Process & Consistency

Generally speaking, unless a project is a completely new type of project or purely investigative/experimental, some type of formal process can be applied to it. This can be rigid, fluid, or anywhere in between. As long as there is some process, written down (not in people’s heads) that is kept up to date,

What do I mean by “process”?

I like to define “process” loosely. Merriam-Webster defines process as “a series of actions or operations conducing to an end”.

A project’s process can be anything that is a documented in order to get a project completed. Often, a process may be one of the below elements, or bits and pieces of each:

  • Step-by-step workflow
  • “Choose your own adventure” guidelines
  • Onboarding documents
  • Pre-launch / post-launch checklists
  • Github Git-Flow

Why is process important?

Three reasons: consistency, autonomy, and responsibility.

#1: Consistency

I had a draft of this page for several months, but didn’t have a good way to summarize all of my thoughts using a single word or phrase. During WP Engine’s DE{CODE} conference, Lisa Sabin-Wilson, talked about the importance of consistency. Find the video labelled Key Strategies for Growing Your Agency Business and find Lisa’s talk around the 15:00 ~ 33:00 minute marks. Consistency is exactly the unifying word that I needed to tie all of my thoughts together on why process is important. That being said, this section combines many of my ideas with her quotes/ideas from the her talk because Lisa says it way better than I ever could. Where a close direct quote or paraphrase exists, I have cited the time in the video that it appears in.

Consistency drives trust in leadership, builds confidence, and contributes to a sense of job security. Consistency gives you the ability to measure outcomes and helps you hold your team accountable. Consistency not only gives the impression of stability but provides it. Consistency establishes your business’s/leadership’s reputation and makes you relevant.

So what are the pitfalls from a lack of consistency? Mistrust, confusion, frustration, all hands on deck, stepping on toes, and burnout. Lack of consistency will limit your capabilities and what you are able to accomplish. Boundaries can only be safely pushed when there is a consistent base to push from.

Without a standard process, individuals will come up with their own, often conflicting, processes. When the atmosphere is all hands on deck, people can wind up wearing too many hats. Eventually, someone will feel that their toes got stepped on, or step on another’s toes. The downhill slide continues into a game of “not my job,” breeds resentment, and eventually burnout and employee turnover.

How do we maximize consistency?

  • Standardize methods & procedures
  • Standardize tools & templates
  • Standardize training & education

How to create a process: a starting point and living document

“Most people work predictably. You will be able to use what already exists as your starting point. Once you have a list of those key processes, gather any documentation your team members already have & steps that they’ve already taken. That can be the starting point to modifying it into a standard process.” ~23:55

I’ve explained this previously as:
“We have a known project kickoff and project launch. Those are two points in the process. Continue by having a conversation about how you normally fill what’s in between those two points. Do that until you can’t think of any other points to add, and behold: a rough process.”

It should be well advertised that standard processes are living documents. They should be updated continuously. Baby steps should be taken. Caveats should be noted.

Finally, the process must be shared and enforced. “All of the standardization in the world will not do your business any good if it’s not shared with your team.” ~26:48

Most are paraphrased:

  • “Learning as you go is a hard road… especially in a period of growth.” ~18:50
  • “You will run out of water to put out fires if you don’t have fire-prevention measures in place.” ~19:25
  • “Doing something a different every single time causes inefficiencies.” ~19:41
  • “If it takes 20 minutes to do something that would take 5 using a few standard steps, that’s 15 minutes of money you’ll never get back.” ~19: 55
  • “Recognize recurring fires as they happen– and over time. Look at them as opportunities to create a standard process to save yourself time and headache.” ~20:10
  • “These processes will also help you train employees when it is time to offload those responsibilities.” ~21:10
  • “People trust the process more than they trust people.” ~21:55
  • “Flying by the seat of your pants when you have a dozen projects per year– you’ll get through it, you’ll be ok. But what about when you have a dozen projects per month or two dozen per month?” ~30:30

#2: Autonomy

With a process, an employee can trust that their manager’s direction is correct in the given scenario. A manager can trust that the employee will follow the standard process and arrive at the expected outcome.

I’ve always explained it as “making a burger.” Given that the criteria include items like “it must be edible” and the toppings are known– how many different ways are there to make a burger? A lot of preparation methods, cooking methods, seasonings, budgets, time frames, and a pile of other factors could lead to wildly different outcomes.

It may be silly to think about, but we can take that a few steps simpler: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. There’s a fantastic YouTube video called The Exact Instructions Challenge where a father tasks his children with writing the exact instructions for him to follow in order to make a simple PB&J.

Watch that video. Keep in mind how easy it is and how few steps there are to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Following incomplete or ambiguous instructions leads to wildly different outcomes. Now apply that to your job: coding a website, designing an interface, building a project schedule, etc. Those are infinitely more complicated and require many more specialized skills than making a PB&J. How can anyone expected to do a similar task and wind up with the same result? Clear process is the answer.

#3: Responsibility

How do you assign praise, feedback, or criticism on a project with a lot of moving parts or with multiple team members– and without a process? Without the expectation of knowing who does what and how in any given scenarios, who is to blame?

The answer there is either “everyone” or “no one.” Without a process, it is the entire team’s responsibility to ensure the success of every aspect of a project. This is a slippery slope, as noted with the pitfalls of a lack of consistency above.

How do you measure your team’s success during retrospectives/post-mortems and times of performance review? Without a consistent process, these conversations are an extremely slippery slope.