One of the favorite parts of my job is helping to grow the already amazing leaders on the Sensei Labs team. Our culture is perhaps the most important thing we can invest in, helping to build a scalable framework anchored by our SENSEI values (Selflessness, Empathy, Nimbleness, Skills, Entrepreneurialism, and Integrity). It’s a privilege to get to work with our talented leadership team to develop themselves and their teams along those axis. We believe there are two critical inflection points in everyone’s career arc at which your focus and time allocation need to shift: from individual contributor to first-time leader and from leader of individual contributors to leader of leaders. We concentrate most of our coaching and leadership training on those two points because they have by far the most return on investment and biggest impact on our teams’ careers.
Those shifts are really changes in leverage — we think about it in terms of the value you can create from every hour of work you do. As an individual contributor, an hour of work creates one hour of value. As a leader of a team, your work enables your team to produce their contributions so your value is a multiple of theirs. Leaders of leaders have even more leverage because their work is leveraged by the leaders under them and then by their contributors. Picture the typical marketing conversion funnel we all know and love, where prospects come into the top of funnel and are converted through a series of conversion points — now invert the shape of the funnel into an amplifier so that each conversion multiplies the work.
Marketing funnel, which converts prospects from top of funnel at left to sales at right.
Leverage amplifier, which converts individual contributors’ work at left into far greater value at right.
Now imagine you could you add leverage at the top of funnel, making your individual contributors even more effective. The same amplifying effect remains, resulting in even greater value creation. Every organization we work with across every industry and in every geography has a giant legacy of manual, low-value work that their team members spend a significant portion of their time completing. This low-value work is also low-engagement — we’ve all had those repeated tasks that take a bunch of our time – that we hate doing – and procrastinate as much as possible. Those tasks tend to be found at the bottom of the org chart both because they’re most cost effectively completed by more junior team members and because, frankly, they’re the first to get delegated. If your top of funnel individual contributors spend a quarter of their time on low-value, repetitive, manual work, an hour of their time might really only be worth 45 minutes of value creation. Now your amplifier is starting at a deficit so the end result will be a fraction of what it could be and the low-engagement work will lead to a higher attrition rate on your team. How do you reverse that long standing trend and engage your team while driving efficiency? Technology to the rescue.
Digital business process management
The COVID pandemic has radically accelerated the digital transformation that was already underway at the start of 2020. It’s hard to understand how much the world has changed in the last twelve months. At the end of April 2020, only two months into lockdown, Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella shared some incredible stats about the transformation they had witnessed:
That rate only accelerated over the next ten months. A McKinsey Global Survey of executives in late 2020 found that their companies have accelerated the digitization of their customer and supply-chain interactions and of their internal operations by three to four years. With that digitizations comes business process management (BPM), which should significantly amplify the efforts of your individual contributors. In fact, US productivity in the third quarter of 2020 rose 4.6%, following a 10.6% increase in the second quarter, which is the largest six-month improvement since 1965.
BPM isn’t a new idea. An earlier form, business process automation (BPA), traces its routes back to steam engines and the industrial revolution. BPM got its start in the 1980s with the advent of early Enterprise software from IBM and their peers that provided early workflow management solutions. Management technologies like Six Sigma came along and added some scientific rigor to the mapping and redesign of processes. GE famously adopted Six Sigma in 1995 and reported some $12 billion in savings just five years later. Lean manufacturing principles from Toyota’s Production System, adapted by Eric Ries into The Lean Startup, continued the same trend. Six Sigma and Lean are sometimes grouped into the business process improvement (BPI) camp that includes various approaches to map existing processes, analyze their weak spots, and re-engineer them to be far more efficient. You might think of BPM as the combination of BPI and BPA — improve existing processes and then automate them so they are easier and more efficient to manage.
