Over the past four years, AppNexus has grown like a rocket ship – from 50 people when I joined the company in 2011 to over 1000 today. During this time of monumental growth, process development has been a key tool that’s allowed us to scale up the organization. Along the way, I’ve learned a ton about what it takes to develop a working organizational process.


Here’s the most interesting thing:


The way that people try to develop a new process is completely different from the way new processes actually end up getting developed.

Most people try to take a “decisive” approach to process creation. They stand up in front of everyone and document every detail of the proposed new process end-to-end. They use flow charts, RASCI charts, and many other tools. They make sure their explanation is comprehensive and they are prepared to debate every last detail of the process. All the while they are thinking: if everyone agrees now, then everyone will perform the process exactly as I’ve designed.

Conversely, the way processes actually develop is much more organic. It’s like constructing a building one or two bricks at a time.  Each brick is one piece of the process that has to be owned by someone and installed into the company’s culture.  Processes actually develop organically over time.

So how does this tension usually play out?

  1. First someone tries to take the decisive approach and details out a full process in an upfront presentation.
  2. The organization listens to the presentation, but only about one or two items from the proposed process actually stick – these are the “cornerstones” of the new process.
  3. Then over time – more steps are built on top of these cornerstones. Eventually the process reaches full maturity and becomes hardened.

After these three steps everyone in an organization will refer to a process in the same manner, they will trust it to work, and they will feel an almost emotional attachment to it. Before these three steps are complete, a process is delicate – like a partially constructed building at perpetual risk of tumbling down or becoming abandoned.

Seeing how process actually gets developed begs the question: what if you took a different, more organic approach when you wanted to install a new process?

Rather than starting with a decisive process map, a leader could intentionally limit the initial proposal to just one or two of the most important steps of the process – focusing only on the cornerstones. Then, state plainly that the process in incomplete and challenge the organization to develop organically from there.

Even if you know with 100% certainty that you had the right process formulation up front, it may still be best to avoid the decisive approach. People can only digest so much information at one time – if you make the message simpler and just focus on the few keystone habits upfront, it will force the development of the rest of the process.

To illustrate an example: let’s say you wanted your team to develop a process for quarterly product roadmap delivery. Rather than detailing out the full process upfront (the decisive method) just provide a couple cornerstones to focus on. For example: make it clear and public that you (the leader) have to personally deliver the product roadmap presentation to your biggest customer two weeks after the start of each quarter.  Schedule the call ahead of time and include the whole team to listen in.  That way your full team knows they need to develop the roadmap ahead of that date or else you will be embarrassed in front of the company’s biggest client. Given this cornerstone a process to develop the roadmap will emerge quickly.

Next time you create a process – test out the organic approach. I think you’ll find it works even better than the decisive method.

Process Development: Decisive vs. Organic
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