Can Process Improve Communication?

It is with some frequency that I am presented with inaccurate process documentation. The degree of accuracy varies but what’s interesting is that the degree of accuracy varies depending on who you ask. One version of a process, involving multiple actors, can range from a perfect representation of reality (impossible!) to unrecognizable (probably closer to the truth) within a single team!

Keith Swenson, referencing Cognitive Nueroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, describes how process descriptions can be full of inaccuracies because of the mind’s need for coherence. We give more weight to a coherent story than an accurate one. As a result, when interviewing process participants, they are as likely to fill in the gaps of their knowledge of the process with something that makes sense than what actually happens.

In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman describes the human mind as two systems he calls System 1 and System 2. System 1 is your intuitive mind, it is the part of the mind that reacts instantly to sudden events, it is in control when we are completing simple tasks, it recognizes faces, sounds and smells. Often our intuitive minds fly solo, allowing us to complete tasks on autopilot without much thought or concentration.

System 2 is your rational mind, the part that calculates mathematical problems, the part that works through complex puzzles and formulates thoughtful responses to problems and is used in situations where high levels of concentration are required.

Our intuitive mind makes assumptions based on past experience, norms and memories often without consulting our rational mind. According to Kahneman our rational mind is lazy and allows the intuitive side to create these assumptions without question. When an individual describes a process, of which they have incomplete knowledge, the intuitive mind fills in the gaps as it would expect to do those steps in the process it does not know. This feels natural to us, when our rational mind is at rest, the coherence of the described process feels right and the rational mind is not called in to check the validity.

This is why I prefer running collaborative workshops involving multiple process actors rather than individual interviews. Watching them attempt to fill in the gaps for each other can be quite colorful. Process workshops force disagreements and a search for consensus and bring our rational minds into play. It forces us to both mentally and verbally question what we see and hear. While this allows, to some extent, the discovery of the truth it has another powerful effect, it creates a level of mutual understanding between players that improves communication. The act of talking through and visualizing a process can often, in my experience, actually improve the effectiveness of that process without any attempt to change it. Process improvement suggestions are common in these sessions but they are a by-product of improved communication.