We’re now on the cusp of a new generation of BPM, enabled by new technologies like Conductor. Forbes is anticipating that 2021 will be the year in which automation accelerates and business will be redefined. The authors believe we’ll see a number of changes, including companies bringing IP and operations back in-house in a more cost effective fashion, better and more personal relations enabled by team members focusing on high-value work, and management focusing on success measured not by team size but by output. There’s good reason to agree with them — recent research has shown that 45% of the activities individuals are paid to perform can be automated. In the US alone that represent about $2 trillion in annual wages. They found that 60% of current occupations could be automated at a 30% level, meaning that the impact is not only low-wage and/or low-skill jobs but also all the way up the org chart to the executive level.
For many organizations 2020 was lost to a mad scramble to adapt to the crisis, take care of their people, stabilize operations, and reinvent business models. 2021 will hopefully see less pressure on those fronts and an opportunity to revisit clunky, hacked together solutions into elegant, automated, and highly performing systems that retain the organizational knowledge learned over the last year but optimized into a finely tailored operating system.
Status reporting: a case study
Let’s look at modern BPM through a very practical and relevant example: status reporting. We’ve found that very consistently, across our partners and customers and across company/project sizes and industries, about 25% of work effort is lost to status reporting. This includes everything from figuring out current status to assembling reports to delivering them and meeting to discuss and review. We often empower our customers to deliver transformation, procurement optimizations, or M&A transactions that take many years with hundreds of team members. Let’s ballpark that at 200 people for three years — or about 416,000 hours per year for a total of 1,248,000 hours. Over the life of that project, 312,000 hours will be spent on status reporting.
If that number seems high, check out one of our favorite HBR articles: This Weekly Meeting Took Up 300,000 Hours a Year. The authors did an informal study of an unnamed large corporation and found that the weekly executive committee meeting consumed 300,000 hours a year of effort. The math behind that is striking: the committee members spent 7,000 hours a year preparing for and participating in the meetings. Their 11 unit heads spent 20,000 hours preparing status updates and delivering them to committee members. The 21 teams below them spent 63,000 annual hours in meetings to synthesize those reports. Finally, 130 prep meetings among the workers added 210,000 hours a year. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that the average salary among all those people is $100k — or about $50/hr.
No one likes status work. It’s tedious to figure out what the current status is, especially when it involves combing through Outlook and Teams for the most recent updates and Excel and PowerPoint for data and reports. Microsoft Office 365 apps are brilliant at the thing they’re built to do, but that thing isn’t orchestrating enterprise-level projects and providing real-time status in an efficient manner. Plus, it’s filled with the potential for errors attributable to version control nightmares and human error. A significant amount of that time can go to pulling data out of one system like Jira and then massaging it through other tools like Excel to prepare a graph that can be embedded into a PowerPoint deck to be emailed around before meeting to review it. Every stage of that process is boring, manual work that would be better done by software.
This is where Enterprise Orchestration comes into play. Platforms like Conductor can be configured as a custom-tailored operating system for your organization, designed to quickly and easily gather weekly status (15 minutes per person per week) and then automate generating all of the dashboards, notifications, and status reports (including custom template PowerPoint decks). Moving work out of emails and SharePoint into a modern, virtual environment can include rapid, informal discussion and response in Teams paired with the formal, auditable collaboration in Conductor. Workflow engines like our Task Templates can model processes and approval chains in no-code environments, automating common tasks and all of the governance around them. Executing those processes in a purpose-built tool creates an extensive trail of ‘digital exhaust’, providing deep data and analytics about project execution and an early warning detection system for identifying and resolving issues.
Governance visibility has increased with less work, enabling PMOs to focus on higher-value orchestration efforts. The much despised ‘status meeting’ has gone from reviewing hand assembled PowerPoint decks to much shorter exception handling sessions that look at live data on real-time dashboards.
Elevate your business processes webinar
Our teams work with some of the world’s largest professional service providers and organizations to plan, track, and deliver their most critical initiatives. Join us on March 18th for a webinar in which we will discuss our work helping our partners and customers to elevate their business process and transform to thrive.
Join the webinar
What the webinar on demand: Automate Business Processes Orchestrated with Sensei Labs Conductor Platform. We’ll discuss the trends and tools that the world’s biggest companies leverage to accelerate their mange their complex business processes at scale.