humble in your lack of knowledge.
  4. Who else needs to know?  This is especially important in a customer service environment.  Will a client be upset if a widget is going to be 5 minutes late?  What about 25?  What about 3 days?  Who internally should know?  These things must be understood and acted upon.

This simple example of a process-oriented model (What is it, What does it Mean, What must I Do, Who should Know) helped our operations team improve customer satisfaction by 30% in one month.  But again, the outcome came from a solid process.  We didn’t reverse-engineer the process, we started with it.

So choose to be like a great actor, or like the best college football coach today.  Focus on perfecting and enjoying your process, whatever field you’re in, and results will come.

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