We climbed a mountain this weekend near Seattle. On the way down it struck me that our experience was the perfect metaphor for so many arguments I see around what defines the realities of business process management.

Structure versus creativity

There are things that we must do every time to be successful (and safe), like how to communicate prior to a climber putting their weight on the rope. This is a great deal like regulatory or safety compliance, where it simply needs to be done the right way every single time. It is prescribed. That doesn’t mean, however, that one climbs mountains or manages business by completely prescribed methods.

There is enormous need for creativity around structured, mandated behaviors. We choose the climbing route based on factors like degree of slope, visible obstacles, quality of the terrain. In business we respond to emerging market opportunities, create new products, and continually improve in very creative ways that adapt to the environment.

Creativity needs a core of structure, and structure needs creativity. Each has its place and failure is the result of not having both in appropriate measure. People argue for or against each side when the answer is pretty straightforward.

Stakeholder involvement

I don’t want to climb with people who don’t fundamentally agree on what we’re there for. Will we push for the summit regardless of the time of day? Will an argument cause someone to unclip and head down alone?

Simple things, like who’s bringing the rope, getting the weather, knows the area, gets the permit…these are all part of making sure everyone stays safe and reaches the objective. It means involving everyone so that when the going gets tough, we’re aligned and can manage our way through.

Allowing a small core of people (experts) to make decisions for everyone can seem fast and efficient, but doesn’t mean that everyone is invested. When people aren’t invested, they don’t care as much about the outcome and they aren’t willing to share the risks associated with decision making. Business process needs to be a shared responsibility with ownership clearly aligned with operational necessities.

Technology enabled

For climbing, we use the web extensively to research, email, and register. We use a GPS and radios when underway. Technology makes us informed and successful. In business, both coming to decision and changing direction must be smooth processes and must be facilitated by technology wherever possible.

Clear communication to everyone

When we’re roped together on the glacier, I can’t walk faster than those behind me. If someone spots a crevasse, they had better quickly call it out so we can change course. Everyone needs to know how and when to listen and call out. We develop a process to make this happen effectively and efficiently. We know we’re in this together, for better or for worse, so we stay involved.

“Nobody tells me anything.” This was the comment I recently heard from a friend who works for a major corporation. I have to wonder how dedicated he is to his company’s success. Contrast that with your local Apple Store, where the employees are knowledgeable, helpful and not surprisingly, enthusastic about what they do despite being in retail. They talk about the health of Steve Jobs like he’s a family member because they are informed and therefore invested.

Making it home

When you make the peak, people cheer and someone invariably says, “We’re only halfway there.” Getting home safely is just as hard (and maybe harder) than getting to the summit. Making the sale is only a portion of making successful business. The metaphors can go on longer than I want to type. You get the point. Business process without blisters takes many disciplines working together for success.