THE BLOG
11/28/2011 01:10 pm ET | Updated Jan 28, 2012

About Leadership: Content and Process

If we look at the jobs of senior management of a corporation, we might ask whether some people do content, and others process? I had not thought of jobs in this way until someone asked my colleague Tony Meggs, who was Group Vice President for Technology at BP, what he did and what I, as Chief Scientist, did. And he replied, 'Bernie does content, and I do process.'

Hmmm... that was interesting. Would anyone really prefer to have their role defined that way, or was he expressing a little jealousy of the fun parts of my job? As it happens, a few years earlier, when I was on the BP Oil Executive Committee, we had a member who often said he was a 'process junkie' and really liked thinking about how we did our business more than about what the business was that we did.

I suppose there is a role for process, and people whose jobs concentrate on it. But I never felt that any job I had was exclusively one or the other, and I don't think that any good leader (and by the way I include Tony in this category) only does process or only does content.

If you are going to think strategically about the business, you need to do both, and do them all the time. As one progresses through a company, you don't lose the technical content of your job, rather you exchange technical depth for technical breadth. And good leaders contribute to content as well as process.

But process is important, and great leaders try to innovate on process all the time. Companies that do things a certain way, or are organized a certain way, because that is how they always did it -- whether in HR processes, or capital projects, or any of a dozen process areas -- are stuck, and in danger of becoming as antiquated in their content as they are in their process. I have seen this happen with a Director of R&D in his position for a decade, who put in place a set of processes when he arrived and didn't change them. The productivity dropped after a few years, but he doggedly kept going.

The great thing about business processes, and for that matter the organizations we put in place to support the processes, are that they are disposable -- we try them, we use them, we suck the juice out of them, and then we move on to doing things a new way. Unsettling? Uncomfortable? Of course it is, and all the more reason to try it.

You might argue that certain approaches to business process are very enduring, not disposable at all. For example, each employee needs to have clear objectives, agree these with his or her boss, and be evaluated at least once a year on how he or she has performed against these objectives. The objectives need to be specific, measurable, achievable, etc. Fine. We can all agree on that.

But what happens next? And what happens also? Are those who did not succeed in meeting their agreed objectives punished, and if so how? Or are they coached, and if so by whom? Is the reward process supportive of the objective setting and appraisal process? How are team objectives set and appraised? Are there letter grades to indicate performance, or do we try to do this with words? There are no correct answers to these questions; there are lots of processes that can be built around even something as fundamental as performance appraisal, reward and grades.

And another example. Most companies have some sort of functional activity outside the business line activity. Who decides on the content of those activities? How is the funding for it accounted for internally? How much is centralized, how much is decentralized to different parts of the business? What is the time horizon of the program? For all of these things, we need process, and it must be process that is clearly understood by both the functional management and the business people. Because if it is not we will not be able to realize the value.

But the processes we have need not be for all times. By changing from centralized to decentralized we can often strip out programs that are not of interest to the business. By changing back to a centralized program a few years later one can find areas of overlap and duplication, and make better use of skills. Changing processes, viewing existing processes as disposable, is a tool of productivity improvement.

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