Process in the News: Understanding Process Through Everyday Life

By John Butcher

September 2013

Life is process. If you doubt that, just read, watch, or listen to the news any day of the week. Whether you prefer “hard” news, commentary, sports, economics, or entertainment, process is there in almost every story.

The Importance of Process

“What do you think of plans to abolish daylight savings time?”
“They stink.”
“I wasn’t consulted.”
“Yes, I know that, but what do you think of plans to abolish daylight savings time?”
“They stink.”
“I wasn’t consulted.”

Variations of that exchange are heard all the time. Content objections based on process failures! No one likes too much process - until something goes wrong. Then “the process let us down” becomes the common refrain.

Many groups are afraid that the situations they face are just so complex, or the emotions around them so heated, that only unilateral action will get anything done. That approach is usually self-defeating. As process facilitators, our job is both to design the thinking frameworks (processes) to enable people to consider their issues thoroughly, and provide the meeting management skills (facilitation) to ensure that people can talk openly and effectively with each other.

Many of our insights on how best to use (and not use) process and facilitation come from the lessons in the day’s news. Process facilitators can use the news to draw on shared experiences that illustrate how people apply process in everyday life. We are then better able to understand the processes ourselves, and to provide clear, quick, and interesting briefings to groups to set up and reinforce the use of specific processes.

Let’s look at five basic processes: Issue Analysis, Problem Analysis, Decision Analysis, Action Planning, and Action Research. We’ll use them to examine news stories and other public and organizational events through the lens of process.

Issue Analysis

We use Issue Analysis whenever a situation is vague or complicated-looking, and we want to disentangle things before acting. It’s nice when such a simple process is also so powerful. It consists of brainstorming the elements of a situation, then regrouping them into themes that can each be prioritized and addressed. Sadly, Issue Analysis is used infrequently where it is needed most - in identifying and focusing public policy priorities.

Still, when it has been used, it has proven effective. The “Prosperity Initiative” sponsored by a former (Progressive) Conservative government used Issue Analysis in a series of community meetings across the country to surface what “ordinary Canadians” felt must be done to reinvigorate the economy. It was gratifying to see the Cabinet Minister responsible trumpeting the results of these consultations. Using the same process again in 2012 to learn what citizens felt were the priorities for deficit reduction and budget allocations would have been useful, but polls and appeals to “core” voting constituencies are now more common.

Sadly, many organizations don’t understand that process and facilitation can help channel public concerns into productive responses. The National Capital Commission, which oversees much of the Ottawa-Gatineau area’s green space and many national institutions, proposed an animal “leash law” to restrict dogs running loose on its lands. A public meeting was held to describe the proposal, but no arrangements were made for public feedback or discussion. Organizers of the meeting were concerned that there would be confusion and acrimony if people were allowed to speak.

Not understanding that a simple process such as Issue Analysis, along with competent facilitation, would address those concerns, organizers provided no floor microphones at the meeting. A small thing like that didn’t deter participants. They simply stormed the stage, grabbed the microphone on the podium, and vented their outrage over both the content of the leash law and the lack of a feedback mechanism (process). The National Capital Commission looked incompetent, paranoid, and manipulative. Pet owners looked out of control (precisely a concern that prompted the leash law proposal in the first place), and much more bad feeling resulted. Most importantly, nothing was resolved or even discussed. An Issue Analysis exercise would have enabled the Commission and the public to identify common concerns and how to address them, and would have created a sense of shared ownership of the situation.

Problem Analysis

The process definition of a “problem” is very specific: a negative deviation from what is normal, desired, or expected. We do Problem Analysis when we need to separate “symptoms” from “causes”, and then identify the “root” cause(s), so that we can take action to truly correct the problem and prevent its recurrence. “Problems” of one kind or another are the staple of media reports. Coroners’ inquiries are Problem Analysis exercises. Investigations of riots, fires, bombings, unusual deaths, and other disasters use the same approach.

Hurricane Isaac struck Louisiana in August 2012, seven years to the day after Hurricane Katrina. In 2005, there were massive failures of levies and dams, leading to many deaths and the devastation of large parts of New Orleans. After assessing the “root causes” of that disaster, billions of dollars were spent redesigning and rebuilding the parts of the hurricane mitigation system that had failed in 2005. In 2012, they held. Problem Analysis successful!

