When Is It Okay to Deviate From a Standard Process?

Nov 4, 2015
7 Min Read

Standards are established for a reason in business -- repeatable processes yield repeatable results. But that doesn't mean some flexibility shouldn't be allowed under certain circumstances. The key is to identify those situations for your process to allow the flexibility needed and still get satisfactory results.

There are different schools of thought when it comes to deviating from standard processes. There are those people who take the hard line, “We’ll just fire anyone who doesn’t follow the process” and on the other end of the spectrum those who think everyone needs to be empowered to “do the right thing” whether it adheres to the standard process or not.

So what’s the right answer? Well, as you suspected, it depends. There can be many contributing factors to the reasons behind this issue. Some more accepted than others.

Take, for example, how different branches of the military handle it. As the authors indicate in their article, Which of These People Is Your Future CEO?: The Different Ways Military Experience Prepares Managers for Leadership:

“Each branch of the armed services makes a trade-off between process and flexibility. Navy and Air Force officers operate enormously expensive, interdependent systems such as submarines and aircraft carriers, where deviation from formal procedures can be extremely costly in terms of equipment and lives. Army and Marine Corps personnel, on the other hand, must constantly adjust to the realities on the ground. Their systems are modular and thus allow for greater flexibility. Subordinates have significant power to determine appropriate actions, always in accordance with the commander’s overall plan.”

Process Deviation Is Not The Enemy

Authors Mark J. Cotteleer and Elliot Bendoly wrote in their article Going Rogue:

“Deviation from standard work processes is common. But rather than view process deviation as the enemy, companies can use it to drive positive outcomes by applying behavioral principles in the workplace.”

Their comments are based on three studies conducted around the topic of process deviation.

  • Study 1: How persistent employees can be while pursuing the opportunity to deviate from the prescribed process when they believe it does not properly support actual business need.
  • Study2: Evaluates the impact of extrinsic motivation in the form of measurement and incentives.
  • Study 3: Whether and how information about the process failure was communicated to the rest of the organization and whether it was incorporated as a learning opportunity into the general process.

One of the key findings from the studies indicated:

“Employees’ intentions to deviate from standard process depend on how strongly they perceive there to be a technology misfit and the apparent availability of ways for them to circumvent the imposed system protocols. Importantly, workers appear to be resilient in their intentions when ways to work around the system are not readily available. Workers demonstrate patience as they search for circumvention pathways, initially complying with system protocols. In the frequent cases where the organization winds down its employee adoption efforts, the tenacious intention of such employees eventually manifests itself in process-deviation behavior.”

How To Keep Process Deviation Under Control

As always, it’s important to remember we’re working with people here so there are going to be any number of factors that come into play.

One of the most important being that people think they know better than those who created the process. This is particularly prevalent in organizations with longer tenured staff. The key to keeping these people aligned with your process is to involve them in the creation of any new processes right from the outset. Ownership can go a long way to making something stick in your company.

It’s also critically important that people are trained properly and included in any communication about the process. Training and communication are two things that can fall off the rails way too easily. Often perceived as “extra things to do,” they can be forgotten or moved to a low priority list. This will definitely work against you when it comes to a successful implementation.

Another step to take when people aren’t following a process is to just ask. Dig in and find out the “why” behind their actions. Maybe the new process takes too long or is way more complicated than it needs to be. People don’t want to feel bogged down trying to get their work done. And those closest to the process normally have great ideas for making it work better. Having a culture of continuous improvement where people feel safe to bring issues and solutions forward can help you out here. Be flexible enough to make changes to things that really aren’t working the way they were intended.

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