People vs. Process: How To Successfully Handle The Conflict When Both Collide

“When faced with a decision of people vs. process, choose your people first, and then design processes that optimize your people’s inputs and outputs” ~ Seun Adetayo

In this 4th of our 7-part leadership series, I turn attention to a common challenge faced by all leaders and managers – navigating People vs. Processes. All successful businesses and organizations depend on both their people and their processes and systems. The challenge comes in when there’s a conflict of both, and you have to choose.

In today’s fast-paced, technology-driven world, navigating people and processes are colliding more frequently. People are the tangible assets of any team or organization, while the processes and systems are the intangible assets. Successful companies realize the importance of navigating both effectively in order to thrive. Many organizations put the processes and protocols over their people, and this is a short-sighted move. Whether your business or organization is people-driven or process-driven, the two must work together for the growth and success of any organization.

Why Processes And Systems Are Important

Healthcare is a great starting point of where processes and systems are important. In the 2018 Harvard Business Review article below, it notes that process is healthcare’s biggest problem. The article notes, “The hard part is to get the doctors, nurses, and administrators to agree on what is the best way to deliver the care. Since the doctors control most care decisions, the rest of the provider team follows the doctors’ lead. If the doctor wants to do things a certain way, that’s what is done. The problem is the next doctor wants it his way and so on. Eventually, we end up with a hopeless mess in which no one knows how anything should be done on any given day. And good luck to a new nurse or technician coming into the system who must learn a multitude of work processes and remember the doctor-dependent differences.”

Although this article is not entirely accurate in that it portrays doctors as driving process changes, this is actually not true in today’s changing healthcare environment. Other factors come in play such as insurance, state legislatures, national law, hospital boards, and executives all drive healthcare direction. For organizations that have learned to harness the power of both their medical and non-medical executives, this provides the fantastic synergy of getting the best of both worlds.

Why (Good) People Are Even More Important

When faced with a decision of people vs. process, choose your people first, and then design processes and systems that optimize your people’s inputs and return on investment. Of course, this applies to good and great people within an organization, not stragglers who actually cost the organization more to retain them than the value they deliver.

Many organizations do this in reverse. They develop processes ahead of the people which can lead to lack of employee engagement, disenfranchisement of employees, and staff turnover which many research studies have shown are immensely costly to the bottom-line. There are enormous costs associated with high turnover rates, and organizations improve their bottom-line when they can limit turnover. People are not computers that you can download a software in their brain in 1-2 hours expect them to pick up a job at the same level, and intensity where the last person left off. People must learn new processes, systems, organization, and how to navigate the new work environment. This takes time, and results in both direct and indirect costs to the organization. So, keep your stellar staff!

When faced with the choice of People vs. Process, a better working solution is to choose your people (human capital) first, and then figure out how to design your processes and systems (non-human capital) to help your people thrive and maximize their potential. Many processes can actually dis-incentivize people if those processes are measuring and/or enforcing the wrong data, measuring data that doesn’t matter, or measuring the of capturing the data incorrectly. For instance, if you give your employees targets numbers, it is important to know the story behind the data being measured and also to ensure that the data is being measured accurately. Otherwise, you end up with processes that are “stacked against” the people it was intended to help. Our goals and responsibilities as leaders and managers are to challenge and motivate employees, measure what matters, meaningful targets, and put the right processes and systems in place to enable the right people achieve and exceed those goals and target measures.

Integrating People And Process – How To Make Both Work In Synergy

I’ll give an example: Suppose two organization sets a target that employees develop 25 widgets a day because this is industry standard. However, one organization has 25 robot arms assembling the widgets with 25 employees, while the other organization also has 25 employees but only 10 robot arms. It seems obvious to us that it doesn’t make sense to set similar targets for both groups, when the systems and processes do not support those targets. It’s like comparing apples to oranges, and yet, this is what many organizations do.

If you have processes that no one follows, are they the right processes? This becomes the challenge: to make sure you have both the right processes and the right people in place. When an organization has processes in place, but no one follows them, you can expect people problems to arise. Even if you have the right team in place, chaos ensues when processes are not followed. As Peter Drucker stated, “Neither technology nor people determines the other, but each shapes the other.”

How To Lead and Manage Better By Incorporating Both

As a leader in the healthcare field, when I’m faced with such situations, I ask myself, “Is this a process problem, a people problem, or both?

Sometimes, a new process could result in the loss of great people due to a one-size-fits-all approach. Other times, there needs to be universal processes and systems to guide behavior. There needs to be freedom – within reasonable boundaries of the process – that doesn’t not stifle the people, penalize them, or cause them to leave. Does your company have rules in place because “it’s always been the law,” without realizing the effect on turnover or retention of talented individuals?
Both leaders and managers must recognize the systems and processes in place, or the lack thereof, because their presence or absence could determine success or failure. It is important that the tools necessary to accomplish the goals required of the people are in place. When processes can be efficiently established and managed, personnel are equipped with the tools to fulfill the vision for the overall good of the enterprise. Just as leadership and management are not mutually exclusive as we discussed in the last blog post, people and processes/systems are not either.

Great Teams Do Not Happen By Accident

Teams are built one member at a time. If your team members are selected conscientiously, you can build a stellar team. Likewise, if you let just anyone on your team, you can expect problems. A great company will first make sure they have the right people on the right teams as they launch the strategic direction of the organization. My next article piece will discuss the topic of building great teams.

On The Personal Side

One last thing. I like to expand these ideas beyond the organizational setting and bring it to the individual level. We all have processes and systems – ways of doing things – in our personal lives that may no longer serve us well. Perhaps, they never did. Or they did for a season, but not any longer. In fact, the way you do certain things could be standing in the way of your moving forward. Now is a good time to examine your personal processes like we have just done for the organizational processes. See what’s working, what you can optimize, and what no longer serves its purpose that you need to eliminate. Develop new systems and processes that will enable you to accomplish the visions and goals you set for yourself.

Want more? Check out my free 7-Step Success Formula booklet at

If you missed the first 3 parts of this series you can read them here

Part 1 – Women Have A Limited Pool Of Mentors And Even More Dearth Of Sponsors
Part 2 – Emotional Intelligence – What Is it? Do You have it? How to develop it?
Part 3 – Leadership vs. Management – Distinct, But Not Mutually Exclusive