Process saves lives. But it has a few traps to look out for…

A friend of mine who also works for an integrated PR firm likes to say, “process saves lives.” And it does, believe me. I’ve learned more about the importance of process in the past year at Idea Grove than 20 years of combined experience at agencies and in-house positions.

Until recently, we didn’t have time to create business processes much less instill rigor in sticking to them. We were too busy giving our clients stellar service to worry about our own needs. But as we’ve grown, we saw the need to create a culture that places a premium on process–this has helped us scale to grow as our clients grow as well.

Some Hidden Benefits

At Idea Grove, we’ve seen major improvements with the implementation of process. There are the obvious and expected benefits, like efficiencies, economies and the ability to scale.

There are peripheral benefits too, like getting everyone on a team on the same page in terms of expectations around an activity or task. For example, we’ve trained our folks on media list development, an activity we take very seriously. If we don’t know exactly why we are targeting certain journalists for a story, why bother having a target list at all, right? Because that training is now in place, our managers can give more specific direction to their teams when they begin researching the media list by guiding them within the agency’s process. People know what is expected of them, and how their work fits into the bigger picture, because a process now exists.

Additionally, having a process can help soften the blow when it’s time to give a teammate some constructive criticism on a project. Instead of having to say things like, “your media pitch just isn’t very good,” it becomes a conversation about the process used to create the pitch. How did you arrive at this structure and content for your media pitch? Did you use our process for building a customized pitch for each reporter? Did you review all of the marketing material on this product launch, and did you interview a subject matter expert (SME) who could break down the marketing jargon, so it could be removed for the media pitch to be more fitting for journalists? Did you research what the industry analysts are saying about this product category and insert some of those stats into your pitch? Then, feedback can be naturally inserted into that conversation as you walk through the process step by step.

We also hired folks with an aptitude for operational process. We now have a senior traffic manager who helps us keep our sanity within the creative realm, ensuring deadlines are met, that our time is properly accounted for, and, in general, looks for ways our agency can be more efficient and effective. Now our creative director can focus on his core competency and not on being a project management professional.

A Few Issues to Watch For

That said, there are a couple of “gotchas” that are worth noting when it comes to process.

One, while it is true that process may save lives, it doesn’t actually save the planet. Meaning, it isn’t the end all be all. If you have a weak product or service offering, an incomplete strategy, the wrong staffing model, or you under-bid a project, all the process in the world isn’t going to save you.

Another thing to watch out for is the misnomer that with process comes slowness. In more mature organizations where process is the norm, process is often used as a crutch. It is common to hear people use the phrase “we have a process for that” as a means to slow you down and re-set/lower your expectations.

A certain CEO I work with at one of our clients likes to move fast. He likes to take risks. He pressures his engineers to speed up the time it takes to integrate and roll out new products. Making enterprise technologies work seamlessly together is no easy task. But this CEO is very impatient. Most days I suffer from impatience myself, so this way of thinking is very relatable to me. I always have my eye on the prize so that means things can’t happen fast enough for me.

So when the client shared with me a story about the aggressive timeline he gave to his team for a product launch, including their initial reaction: “But we have a process for that,” as well as his response: “Great, your process will really speed things up,” I nearly fall out of my chair laughing. Because of course this wasn’t at all the message that they are trying to deliver to him. What they were trying to tell him is that he has to slow down in order to fit into their established way of operating. But he’s absolutely spot on about the original intent of having process. The real benefit is that once you take time to create it, it makes things move forward more quickly. Too many people think the opposite is true.

Like Strategy, Process Needs Fluidity

On some level, once process starts to slow you down is the right moment to start questioning its very existence.

It’s good to stick with a process that’s working, but knowing which factors will impact your process is key. You have to stay ahead of those changes. Technology disruption, growth, new employees, new clients and other factors can all warrant a fresh look at your processes.

I’ve worked on many processes with team members only to hear grumblings from them a few weeks after we put those processes in place.

At Idea Grove, we like to have continued conversations about process improvement, and if everyone or the majority of the team is unhappy with a process, we don’t force it down their throats. If it isn’t working for everyone, we are open to changing it. The goals and the structure of the business process have to stand up over time and under the weight of major change in staff, clients and technologies across the agency. That means the workflow within the process should be fluid. Our people are our greatest asset: we focus on that as the centerpiece and then build process around what will have the greatest positive impact for clients and our employees.