When we witness a cricket match, what is visible to us is the real action. We see batsmen bat, bowlers bowl, and fielders field.
In a mammoth run chase featuring a match-winning partnership, batsmen pace their innings, calculate wickets in hand, keep the required run-rate under control, and score big at the right times.
In the post-match interview, the winning batting pair reveal how they went about it.
The say, “We broke up the 300 run target into multiples of 50. We will score 50 runs six times is what we told each other. We decided to play out the main strike bowler without taking risks. We created these 50 run milestones, quietly celebrated them and refocused ourselves for the next 50. This kept us going and when the win was guaranteed, we got a bit careless and got out. The others came in and finished off the game”
What did we see? We saw runs being scored. We saw the powerful hitting, the fours and the sixes. But there is no way we ‘saw’ how they really did it. Until the batsmen voiced out their process. Every observable action that goes into the match statistics is content. What the batsmen shared in the interview was the process-the framework or the operating model of execution that they created for scoring runs.
Content is what we do. Process is how we do it. It is easier to observe content. Process has to be uncovered as it lies beneath the surface. Process is a curious thing to understand because few of us do things exactly as we think we are doing them.
In this very game, the strike bowler of the opposition was given three overs in the middle of the innings to break this threatening partnership. Well-placed at that point, the two batsmen had to simply see him off without doing anything fanciful. Instead, they played him in contrasting styles. One batsman decided to dictate terms and take him on. He was lucky to not get out but didn’t seem to mind it. The other batsman become ultra-cautious and played too many dot balls. The rhythm of both batsmen was upset. The bowler bowled three miserly overs and pulled things back a bit. When he was taken off, both batsmen resumed their fluent stroke-play.
They undeniably floundered in the process they had set.
That this should happen is normal. What is fascinating and extremely significant is that the batsmen insisted they were sticking to the process inspite of indications to the contrary! When shown the video recording of those three overs, they were surprised to see how the game could have slipped away from them. They perceived a challenge but they thought they were responding in the best way possible. They were so caught up in the game that they became cognitively unaware of the change in their actions. The process was not in their control, and they didn’t even realize it!
And since they eventually won, it did not matter in the context of the game. But if the bowler had made the breakthrough, the opposition could have made a game of it.
To understand the process of their execution is to appreciate the significance of that three over spell. They were on course as per their own plan. And they got stuck a bit without realizing it.
Not that a straightforward viewing doesn’t tell us it was a crucial spell. The difference is that the process helps us go deeper into where the game is actually changing colour. We realize what is happening at the level where things could pivot and change.
Our life in organizations is no different. Sports makes players articulate their own process as the competition is out to thwart them. We are rarely forced to do so in corporate life because the competition doesn’t engage us directly. But like the batsmen in the middle, we also get caught up in the game and deviate from whatever articulated process we have in place. Without knowing about it.
We hold a meeting and the minutes capture the content but it is the process that is holding clues as to the eventual outcome. We hand out a challenging task to a divided team but refrain from assigning specific responsibilities. A bigger tangled web it is in teams as everybody brings their own spinning material, their own process.
In this article, we have roughly touched upon just two aspects – content and process. There is structure (how things are held together) and the context (the space or situation within which the action plays out). In cricket, structure would be game rules & team composition and context will be the ground dimensions, the series score line and the playing conditions – weather, nature of the pitch etc. When we see them all in one big picture and observe how they dynamically interact together, we are seeing a ‘system’!