In September-October 2012, an e-coli outbreak was traced back to meat processed in a Brooks, Alberta plant. How had the contamination arrived and how did it survive? By any global “norm”, our meat products - and Canada’s food system as a whole - are very safe. But in this case, it appears that a tenderizing process drove the bacteria deep into the meat, and that the cooking temperatures were not sufficient to eradicate the nasty bits. Some critics argue that large, centralized meat processing plants increase the likelihood that such incidents will occur, and increase their scope and seriousness when they do (the “system” as root cause). Others see these as one-off tragedies attributable to specific human failures or negligence in a particular time and place (a variation on the “bad apple” or “rogue agent” theory). So what are the “corrective actions” to reduce the probability and consequences of meat contamination? More public inspections? Better-trained inspectors? More private-sector oversight? Strict adherence to procedures? More “organic” meat production? All of the above? All we know is that no food system is absolutely safe, that a “norm” of zero incidents is unrealistic, and that this kind of thing will happen again.

The deaths of police officers always elicit much public attention. Policing is considered dangerous work. In July 2007, a police officer was killed in Peel Region, a growing suburban area north of Toronto. The death was tragic. But from a process perspective, just how serious is the “problem” of police deaths in the line of duty? In fact, this was the first police death in Peel Region since 1984. Similarly, an Ottawa police officer was murdered in 2009, the first officer to be killed while on duty in this city since the 1950s. Agriculture, forestry, and construction are many times more physically dangerous occupations than policing. But we accept deaths in those occupations far more readily because they are so “normal”.

In the United States, more people have been killed by guns than in all the wars in which that country has ever participated. Yet the debate still rages whether guns in themselves are a “problem”. For Canada’s federal Conservative Party, as with the National Rifle Association in the United States, the only agents of crime are humans. Inanimate objects, such as weapons of any kind, are not relevant. Both Conservatives and NRA members consider discussion of gun control to be a dangerous distraction from the real priority of punishing criminals for their behaviour. On another side of the debate, many believe that the ready availability of weapons such as hand guns and semi-automatic rifles increases the likelihood that more serious and deadly crimes will be committed. The murders of school children and staff in Newtown, Connecticut in December 2012 will not resolve this debate. Both sides saw their world views confirmed in that tragic event.

In April 2013, a clothing factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing over 1100 people. What were the “root” causes of this disaster? An inquiry concluded that substandard building materials, disregard of building codes, inappropriate (corrupt?) construction approvals, and workers forced to return to the job despite well-known safety risks were responsible. While not minimizing these local, “proximate” causes, many blamed the pricing tyranny of the international brand-name clothiers for forcing countries such as Bangladesh, with their impoverished workforces, to cut corners on safety in order to remain as competitive suppliers.

In early July 2013, a runaway train overturned and exploded in the middle of Lac-Mégantic, in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, destroying the town’s core, and killing almost 50 people. Even before any formal inquiry began, the Chair of Canada’s Transportation Safety Board declared: “We hold by the theory that no accident is ever caused by one thing {i.e. an employee’s failure to apply the train’s safety brakes properly}. It is always a series of things and it always involves an organization and how they operate …. It never comes down to one individual.”

This notion that all major “problems” are, a priori, systemic contrasts with what many see as attempts by the RCMP and other police forces to assign blame for inappropriate or criminal behaviour by their officers simply on “bad apples” or one-off stressful situations. Neither approach seems particularly useful in trying to identify the true root causes of things that go horribly wrong.

Finally, here is an example of Problem Analysis in one of the most contentious areas of public policy and law enforcement - sexual assault. The norm in many parts of the world is that people are free to report when a crime has been committed against them. At the same time, we do not accuse others frivolously. The problem (in Canada, at least) was that many women were refusing to come forward to report instances of sexual assault, even when the evidence appeared to be overwhelming. The root cause of this reluctance was that a woman’s medical and psychological records, as well as her sexual history, could be made public during a trial. Trials became defense inquiries into whether a woman had “deserved” to be assaulted, or had “asked for it” because of her lifestyle, or even her clothing. The action to address this “root cause” was legislation protecting women from having certain types of information introduced during sexual assault trials. As a result, more cases of sexual assault, often many years old, began to come forward.

