Process Is Not a Bad Word

Anyone who has worked at a big company knows the danger of too much process. You have to get consensus from 7 different people before taking a step; if a feature isn’t on the 6 month roadmap, you can’t do it, even if 90% of your customers are desperate for it; you lose a great hire because the person who needed to sign your paperwork was on vacation. Process can definitely slow things down, and one of the beauties of a startup environment is the absence of process, and being able to pop over to your colleagues desk, propose an idea, write some code, call a customer, and get things done.

But process isn’t all bad. When you’re 2, 3, or 5 people, you don’t need much process—any bigger than that, and the lack of proces becomes dangerous.

Some benefits of having process:

  • Everyone is on the same page about company objectives, and can work towards a similar goal and feel like part of a competent team
  • Customers know (generally) what will come out when, and can plan accordingly and feel like you know what you are doing
  • You don’t duplicate work
  • There are clear swim lanes for employees, which reduces land grabbing and frustration
  • When you collect information in one place, you can see patterns and reduce time waste of searching or recollecting info

Process is like a stake for your tomato plant or agar for your bacterial culture. It’s something that helps you grow. The real trick is getting the right amount of process in place. If you’re at a startup, remember that the right amount of process will constantly be changing, and it may feel uncomfortable, but it’s totally OK.

How you know you have too much process:

  • You’re not releasing features
  • You spend more than 50% of your day in meetings (and you’re not in sales)
  • More than one person has to sign off on things that don’t matter very much

Embrace process. Just keep an eye on it, and be willing to alter it (up or down) when you’re feeling uncomfortable.

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3 thoughts on “Process Is Not a Bad Word

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more too many cooks in the kitchen make the soup to spicy. A small dedicated group can accomplish a lot of good work without doing double work.

  2. My production process was brought to a screeching halt today. I’m am machinist who knows what it takes to get a job done. But people get sick, need to take personal days, and have to leave the office or shop for many different reasons. Which is what happened today. The head engineer who’s job needed to be finished a.s.a.p. was out on business. The other engineers where a little hesitant to sign off on modifications necessary to have a finished working product. By the time my co-worker and I got in touch with the engineer needed to make the final call on going ahead with our new plan and modification the day was nearly over. Tomorrow will now be another crazy day, rushing around to make sure we finish up and ship the job which is already running late to the customer. I don’t mind pressure but when working in such close tolerances you never want to have to rush. Thats how mistakes are made.

  3. Thanks Phil and Chris. It’s interesting that you’re seeing different things – Phil is enjoying a bit of extra process that allows him and his colleagues to be efficient, and Chris is seeing a process that runs into trouble with someone in the process is unexpectedly out. The solution for Chris might be to deputize better – to make sure that there are backup processes when the original one fails.

    When I wrote my post, I was thinking a lot about startups, or companies that are constantly growing (or in some cases shrinking) and having to adjust to their new size. I just talked to a few people at a tech startup that has seen a lot of success and is currently about 150 people and growing very quickly. They spent their first couple of years racing to build a fairly obvious feature set in a fairly open niche. Now they are fine tuning, creating new add on feature sets, and tacking new markets.

    It’s time for them to be a little more systematic about their market research and they product roadmap, which takes some real process to make the right choices, or at least to collect the right data so that choices can then be made from the gut. Most of the team seems very open to that, which is great, but the ones who mourn the “good old days” when you could have a meeting and jump in to engineering work will probably not thrive at this new stage.

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