What matters more, product or process?
Every set of people and every process will have – at least – two energies. One is around product and progress – when people want to get things done out in the world. The other is about process and inclusion, more focused towards each other and inwards. My assumption is that they are distinct yet hard to describe.
- The ‘product’ energy is narrow-focused, left-brained, outward-focused, goal-driven, rational, language-based, assertive.
Maybe some people would call this ‘masculine’ energy.
- The ‘process’ energy has a wider focus, it’s right-brained, inward-focused, inclusive, sensing, reflective, more emotional, nurturing.
Some people might call the energy ‘feminine’. Since this label is distracting to me, I will call the energies “product” vs. “process” energy.
This article, however, is not about those two energies. I will simply take them for granted.
This article is about how people look at those two energies, for that is what makes all the difference. I will look at three different mindsets that hold assumptions about those two energies. I hope that you will recognize them. My intention for this article is to increase our understanding and our range of behaviors and attitudes towards both energies. A wider range will lead to less judgment, more open minds, and more possibilities for everyone.
Mindset #1: Process matters more than product.
Or: Product matters more than process.
In the first mindset, process and product are seen as opposite, antagonistic energies and only one is valued. For example, in many corporate contexts, product is seen as superior over process – all that matters is to satisfy the customer, no matter how we got there. In very horizontally-oriented groups, like many ‘progressive’ groups, process tends to override product. It doesn’t matter so much whether anything got done, it matters only whether things were fair or inclusive, or felt good.
In the antagonistic mindset, every minute spent on one or the other is seen as a waste of time.
- Where product energy is valued, it sounds like this: “Talking doesn’t get the job done”.
- Where process is valued, it sounds like this: “This is only worth doing if we have good process.”
I hope it is obvious how either view is problematic. The saddest implication of people holding this mindset is the dismissiveness with which they talk about the other “side”, alongside with very common pigeonholing of people as “only cares about outcome, not people” or “only talks but doesn’t get things done”. It is harmful because it focuses on one aspect but ignores the rest. One way of saying that is that it is reductionist – reducing a person to be only one when, quite obviously, we carry both of those aspects within us. Which brings us to mindset #2.
Mindset #2: Balance
In this mindset, the uppermost priority is to make sure product energy and process energy are balanced. If ultimately, there has to be balance, that means that if the dominant energy in a given moment is product-oriented, someone will hold up process, and vice versa.
In typical moments of a meeting, it sounds like this: “We can only talk about product when we also talk about process”, or, approaching from the other side, “we can only talk about process when it’s also clear that we’re getting things done at the same time.”
Fortunately, in this mindset, it is quite clear that both energies are important. Yet, when the system gets too much out of balance, balance can only be reached by boosting the other side. In practice, this can easily let a group regress into patterns of Mindset #1.
An example dialogue:
- A: “I think this is really rational the way we’re looking at it here. Where’s the care for the people?!” [pointing out the imbalance]
- B: “Well, I do think that rational thinking is important to solve this problem.”
Note that A was pointing to an imbalance, with a slight tone (the way I imagine it!) of dismissiveness towards product energy. To balance the two energies, B needs to now hold up the other energy. Unfortunately for both, they were misunderstanding each other. A probably didn’t mean that only process matters, just like B probably wouldn’t say that only rational thinking matters. Yet, it’s easy to hear it that way and the discussion will probably go south from there.
It works the other way as well:
- A: “All this reflection is really nice but I think we should focus on our next steps to make sure something is coming from all this.”
- B: “You know, sometimes product isn’t really all that matters. If you want to go far, go together.”
One frame they both share is an expectation that each moment has to be “perfect” or “balanced”. A common struggle then is that neither energy can be taken care of – when one says “let’s reflect and sense”, the other side will say “no, let’s get things done”, resulting in neither getting enough attention. Which leads me to Mindset #3.
Mindset #3: Dynamic balance.
In a dynamic balance, it is clear that both energies are necessary. There has to be in balance. Yet, it is a dynamic balance – not every moment has to be in 50:50 balance. Instead, we can dip deeply into one of the energies for quite a while, just to balance it out later – or not. (If you’re interested in this dynamic, you might want to read up on polarity management over time.)
For example, a team might be working toward a deadline paying only attention to production with a really sloppy process for a while. Then it’s time to relax and clean up, recover and repair afterwards. Balance is not reached in every moment but over a longer period of time. Alternatively, the group might be part of a bigger team where more reflection happens and balance happens in a wider scope, just not in every part of the system. It might even be that balance is never fully reached and it’s just “balanced enough” to work well.
The image that comes to mind here is the image of a tree that is blown in the wind – it bends but doesn’t break. After a stormy phase comes a less stormy phase to recover.
Now, what does this mean for meetings and teams? It means accepting that not every moment will be perfect. And not every moment or team will be balanced. But that over time, there will be balance.
The image I want to use here is one of breathing. If we only ever breathe in, we cannot survive. If we only ever breathe out, we cannot survive.
- Mindset #1 applied to breathing would sound like this:
- “We need oxygen, so breathing out is wrong.”, or
- “Breathing out is more important than breathing in.”
It’s easy to see how this view is silly.
- Mindset #2 use on breathing sounds like this:
- “All this breathing out is really nice but I think we should focus on breathing in now”
- “You know, sometimes breathing in isn’t all that matters. Breathing out is the real thing.”
This is not wrong… but also not quite right!
Doing both at once also doesn’t work out. We’re neither breathing in nor out – which means we’re not getting any oxygen.
Mindset #3 introduces a rhythmic, dynamic movement. There’s a moment to breathe in. And there’s a moment to breathe out. Both movements together make it possible. Sometimes we breathe faster, sometimes slower. But the rhythm stays intact.
Looking at decision-making, there’s a great rhythm to it.
- When we detect a problem that our team needs to solve, we are sensing and reflecting. Breathe in. Then we focus our energy and decide that we need to act. Breathe out.
- In addressing the problem, we open our minds wide to brainstorm ideas of how we could solve the problem. Breathe in. Then comes a moment when we synthesize all ideas into one proposal. Breathe out.
- In consent decision-making, we gather reactions from everyone to perceive the proposal from many different angles (going wide). Breathe in. Then we focus to make sure we’ve checked all the boxes and find consent. Breathe out.
The rhythm of wide focus and narrow focus, left brain and right brain, sensing and wordsmithing is a full cycle. It’s like a birth that needs to go through different stages with intervals of contractions and rest. In a birth that has no rhythm or just contractions, the baby will be harmed. In a birth without contractions, there will be no progress.
In a group process, many people will go through the process together. It works best when it’s well-held, understood and consciously done.
We don’t expect everything to go perfectly. We can always repair in the next round. That way, we can also adapt, improve, and evolve. It won’t be perfect – but we don’t expect perfection. What we’re playing for is a process that is integrated, resilient, and alive.