Decision Analysis

The news is full of examples of Decision Analysis in action. Groups use this process when they need to make a choice from among alternatives based on pre-determined criteria. Inherent in Decision Analysis is the use of mandatory (“screen”) and non-mandatory (“comparison”) criteria. The former are used to eliminate inappropriate alternatives (“This sports car just won’t seat five kids”), the latter to assess the surviving alternatives so that we can make a preliminary choice before running it through risk assessment (“Purple and tangerine trim on the house would be cute, but the neighbours will laugh”). We avoid using too many screen criteria, because failure to pass through any one of them will eliminate an alternative from further consideration.

The 2008 financial services industry bail-out, and the host of other rescue and stimulus measures taken by countries around the world since then to shore up their economies, raised interesting questions about the criteria for priority public expenditures. The $1 trillion US bail-out of that country’s banking system could have, for instance, paid for 100 years of global AIDS prevention, or funded any number of social, educational, public health, or regional development initiatives at home or abroad. But there has never been any serious political or public support for such massive expenditures on even the worthiest projects.

There has been much talk that greater “transparency” must be added to both the regulations and culture of institutional governance (public, private, and not-for-profit). But how is transparency defined, how do we know when it exists, and to what extent are its principles inviolable or simply one of many criteria of good governance that shift in priority, depending on the situation?

For example, there are difficult decisions around what firms and regulators should reveal to the public about the operations of financial institutions. Manulife is North America’s largest insurer. In 2008, Canadian regulators had serious concerns about the risks associated with some Manulife products. The criterion of transparency would surely have led to public disclosure of those risks, wouldn’t it? No! In this case, regulators (and, of course, Manulife) felt that the stability of the financial services industry should trump transparency. So, even though there were potential unwitting and unwilling victims of this behavior, their interests were submerged to those considered more important. In the context of Decision Analysis, transparency was clearly a “comparison” (nice-to-have) criterion, not a “screen” (inviolable, non-negotiable).

In the 2012 U.S. national elections, what criteria guided voters’ decisions on their choices of President and Congressional representatives? In many states, individuals split their votes between Republican and Democratic candidates. There is a long-standing investigation - both academic and journalistic - into why some economically-depressed states vote for “small government” candidates who are opposed to most publically-funded initiatives, either economic or social. Since these states are heavily rural - a constituency that traditionally favours less government presence except, perhaps, when it comes to agricultural subsidies - to what extent does ideology trump self-interest?

On a much lighter note, participants in a recent facilitation skills workshop were discussing applications of the Decision Analysis process. A participant immediately suggested that on-line dating services were ideal examples of this process in action. Participants set criteria for what they want to see in any potential partner and what they want to experience in their relationship. They then assess alternatives (i.e. other participants in the dating service) against those criteria. This assessment is followed by a preliminary choice, resulting in a first date - the occasion for an initial risk assessment. This enables their final decision whether to continue the relationship or call it off. So, if you want a quick, uncomplicated description of Decision Analysis to help your own memory or to use when briefing a group, just think of on-line dating!

Finally, if your invitation (like mine) to the 2011 British royal marriage of William and Kate did not arrive, we can only speculate on the criteria used to decide who would be invited, and where in the church they would sit. How could anyone devise a set of criteria that would stand up to the scrutiny of both the Royal watchers in the British press and the thousands of disappointed people denied admission to the social event of the year (decade, century)? One thing we do know is that the Queen herself vetoed Sarah Ferguson’s attendance. But we can only guess at the criteria the Queen used. More recently, what criteria were used to determine the name of Kate’s and William’s first-born? “George” is a perfectly good name, with strong royal tradition, but so are many others.

Action Planning

This is a process we all feel we’ve nailed down. Who hasn’t planned an “action”? In process terms, Action Planning is “the framework for accomplishing a task”. The purpose of Action Planning is to ensure successful completion of the task by anticipating and controlling the things that can go wrong. As a result, risk assessment - and the setting of actions to prevent those risks from arising - are central to Action Planning. This process is much more complicated (and useful) than simply running around doing things.

