Thinking about processes as “science” and “art”

One of my most gratifying but ultimately unsuccessful work assignments was to create an offering to open up an attractive new market segment. It was gratifying because many things went well–we developed a strong brand, quickly took up a position of authority and insight, and sold several important deals. It was unsuccessful mainly because we struggled to deliver the deals we’d won. The operations team, rather than celebrating these new wins, came to dread them. They wanted more certainty and definition–I countered that this was new stuff which we couldn’t pin down yet.

I was thinking about this experience while reading “When Should A Process Be Art, Not Science?” in the March 2009 Harvard Business Review. The authors, Joseph Hall and Eric Johnson of the Tuck School of Business, argue that while many processes benefit from a scientific, methodological approach (such as McDonald’s formula for frying burgers), other processes defy standardization and, in fact, are better off not being standardized. The authors call these “artistic” processes and cite such widely dispersed examples as the creation of a Steinway piano, auditing, and customer service. Complex sales, channel management, new business development, requirements gathering are other examples of artistic processes.

Most simply, Hall and Johnson call artistic processes those with high variability and, crucially, value of variability to customers [in this case also meaning internal customers]. In other words, a process that yields different results to a customer that wants consistency isn’t an artistic process, it’s a mess.

The “artistic process” argument parallels the definition of the Cynefin framework, defined in Kurtz & Snowden’s paper “The New Dynamics of Strategy: Sensemaking in a Complex and Complicated World” and discussed in Snowden and Boone’s 2007 HBR article, “A Leader’s Framework For Decisionmaking.” The scientific processes defined by Hall and Johnson fit into Cynefin’s Known or Simple domain, while the artistic processes sit in the Complex domain.

Six Sigma adherents would claim that the segmentation of processes into scientific and artistic subsets merely excuses obstinate “artists” who don’t wish to constrain their freedom by submitting to any defined process (salespeople and sales managers are frequent targets of this accusation). Helpfully, Hall and Johnson discuss how they would propose measuring artistic processes–by harnessing customer feedback. They write:

An artistic process has to rely on external measures of success. Artists need continual exposure to customer feedback, which prevents them from constructing their own idiosyncratic notion of quality. Sometimes this feedback must come from a broad swath of customers. For example, medical professionals obviously have to work closely with all afflicted patients to diagnose and treat complex diseases – to obtain a complete picture of their symptoms and track their reactions to remedies. With other processes, including those used to product Steinway’s high-end pianos, feedback from a select group of customers can suffice.

Meaning: to check how you’re doing on non-mechanized processes, it is necessary to query the customers of the process and draw conclusions from their feedback about the process’ effectiveness. This means getting deeper feedback than we are accustomed to. For sales, it means not only tracking that a deal was won or lost, but why it was won or lost, and what could/should have been done differently, in the customers’ eyes. A lot of the work I’ve been doing in the past year has focused on this–measuring how a company is doing in telesales, or customer service, or account management by gathering customer stories and finding patterns in them revealing what customers value, or deep issues they have. [Now I have more help to describe the value of this work!]

Back to my new-business assignment. In looking back on that experience, one serious issue we had was the collision of artistic processes (marketing, sales, solution development) and scientific ones (operations, call center management, etc.). What seemed at the time to be misunderstanding or lack of teamwork may have been a poorly defined interface between the artistic processes of innovation and business development and the scientific ones required to deliver value to real customers.

Related posts:
Buyers, tell companies why they lost your business
Leaders need to manage complexity

(Photo by a hundred visions and revisions via Flickr Creative Commons)

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