This week I met John Miller of the St Clair Consortium. He has remarkable experience and insight into the value of engaged employees to the product creation process. One of his insights was the difference between "human capital" and "intellectual capital;" two terms that are often used interchangeably. "Human capital" refers to the employees that come to the office each day and do the work of our companies. Many of them follow the processes set before them, but essentially check their brains at the door.
What we want from our employees is not just their hands but also their minds. This is our "intellectual capital." This is reflected in the motto of MIT, "Mens et manus," which translates as "mind and hand." We want our employees engaged in making our projects successful with all of their intellectual capital.
From this distinction I want to highlight a potential feedback loop in our organizations driving associate engagement down. We put rules and processes in place partly as a response to our fears that employees won't be engaged to make projects successful without them. Certainly many of our processes are necessary to run the business, but perhaps not as many as we might think.
The upside of rules and processes is that they remove the need for employees to invent an approach to every problem. They take away the need to think through everything. The other side of this same coin is that they remove the need for employees to think on their own. They make it possible for employees to check their brains at the door. Too many rules and processes tend to drive down associate engagement. Employees resent it when they perceive that the rules treat them as if they are stupid. And they resent it when they perceive that their best work is hindered by following an overly prescriptive process.
The feedback loop occurs as a result of putting more rules and processes in place than people need to do a good job. This leads to disengaged employees, who make more mistakes because they check their brains at the door each morning. Companies can be tricked into fixing this problem with even more process, but this will only make the problem worse.
You need to add one more rule in your systems: "We won't add a rule or a process if we can do better using our intellectual capital." Follow that up by giving your teams permission to propose striking processes that aren't required. Invite your teams to use their minds unless they can succeed better by thinking up a process.