Organizational change initiatives (including downsizing and mergers) ultimately focus on Action Planning. The full process plays out when staff reductions are involved. Typically, such reductions must satisfy the twin criteria of saving costs while maintaining service or production standards. One approach is to let attrition take care of most of the reductions. The “risks” in using attrition are that key staff may leave, that staff reductions won’t necessarily be in the most appropriate areas, and that organizational memory will be lost. The “preventative action” to mitigate these risks can be to phase in the reductions over a longer period, based on a thorough human resource needs assessment. If this preventative action fails to have the intended results, the “contingent action” is often to make the phase-in period even longer, to do more contracting out, or to temporarily hire back laid-off staff (although this might upset the cost-saving criterion). The “trigger” for implementing the contingent action is skill shortages or mismatches, and falling service or production standards.

The organization of Olympic Games are among the most complex Action Planning exercises imaginable - all carried out under the glare of local and international scrutiny. Architectural plans and building permits, security systems (with all of their preventative actions and contingency plans), environmental assessments, construction, ticketing systems and public relations, athletes’ health (never mind the feeding of all of those high-performance bodies), transportation systems, opening and closing ceremonies, scheduling of events, testing for drugs - literally millions of tasks all focused on a single, short window of time. And there is not even a real “break in” period: something works or it doesn’t.

We also see Action Planning whenever there are serious floods or forest fires. Planning how and where to deploy physical and human resources to minimize the dangers to homes and the environment requires consideration of risks (river banks and barriers overwhelmed, fires changing direction with wind shifts, etc.), preventative and contingent actions, and the pre-identification of certain triggers that will engage such actions.

Action Research

This is just a straightforward term for the “continuous improvement cycle” and other expensive-sounding exercises. Action Research gives us the opportunity to assess what we have done - either retrospectively or in real time - so that we can identify what has gone well, areas of concern or mishap, and how to address them. In this respect, Action Research combines some of the thinking approaches of Problem Analysis, Decision Analysis, and Action Planning.

For example, many individuals, not-for-profit organizations, businesses, and governments are closely monitoring the directions playing out in the “Arab Spring” - that uprising of popular indignation against corrupt, inefficient, and autocratic regimes in several countries in north Africa and the Middle East. If new governments are not able to address the immediate root causes behind the uprisings (lack of economic opportunity, the daily humiliations inflicted by bullying officials, etc.), then those governments will be replaced by popular decision. If there is no coherent short- and long-term planning to address systemic shortfalls in what citizens expect from their governments and societies, then the gains of the Arab Spring will soon unravel, or take other, perhaps less-desirable, directions. But each day, the same basic Action Research questions is asked: “What is working well? What concerns do we have? How can those concerns be addressed?”

International election monitoring teams are on the lookout both for signs that the democratic ethic is taking hold and for signs that it is being trampled. They then recommend how to protect and nurture it. Parent/teacher evenings are Action Research sessions. So are site meetings between architects and building contractors. Any time you ask someone “How’s it going?”, you are doing Action Research.

Every well-functioning organization uses Action Research, by whatever name, to ensure that its services, policies, products, people, structures, and processes are aligned with their needs and ambitions. This process is the basis for much of what we call the “learning organization”. When used consistently and well, it is a powerful little process that can keep things on track and prevent major problems from occurring.

If It Was Only So Simple!

Significant public and personal events rarely include only one process. Perhaps the biggest “process” news story in the past 25 years was “Y2K” leading up to the new millennium in 2000. This simple, innocent-sounding term became shorthand for everything from “Your computer might lose your shopping list” to “You will die a horrible and agonizing death from the complete breakdown of all basic functions in our society”. Y2K had the ingredients for the full range of processes:

  • a tangled group of issues (leavened by millenarian angst);
  • an anticipated problem with clear root causes;
  • decisions on where individuals, organizations, and society should invest to preempt the problem;
  • large-scale planning to marshal the human, financial, and technological resources to implement those decisions; and,
  • continuous monitoring (action research) to see whether unanticipated concerns were arising and whether the actions were really working.

When nothing happened at midnight on December 31, 1999, many news outlets declared Y2K the “non-event of the millenium”. And some people still speak as if Y2K was somehow a gigantic hoax perpetrated by computer service firms and other techies out to make a quick buck from public and institutional anxiety. But, as facilitators, we could well see it as a clear triumph of effective process!