The Process Is Everything

The Process Is Everything

Thomas Thiu makes an amazing wine.  He is the owner and winemaker at Chateau La Couronne in Bordeaux and it was my pleasure to spend some time with him at his chateau this summer.  Some friends had joined us for a few days in wine country so I called Thomas and asked if we could have a tour of his property, which he graciously agreed to.  For over three hours we walked the vineyards, explored the chai (barrel room) of Reclos de la Couronne, and tasted from several vintages, including the 2009 still in the barrels.  Thomas took his time and explained (in English with an Irish accent – he spent two years there) the intricate process of winemaking.  Thomas makes great wine.  I’ve selected his wine in three different blind tastings and I have great respect for his winemaking ability.  He knows every square foot of his vineyard and as we walked through the vines he pointed out the differences between the various plots.  “This plot has excellent Cabernet and will go to my first wine, and that small plot over there is for my second wine,” he said, noting the differences in even the smallest parcels.  Back in the chai, among the barrels and tanks he told us, “good winemaking is a process and every step of the process is important.  If you screw up one part of the process you screw up the whole wine.”  In other words, “The process is everything.”

In addition to wine tasting, I’ve just finished reading “Team of Rivals, The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” by Doris Kearns Goodwin.  It is an excellent book that gives full weight to Lincoln’s memorial in Washington, D.C. and provides amazing insight into his leadership.  Lincoln knew perhaps better than anyone the necessity of process.  He won the Republican nomination on the third ballot – everyone’s second choice.  He did not campaign on an anti-slavery platform.  His platform focused on keeping the union together and he was, at the time, willing to allow for the compromise provided in the Constitution that allowed slavery in the states where it already existed.  At the time of his election the nation wasn’t ready for Emancipation and Lincoln’s highest priority was holding the nation together. 

But Lincoln also knew when the nation – that is, the North – was ready to be led.  He was not the kind of politician who was a slave to the latest polling data, nor was he an ideologue who forced his view on a population he knew was not ready for it.  Lincoln spent time among the American people and he knew when they could be led and where he could lead them.  He knew the Emancipation Proclamation would be irrevocable – that once enacted there would be no going back – and he knew that in 1862 the process had advanced to a place where the majority of people in the North were ready to embrace the elimination of slavery. 
He knew that people needed process and that after two years of an awful war, people in the North were ready to break the chains of an immoral system they were invariably fighting against.  It had been a long and difficult process.  Had he tried to enact Emancipation immediately after being elected the resistance would have been overwhelming and he would have lost support for the war and the cause of freedom.   Had he run away from it in he would have lost the moral justification for the war, and the country would be split in two.  The process and timing were everything.

On New Years Day, 1863 Abraham Lincoln had been shaking hands all morning at the annual New Year’s Day White House Open House.  In the afternoon The Emancipation Proclamation was brought to the White House for him to sign, and as he sat at his desk he picked up the pen and put it down again.  His hand was shaking from being squeezed by so many well wishers at the Open House and he said that he didn’t want his signature to be shaky lest in years to come people would say he was unsure about his decision to sign the legislation.  It is the clearest and boldest signature of Lincoln on record and when he signed it the greatness of his legacy was firmly entrenched in the history of America.
Most of us don’t like change and we do it badly.  We avoid it as long as we can, and when we finally are forced to confront a problem situation or move in a different direction we use a hatchet when a scalpel is required.  Change of leadership, conflict resolution and problem solving all require the right process and timing.  An employee who isn’t performing is shocked when he is fired with no warning.  A spouse is served with divorce papers and had no idea it was coming.  A friendship is cut off after years of engagement and hurt parties wonder what went wrong.  The process – if it existed at all – was badly led, and the end result is hurt, anger, resentment and in the worst cases, legal fees.

We all need process.  We need to participate in the process of decision making when we are involved – directly or indirectly – in the consequences of that decision.  We need time to think and consider our options and the options of the other people involved.  We need the space and distance for reasonable thoughts to prevail. We need the opportunity to stand in the other man’s shoes, and we need time to mitigate our emotions.  The process includes conversation and the exchange of ideas, and room to correct mistakes.  It allows others to be heard, and it explores options.
To make a great wine you must give extraordinary care in every step of the process. The vines are cared for while the grapes ripen.  The harvest is careful, and the selection of grapes is intense.  The first fermentation is measured and the temperature is meticulously monitored.  The oak barrels are selected and the percentage of new oak and old oak is calculated.  The wine is allowed to sit and ferment and age before it is placed in bottles and sold.  Great wine needs process, and the process is everything. “If you screw up one part of the process you screw up the whole wine.”

Good decisions and enduring relationships also take time.  They must be cared for in the "vineyard," and monitored as they "ferment."  They must be given the right circumstances – “oak barrels” – in which to rest, and they must be given time to mature.  Every business is the people business, and people need process.  An organization’s various teams need process and an organization’s customers need process.
Process – great process – is important inside an organization as well as outside the organization.  An organization's teams need process as they work together, and an organization’s customers need process as they decide to purchase what the organization is offering.

When Lincoln went to Gettysburg and famously said, “Four score and seven years ago…,” he was telling us that we had all been part of a grand process.  The American experiment of self-government and freedom was a process that began with the Declaration of Independence but did not end there.  The blood spilled and the lives lost on the battlefields of the Civil War were an awful and necessary part of that process but without those sacrifices the words of the Declaration, that “All Men Were Endowed By Their Creator With Certain Inalienable Rights,” could not have become a reality.

The next step for your company, your career, your family and your life is probably not a gigantic decision or a monumental change.  You may have your “Gettysburg” moments, but it is more likely you’ll begin by “electing a Lincoln” and engaging a process.  The importance of that process and the necessity of the first step cannot be overstated.  The process is everything.

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