How much of what teams set out to do is actually accomplished largely depends on the optimal balancing of their attention between the content of their tasks or interactions between members and the processes which govern these interactions. Content means “what” is discussed, decided or applied, and process refers to “how” this is done. Many processes are content neutral and invisible to the team.
Ever since the middle of the last century, Kurt Lewin, a pioneer of social and organizational psychology, has researched the way hundreds of groups function and he found that most were “task-mesmerized”, that is they were focusing almost exclusively on what they had to do in the very next moment, ignoring reflections or discussions about how they were doing what they had to do.
In the culture we are part of, most business teams are still not only “task-mesmerized”, but also “effort-mesmerized”. This means the prevailing expectation, sometimes implicit, other times explicit, is that extra performance automatically translates into extra effort, and the members of the team who are the most highly regarded are the most exhausted ones.
The problem with the excessive or exclusive focus on what and how much there is to be done is that it ignores the pitfall-patterns any group of people can fall into, if they do not pay explicit attention to this. In the ‘70s, another social psychology professor, Dale Steiner, described the notions of “process loss” and “process gain”. This means there are processes which improve contents, and processes which sabotage them.
The way in which the members of a team discuss about what they are doing, the way they take decisions, the way they communicate these decisions, the dynamics of their relationships within the team, these are all processes which contribute to either better, or weaker results. For example, if in a team people don’t listen to each other and don’t let others finish their ideas, some frequently interrupt others and impose their point of view through the frequency and tonality of their interventions, or by means of appealing to formal or informal power, there are great chances that some members of the team will start to contribute less or not at all to discussions and decisions. This will lead to less information, so poorer decisions, or a lack of engagement in applying the decisions, so to a poorer outcome. Both consequences will diminish performance, and this will happen each time, regardless of the content of the decisions. If a team does not have a good process for capturing and monitoring of their own decisions, chances are many will not be applied evenly, and some will not be applied at all. If the way in which the decisions are discussed and taken systematically ignores some of the members’ expertise on the given topics, all members will be demotivated to accumulate extra expertise, which will negatively affect performance. And so on.
Another American psychologist, John Dewey, found in his research that people don’t learn from experience, but from the way they reflect on their own experience. In teams, things are even more complicated. Without regular collective reflection, the same experience lived by a team can trigger a type of learning for a member, a completely different type of learning for another member, and absolutely no learning for another. And when faced with a similar experience, they will act accordingly. On top of this, there is another layer: the reality that some processes are visible for everyone, others are only visible to some members, and others for none. They have already become simple routines everybody repeats automatically, without questioning their use or consequences. They are like water for fish.
From my experience in working with teams, mainly with leadership teams, an important reason for resistance to the discussions about processes inside the teams is they are more difficult to facilitate by the leader than the ones about tasks, projects and deliverables. They require the understanding of deeper concepts related to how people act and react, a bit more patience, and channeling the attention to details which are not as easily perceptible as the ones related to contents. And not last, facilitating process improvement requires the leader’s skill to lead the conversation rather by having the right questions, then having the right answers.
But the main obstacle in the way of correctly balancing the ratio between content and process in team performance is the conviction of many members that the discussions about processes is a nuisance keeping them from doing real work. Meaning they take time they would otherwise use to actually do something concrete. Quantitatively speaking, it is true. Qualitatively speaking, this is a big trap. The discussions and decisions about the team’s processes are work. A very important work, for that matter, which is, if you ask any high performing team, the main competitive advantage. In a world that is captive in emergencies and effort, a team’s ability to learn how to improve its processes allows it to solve increasingly complex, more ambitious tasks, with an increasingly greater impact, often with a significantly smaller use of resources (time, money, energy).