In many organizations, “process” is a dirty word. Some see process as disempowerment: someone telling you how to do you job. Process can eliminate freedom, create bureaucracy, and dictate action. Having a process forced onto you is, quite literally, someone giving you step-by-step instructions for how to do your job. It can be frustrating and dehumanizing, especially if you are an expert in your field and have unique skills. It can also make you feel easily replaceable. If there’s a well-defined process, what’s keeping my organization from replacing me with someone who can simply follow directions – and, perhaps, isn’t paid as much?
Ironically, many of the same reasons that employees tend to hate process make it absolutely critical to any growing company.
Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovators Solution, presents an explanation for the importance of process as part of his “RPV” (resources, process, values) framework. He states that when an organization is young, the most valuable part is its resources e.g. people, investments, office space, and other hard assets. However, as an organization grows, the main value driver for the organization shifts from resources to processes and values. Processes and values allow an organization to scale, manage attrition, and become profitable and efficient. Christensen gives McKinsey Consulting as an example of a well-scaled organization. Even with very high annual employee turnover (15%-20%), McKinsey manages to provide high quality, consistent service to its clients through their strong processes and values. McKinsey has created a company where its people are nearly infinitely replaceable, but their service, culture, and processes drive their value creation.
With process being such an important part of a mature organization, it’s critically important to understand how to take an organization from pre-process to post-process stages. So far, I haven’t found any literature on this topic and, on a few occasions over the course of my career, I’ve personally found it quite difficult to introduce process into an organization. Remember, when organizations are young, they rely mostly on their resources (their people), which means any young organization has a collection of very high performers who hold most of the power in the organization. They know how to do the job right, they’re extremely busy, and they aren’t always interested in taking the time to create a scalable process.
This paradigm can make it very difficult for anyone to create a process, but especially so for someone who’s not actually doing the work. Having a third party consultant come in and design the process can be very frustrating and alienating to those who are already doing the work. The very people who will be expected to abide by the process will likely undermine anything introduced by the outsider.
So what’s the solution?
More than a few times over the past eight years I’ve found myself in charge of process design and I can confidently say that the key to successful process design is not independently making something new, but rather working with the people who need follow the process to create it. The best processes feel natural and intuitive to the people doing the work and serve as critical training tool for new employees.
After putting a great deal of thought into how to do this right, here are the rough steps I’ve worked out to help guide the creation of new process in a developing organization.
Step 1) Identify the key stakeholders for the process – these are the people who are going to have to be happy with the solution when it’s done. Usually this includes a) the people who will be doing the work, plus b) any managers or bosses that have oversight over the work.
Step 2) Work with the key stakeholders to confirm and record (in writing) your understanding of the problem you’re trying to solve. What is the pain that we’re solving with this process?
Step 3) Work with the key stakeholders to develop a clear vision for success: what criteria have to be satisfied for this process to be considered successful? This is one of the most important steps. It’s critically important that you have a full list of requirements for the process and that everyone is aligned on what success looks like. Note: this step is often overlooked or skipped over. I’ve personally failed to do this in the past and have suffered the consequences.
Step 4) Present the problem and vision for success to the people who are ultimately going to be doing the work. Make sure they fully understand the problem, vision for success, and the requirements. Ask them how they would go about solving the problem. What steps would they take? Make sure you ask them to physically act out the steps as well. Saying how you’d do something can often be very different from actually doing it. Observe what they do naturally when faced with the problem.
Step 5) Document the steps you’ve observed. Write down what people naturally did when they had to solve the problem. Record it formally as a written step-by-step process.
Step 6) Present the process you recorded back to the people doing the work – explaining it each step of the way. “This is what I observed when you naturally tried to solve this problem.” You want to mirror their actions so they can see what they did from an objective viewpoint. After presenting the process, discuss with them what could be improved. It’s okay to suggest things, but ultimately it’s important the material comes from the actual people who will be doing the process. No one likes to have process forced on them and there is a much greater chance that the process will be successful if the people doing the work create the actual steps. This can be an iterative step, where you discuss improvements, try them, update the recorded process, and discuss again.
Step 6) Comb through the revised process document and double check that all of the requirements and success criteria have been met. This is the “sanity check” step; make sure that you’re actually solving the problem that you want to be solving.
Step 7) Present revised process to all the key stakeholders and collect a final round of feedback. Note: it’s better to collect this feedback in a 1:1 setting. Sending a long process document to a group of people via email and requesting feedback without any specific questions tends to lead to non-response, ambiguous comments, or otherwise unhelpful feedback.
Step 8) Publish the process in a public place and communicate the process formally. Include the strong caveat that it will be modified and evolved as necessary. The nature of process is that it’s constantly evolving to meet changing circumstances and business realities. No process is ever perfect and setting the tone of flexibility is important to maintain the ability to adapt.
Hopefully these steps will serve as a helpful framework for process creation. If you have experience on this topic as well, share them in the comments below. I’d be very interested to hear about how you’ve been able to create process.