Mechanistic Processes

Processes solve problems by applying predefined reactions/steps to anticipated challenges. A person running the process needs only to know when to execute which step.

A typical business process is necessarily rules-based and mechanistic: Do this, followed by this. Unless this happens, then do that. It is concerned with How and What.

Such processes are very useful for keeping the engine of a business running smoothly; with minimal variations and errors. Businesses love processes because they work well to capture and leverage hard-earned lessons. Following a process reduces the need to reinvent the wheel each time.

Rules-based environments can, however, respond poorly to unanticipated challenges. The scope for innovating outside the box of known problems and solutions is constrained.

Unfortunately the stuff in life that disrupts an organisation often comes as unexpected curve balls.

Guiding Principles

A framework for solving problems is more useful where unexpected situations are expected. Such a framework will be built upon guiding principles: concise, well-rounded and bigger-picture-aware knowledge and experience in a particular field. It adds Why to the mix of How and What.

Guiding principles equip a person with the understanding, knowledge and skills to adapt effectively to any situation.
Guiding principles form a sort of meta-process. They may be broadly linked together sequentially, but unlike process steps, a person is free to tailor the sequence and indeed the explicit content to suit each situation.

Guiding principles are not explicit pre-determined reactions to react to specific challenges.

Using a framework based on guiding principles to solve problems must necessarily leverage the perceptions, empathy, experience and creativity of the person in the situation. It is more than simply knowing which steps to apply.

Guiding principles can be rendered into a more mechanistic process for the purpose of education. Through study and practice, a person achieves mastery of a framework when they formulate their own internal version of the guiding principles. At that point, they have the wisdom to bend the rules and tailor the framework to suit any situation.

Example in Suicide Prevention First Aid

Suicide prevention first aid is a situation where we expect the unexpected. Applying a mechanistic process can be detrimental. There is no universal set of canned responses that can suit every situation.

Here is my summary of the Livingworks model as used by Lifeline Australia (where I volunteer as a crisis supporter.) The table below summarises what I have in my head.

Principle 1:
Build connection and create a safe space for real conversations to happen.
Principle 2:
Watch for invitations that indicate a suicide risk. When spotted, ask directly about suicide.
Principle 3:
Secure safety first. Identify and disable any immediate threats or risks; call for emergency intervention, and set up a practical safe plan.
Principle 4:
Listen. Empathise. Ask. Understand. Reflect. Check. Reassure.
Principle 5:
Watch for uncertainty or ambivalence about dying. Highlight this.
Principle 6:
Focus on now. Safe for now. Ok for now. Nothing has to be resolved or fixed right now.

This may look suspiciously like a six-step process. In practice, these principles are manifested in varying sequences, and with different content, depending on each unique help-seeker’s situation and personality.

A textbook scenario will utilise Principle 3 twice. Once early on in the conversation to assess risk, and again at the end to devise a safe plan for the immediate 24-48 hours.

With an a help-seeker who openly acknowledges suicide ideation or intention, we may focus more on Principles 4 and 6, then finish with 3.

In a “suicide in progress” situation, the only principle that comes into play is Principle 3; where emergency intervention is initiated. We wouldn’t bother with Principles 1 and 2 because a life is at risk.

Helm wheel via Shutterstock.