You and I are throwing a party or: Understanding Process Design

In my previous article, I shared what I learned by talking to 25 Process Designers. Since publishing, I’ve continued having conversations, and every time I had a discussion with someone, I got the question: “What is Process Design?”

Marc Vollebregt
5 min readMar 15, 2018

Many still don’t know what Process Design is, and don’t understand its value. Today, I want to explain what it exactly is. To do this, I need to break up the question in two parts. First I’ll explain what I mean with process. After this I’ll explain what a process design is!

Content vs. Process

What is process? I can explain this best with an example. Imagine you and I decide to throw a party together. While organising, we can discuss two things: the content and the process.

With content I refer to what we are working on. To organise the party we have to ask ourselves where and when we will throw this party, who is going to play music, and who we are going to invite. All questions are content-focused.

We can also focus on our process. We can think about how we work together. What do you and I expect of ourselves, each other, and the party? How are we communicating? And how do we make decisions?

This two-way thinking about working together is called the Walnut Model or the Content/Process Model coming from the Swedish Defence University.

The model is a great tool to understand what happens when a team works together. For example, let’s take it back to our party. You expect this party to be the best night of your life, yet I just think of it as my usual saturday night. You want to communicate face-to-face, while I communicate only by mail. And by the way, whenever I need to make a decision, I take it on my own without involving you or letting you know.

What happens when we only focus on the content but not on the process? Exactly, we’ll throw a bad party. Something we both don’t want.

Organizational Problems

Let’s leave our party for what it is. What has this got to do with problems in the workplace? Organizations and teams are networks of people (you and I) working together to achieve a common goal (our party). Emeritus MIT Professor and organizational development heavyweight Edgar Schein believes that:

“All organizational problems are fundamentally problems involving human interactions and processes. No matter what technical, financial, or other matters may be involved, humans are always involved in the design and implementation of them.”

According to Schein, all organizational problems are interpersonal problems. No matter how technical the issue is. Humans created the problem and are in the end responsible for the solution.

All organizational problems are interpersonal.

The more we understand about these processes and how we diagnose and improve them, the greater our chances are of finding a better solution to our problems. The greater chances are these solutions will be accepted and used by all members of the team or organization.

What a Process Designer does

A Process Designer gives you an understanding of the process and the interpersonal problems. They give you insight into what is going on around you, within you and between you and other people. Remember that you and I were both expecting something else from our party? A Process Designer makes us aware of this and gives us tools to align our expectations.

Because all of today’s organizational problems are interpersonal, the client holds both problem and solution.

If an organization or a team needs to come up with a solution for a problem, a Process Designer does a couple of things. They think about where the organization or team are right now and what the goal is. Then they decide on the best way for the organization or team to come up with the solution themselves. As mentioned in my previous article, Process Designers help others help themselves. This is the most sustainable solution. If the same problem or a similar one arises, the team is capable of solving it by themselves.

I believe that learning how you can solve the problem yourself, is the process as well! Thinking about how you can do this the best way possible, is designing it.

Sometimes, a Process Designer will come in and have a session with the organization or team. Then, they are facilitating. Sometimes, this is the whole process, other times it’s part of the process.

What a Process Designer then does depends on the organization, problem and the desired outcome. They can host a workshop, coach others, help with a cultural change, facilitate a strategy–, innovation– or a co–creation session. All depending on the situation.

Why is this relevant?

So you ask yourself why this is relevant? Let me show you.

The world is changing at a faster pace every day. To keep up with this pace, organizations need to innovate to stay relevant for their customers. The problems organizations deal with are bigger, more complex and have more stakeholders than ever. Moreover, organizations become more diverse with people from different backgrounds and points of view, and they need to work together to come up with solutions.

Process Design is becoming more and more important to channel productively the potential of the organization or team to come up with the most creative solutions.

Furthermore, we have a huge problem today. My generation — Millennials — and the generations to come, want their work to be meaningful. On the other hand, organizations want their work to be meaningful as well, since they want the best employees. Research shows that people find their work is meaningful when they:

  • Have autonomy — they are in control of their own choices
  • Can deal with complexity, are able to master new skills and improve
  • Have a direct connection between effort and reward — seeing the payoff of their work, whether financial, spiritual or other ways

A lot of times, focusing on the process enables organizations, teams and individuals to change the way things are, which makes them more in control of the decisions they’re making. By working with the process, chances are greater that you will successfully deal with complexity and find better solutions to your problems which will be accepted and used by everyone in your organization or team!

Process Design allows you to focus on both what you work on and how you work, the content and process. This will create a better outcome which is meaningful and rewarding! Back to that party we were planning at the start of this article, using Process Design to align our expectations and know how we want together, we both are going to throw the party we want!

What do you think?

I am much more interested in knowing what you think! Share your thoughts in the comments, via mail or Linkedin, or let’s grab a cup of coffee!