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Dec 15 2015

When is the right time to add process to your business?

Like many CEO’s in December, my head has been down for the past few weeks as we plan for 2016. And one of the things that’s been on my mind is process.

We’ve recently implemented a new lead management process and CRM to help triage our inbound project requests. We’ve built better systems to allocate our team’s time across all of our projects. We’ve put in place a process to request vacation time and perform other HR tasks using Bamboo.

Basically, we’ve been focusing on getting a lot of things out of our heads and into a more organized, trackable structure.

It’s something that we’ve struggled with and resisted for a long time.

When we were small, it was easy to keep everything — what everyone was working on, new clients in the pipeline, those sorts of things — in my head.

But more and more, I’ve come to believe in the power of structure and processes for growing a business, and ultimately in the necessity of it once you reach a certain point.

This has been one of my biggest perspective shifts this year, and I hope that by sharing my thinking on it, I can convince some of you to embrace process, structure (and the discipline to follow through on them) for your team’s benefit, too.

Why so many young businesses resist process

The ethos of many young companies is built around what makes them different from the big guys. You’ve heard all of the cliches: We move fast and break stuff. We disrupt and innovate. We do things differently.

In our quest to remain nimble, we think that process is what slows the larger companies down. That process is the curse bogging down innovation on large teams. That process, in all its evil, is a “big company trait”.

In reality, it often has a lot more to do with culture than process. And contrary to what many think, large companies are responsible for a lot more innovation than most in the startup world would admit.

But when it comes to avoiding process solely because large companies rely on it, young businesses couldn’t be more misguided.

The big, “slow” companies aren’t dumb (well, not all of them anyway)

MojoTech is the largest company I’ve worked for, but many of us have worked at large companies or have at least experienced their red tape in some way.

We’ve seen process poorly executed, and it has scarred a lot of us who have ached to do things faster. That’s what drove many of us to leave those large companies and pursue the paths that we did.

And to be sure, you can grow with a flat org chart and without much process. To a point.

We’ve grown MojoTech to more than 40 employees in three offices that way. But at a certain level — which I’m finding is about right now for us — the need for process becomes clear.

Employees want to feel safe in making decisions, knowing that they’re still doing the right thing and won’t be penalized for wrong choices. They want to know what to do if they come up against issues and challenges, or even how to do simple things like request time off.

There’s a comfort in process and structure that most of us feel, but hesitate to admit to.

We all grew up with it: in school, you always know what you should be doing at any given time because you’re told to do it. I never liked school very much, at least, the classroom parts, and I’m certain that’s one of the reasons for my long distrust of structures and processes which diminish an individual's unique abilities and own judgement.

When you’re thrust into a world without any structure, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and flounder. Most of us create structure in our personal lives to replace what we lost when we left the structured world; things like project management apps and to-do lists are an obvious example.

Even for those of us who hate the idea of process, actually having it makes most of us more comfortable, whether we like it or not.

To be frank, I still dislike the idea of process.

But it’s become clear that it’s what’s best for the culture, the team and the business. Every large company learns that at some point in its growth. Most of them started out just like we did, with a free-for-all structure that they shed when they came to the same realization: that approach only takes you so far.

They needed process eventually. And you will too. The key is to develop the right processes for your businesses. What works for Google will not work for you.

And on an even more granular level, what works for you today might not work for you five employees later. You can’t simply copy process from other companies, as you’ll end up with the wrong fit and the wrong conclusion that process simply doesn’t work.

Our CRM, our HR app, our lead management process...might be terrible for you.

Process and structure are deeply individual pursuits that each company must find the best fit for on its own, based on your culture, values, team and challenges.

But choosing is the easiest part. There are great options for companies of all sizes. It’s letting go of your hesitation and embracing the value of process that’s the hardest, and most important part.

Getting your team onboard and making process work for you

Overcoming your own fear of process is one thing.

But when you’ve built a company and hired dozens of employees based on the premise that you’re committed to “always operating like a small, agile business,” selling the idea of process to your team can be tricky.

There are two important things to note here:

1) Successful process starts with purpose

If you’ve hired well, you don’t have a team of lemmings ready to blindly do whatever you say. They may believe in your leadership and vision, but smart people are more motivated by purpose than confusing directives.

And really, you should be, too. Before you pick the process, determine the purpose.

Why are you putting a process in place?

In most cases, it’s to reduce or eliminate a particular inefficiency or to accelerate or improve a specific part of your business. Know what that purpose is, and when you introduce the process, lead with that purpose. Understanding why you’re doing what you’re doing will (ideally) help your team embrace the process, too.

If everyone knows the purpose of the process it also empowers them to improve upon it or even ignore it in cases where they feel as though it’s hurting rather than helping the team.

2) Why process fails

Process fails for two reasons: it’s either the wrong process for your purpose or your team isn’t adhering to the process.

If it’s the former, having a stated purpose at the outset will make it a lot easier to track and realize that your process isn’t working. If you’re not accomplishing what the stated purpose of the process is after a few weeks, then perhaps it’s time to try a new process.

But often, processes fail not because of the chosen process, but because teams aren’t disciplined about following through on the execution of the process.

If you don’t exercise discipline and stick to the process you’ve chosen, the process won’t work for you.

Making your team accountable to each other for adhering to your process, either in regular meetings, in a team chat room, in a project management tool or in whatever app you’ve chosen for your process, is key to making process work for you.

Process is not a failure

Too many people look at process as a failure, assuming that you only need process because your company is too bloated or your team isn’t good enough. Or they see it as a hindrance, slowing you down and crushing your agility.

But in reality, when done well and created with your organization in mind, process can be both a success and a catalyst. I plan for it to be both of those things for MojoTech in 2016.

Nick Kishfy