How to build better processes
It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it, and that’s what gets results.
(Name the artist(s) for extra pop quiz points, or scroll down*)
Sorry if I’ve given you an earworm.
But go ahead and let that pesky eighties tune embed itself in your brain like an unwelcome flashback to that cringey school disco you went to back in the day. Consider it your trigger song for what follows.
Stay with me...
I’ve been quietly questioning the value of processes, lately. Those of you who know me, and certainly those of you who’ve ever worked with me, will know that I’m not adverse to a process or two. A workflow here, a framework there, and colour-coordinated Post-it plans aplenty. I’m a fan. But not everyone is.
Because, the trouble is, processes really aren’t trendy. In fact, they’re as uncool as that really uncool kid at the school disco (me) who enthusiastically buys that lime green dress from C&A and over-accessorizes it to the max, making the rest of the room wonder “Why though?”.
Don’t get me wrong - unnecessary levels of ‘process’, bureaucracy and red tape are a total bugger. Not “real work”.
But I do firmly believe there’s a place for them.
Let’s break it down.
The good and the not so good
I worked in the non-profit and arts sectors for over a decade before jumping into the commercial digital waters in the last couple of years.
Process and procedures = good in the former setting. Can be tedious, but generally good and necessary.
Not so much in the latter. In fact there’s often a palpable disdain for process (or the perceived over-engineering of things) in the latter context, which I get.
By my reckoning, there are both pros and cons to bringing procedures and processes to your work and working environment, and each of these two sectors could learn a little from the other’s approach.
It boils down to this:
(1) Processes, when streamlined and well managed, can genuinely save you time (that most precious commodity) - there’s a common misconception that they’re an unnecessary albatross around the necks of all involved, but in my view a well formed process used in the right context is a winner of a time-saving tool.
(2) Processes, if not adeptly created and managed, can easily become unwieldy and counterproductive - out of control beasts of burden that make you feel stressed, pressured and like you’re wading through treacle.
I would also add a note on fairness. Processes, when created with care and adopted consistently, are often the champion of and key to fairness (but that topic is big enough for a separate post).
A good (and by good I mean effective and impactful) process is less about what you’re doing, but the way you approach it (*enter Bananarama & Fun Boy Three). Others may argue the opposite, for which there’s a comments section below.
The key to creating processes that help, rather than hinder
So what makes a good process? This is predominantly about that other ‘P’ word: purpose. If you create and follow a process with purpose, you’re onto a winner.
It might sound bleeding obvious, but we all do things at home and at work which lack purpose, creating activity, actions and rules around a thing in pursuit of, well, maybe we’re not always quite sure.
I have certainly been guilty of this in the past, and still can be. But I am learning from my experiences and finding ways to do better...
The 3 P’s - tips for creating a process that works
(1) State the purpose
Ask yourself this question at the outset (or better still, get someone else to ask you instead):
What purpose does adding a process serve in this situation? And is the process you have in mind fit for that purpose?
Does this thing you’re doing really call for a process, or will the intended outcome be just as well served by free-styling? If the former, why so? If the latter, stop right there and freestyle.
Answer the question aloud in the presence of another, and be honest. Then get them to repeat your answer back to you. The repetition bit from someone else’s is important - this simple act is remarkably powerful at helping you gain clarity and perspective on your thoughts.
If you are clear and laser-focussed on the purpose of your process, you’re more likely to proceed and succeed with greater efficiency.
(2) Challenge the practicalities
Do the practicality test - the grid below is something I’ve developed and one way to cover the basics.
Are you creating a process that’s realistic and practical to follow?
Give it a go and let me know if you find it helpful. Stick an egg timer on for 5 minutes and scribble the headlines in each box.
Whether you’re delivering the thing solo or getting a team of people involved, be honest with yourself and others about how practical your ideas are.
For instance, does the process involve multiple apps or bits of software? If so, challenge yourself to get it down to one. Nine times out of 10, one is enough.
(3) Give/get permission for change
Have you got permission to own this process and iterate at will?
Be open to making changes along the way (although for goodness sake communicate them with your team in a timely fashion). The only way to know if a process fulfils its purpose in the most efficient way possible is to give it a go. If problems then arise, you need permission to do something about them.
If you created it, then the answer is YES. If not, you’ll need to consult the owner or co-owners. Either way, you MUST have permission to iterate the process if it begins to hinder rather than help the pursuit of the final goal. Stay agile with a little ‘a’.
You’ll notice that the nitty gritty of the process is neither here nor there in this article. In my experience, getting the 3 P’s sorted is the key to the make or break.
So go forth, and embrace a good process. You know you want to.
Further reading: you might find this Inc article on the topic helpful, too.