There is an interesting video “Your Storytelling Brain” from Cognitive Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga who talks about how we remember things. He describes a part of the brain called “the interpreter” which functions to organize memories into plausible stories. This is great most of the time, but causes a type of memory distortion that is gets in the way of designing appropriate business processes.
Your memories are not perfect, but the interpreter can help to fill in details which are plausible. Evidence of this is seen from how people who have suffered trauma that eliminates some of their real memories, will confabulate things to fill in the gaps, in a way to make a consistent narrative. We do this all the time, and if you memories are complete enough, and your understanding of the context good enough, this confabulation works in your favor.
This tendency to create a plausible narrative effects process design in two ways. The first is that when people are interviewed about a given process they have been taking part of, the interpreter part of the brain will make up things to fill in the gaps in the process story that they might not have been aware of. Indeed, while working in the process, people will have a narrative of how the process proceeds outside of their direct interaction that may be completely inaccurate. That narrative, however, help to support their own part of it. Memory works by having a consistent story, not necessarily an accurate story. They may hold false beliefs about a process, but as long as they do their part correctly there is no harm. It may be hard, however, for a process researcher to distinguish the parts that they actually know, from the parts that they filled in to make a consistent narrative.
The second reason it gets in the way is that when the process changes, the narrative can change along with it, and in doing so the original process is forgotten. Organizations are constantly changing around us, but as we learn of a change we incorporate it into our narratives, and forget that there was a change. Because the memory has a filled in narrative, it is hard for people to remember the exceptional cases. People will often insist that they have been running a process the same way every time, until you remind them of a particular exception they handled. Then the remark is usually “oh yes, that did happen.”
I have written about “Process Confabulation” before as a danger inherent interviewing people to find out the existing process. I found Michael Gazzaniga’s video interesting because it explains how this is caused by a basic element in the way memory works.