09 April 2006

Process v. Product

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

We live in a culture that is focused on product, broadly defined: on the completion of a task, achievement of a high mark, creation of an object, or sale of a good. From the smallest school-age child to the biggest corporate chieftain, the “winning isn’t everything – it’s the only thing” framework is, for all practical purposes, the only one under which we live. God may love a tryer, but American society loves success.

As a consultant, one of the most difficult things I do on a daily basis is negotiate between the a client’s desire for a successful product and the value of helping a client improve the processes needed to achieve that product. While those sound like they might be the same – both end with success and product – in the business of consulting, the very idea of product has multiple, often conflicting, meanings. At one level there is the straightforward project: being hired by an organization to (let’s say) help raise visibility for some new program or initiative, and being judged by the client on the basis of its outcome. If the firm has done its job well and the program was successful, then the firm and the client all move on to the next thing, gratified by the attentions of a major newspaper, a marked increase in audience, or the financial favors of wealthy donors. If the process turns out to be less successful than we or the client expected, then we go back, analyze, reassess, and the firm and the client make decisions about next steps. Given the focus on success – on product – this analysis sometimes means that clients go looking for greener consulting pastures. This does not happen often, but when it does, it may be the best path for all concerned.

Sometimes, however, the product for which my firm is hired is the process itself. For example, a small museum might find that – despite critically-acclaimed exhibitions and respectable attendance – it cannot gain the momentum it needs to keep pace with inflationary costs and rising community expectations. We will be hired to analyze the institution’s position in the community and within the broader field; to help the museum articulate its short- and long-term goals; and to work with it to develop an achievable, realistic path to meet those goals. Although no one normally speaks of it this way, this is often a therapeutic kind of consulting; discussions may take place under the umbrella of terms such as “strategic planning” or “management consulting,” but the consulting role can be more akin to therapist than business planner.1

And, much as with psychotherapy, this is also where things become much more complicated – and potentially more meaningful – because there is so much that can be learned from process, separate and apart from product. It does not take a genius to make the observation that management is hard work; even under the best of circumstances, not every member of every crew pulls their own weight all of the time. People’s personalities and needs can obscure or reveal problems, aid or obstruct work flow, and cause all sorts of unpredictable jam-ups. Unlike the individual who goes for therapy seeking better self-awareness, for even the smallest organization such investigations come with a package of detail that looks at how each employee is performing, how each office or department functions, the nature and value of its leadership, and whether the sum of the parts is as strong and fluid as it can or should be.

Achieving product seems like a no-brainer; we learn this as children, the very first time we are rewarded for a successful accomplishment of one kind or another. But one has to prepare for process; it does not always come naturally. When an individual seeks therapy, they have chosen to have someone hold up a mirror for them; they willingly engage in the concept of self-study, self-examination, guided by a therapist. For an organization, though, the decisions are not always so clear-cut: the consultant may be scrutinizing people who did not ask to be examined, or may be pushing an organization’s employees to look at their own weaknesses or job failures in pursuit of a larger set of goals they do not support or care about.

In a business situation no less than a personal one, we consultants have to take care to insulate ourselves appropriately – to protect against over-identifying with the client’s struggles, and to be supportive of their efforts to address their challenges, whether successful or not. Sometimes, the most difficult part is to address a client’s expectations at the outset: to say to a client that the benefits of process are not always, immediately, better product. The very “process” of institutional analysis may be the start of a much longer-term set of changes than any simple “product” might represent. And: you, the client, might fail.

It is tempting to believe that the obvious answers are always the best ones, but it is not always true: for a company that makes 1,000 widgets a year, the answer to continued success and growth is not necessarily to make 2,000 widgets a year; it might be to diversify, to make a 1,000 widgets and 1,000 do-dads. In an arts context, the analogies are similar: just because one blockbuster exhibition was successful, producing more blockbusters is not necessarily the answer to the question: What’s next? (We see this all the time with movie studios: Movie X is a hit, so clearly the best thing to do is throw twice as many resources into producing Move X, Part II. Alas, we are also all too familiar with the tragic results!)

Engaging in a process of self-examination – freed from a concern about a specific end product – is not easy for most organizations. In fact, it is often frustrating, fraught, and fragile, and for the consultants requires drawing on intuition and psychology as much as any body of knowledge. Yet when managed properly, the process will turn out to be the best product: it helps an organization and its people grow, enabling them to look at themselves – their challenges, and their strengths, individually and as part of an institution – and learn. That’s the kind of success that is gratifying beyond all measure.

1At least, in the world of arts and culture, wherein lies the preponderance of my experience.


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