There are two scenarios that are frequent in my day-to-day. The first is where a company approaches me because its leaders feel like they do not have enough processes in place to accommodate their growth. The second is the opposite: an executive might feel like things are slowly grinding to a halt because too many procedures or bureaucratic policies have been put in place. Sometimes, I work with people who hold these two different perspectives even though they work in the same company. Who’s right? Everyone, of course.
What Processes Can’t and Shouldn’t Do
Being a consultant, processes are my bread and butter. Nevertheless, I constantly see them being abused or misused. That’s because we should not attempt to cover the humans underlying with big slabs of processes. Therefore, we shouldn’t aim to have processes make communication obsolete or even imagine that every instance of an issue should be handled precisely the same. For example, let’s assume you have a recommended flow for shaping features. It can be one that works for 80% of your team’s work, but it will still need tweaking in some cases. When working on a feature that requires expertise that doesn’t currently exist in your company, like your first foray into ML. Or when you actively decide to have juniors participate in some planning work as part of their coaching.
Further, any process worth sticking to has to be accommodated with an active effort to communicate the thinking behind it—the context and the intention in putting it in place. This doesn’t merely happen when you first create a process, by the way, but has to be regularly refreshed as people forget or new employees join the team. In The Tech Executive Operating System I lay out a basic framework for maintaining a process.
Consider daily meetings that were installed with a specific reason in mind and have slowly degraded to a slow and rambling update where each team member tunes out until it’s their turn (sounds familiar?). Or retrospectives and postmortems that never touch on the root causes of issues instead of settling on tackling symptoms. Processes can’t replace common sense or be used as crutches to support a culture of poor communication and silos.
Heuristics for Good Processes
When considering how to structure your processes or whether a new one is needed, there are a few valuable aspects to consider.
Risk Assessment: For each process, we should clearly define which risks it is intense to mitigate and how that plays into it. For example, hiring procedures for executives should weigh the negative impact of a bad hire a lot more carefully than your average IC hiring process.
Improve Communication: Processes can’t replace communication, but they can improve its efficacy. For example, processes that ensure that some prior thinking happens before meetings or that async communication takes place to allow more people to participate transparently.
Create Defaults, Embrace Agility: A startup’s advantage is being nimble and flexible. If we try to bolt everything down with processes and procedures, that can’t happen. Good processes should supply healthy defaults and guidelines, so the team can work faster on most things and have room for adjustments for specific circumstances.
Consider Your Context: You shouldn’t blindly copy processes that work for other companies, be it previous workplaces or publicly shared procedures. Each company is different, and making adjustments to your needs doesn’t mean that you’re reinventing the wheel.
Don’t Fear Processes: After all of this has been considered, I also want to stress that one shouldn’t altogether avoid processes just because they might feel “heavy.” A big part of scaling organizations is learning to collaborate more effectively, and processes enable that.
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