Keep process messages clear

I often encounter teams that are confounded by their processes–perhaps they don’t understand them, or perhaps they there are many that are missing. They can usually handle their day to day work, but anything outside the norm leads to questions, delay and confusion.

I once worked with a team that said no-one wanted to ask for decisions to be made because no-one knew what the process was and the standard answer was to for the questioner to get nominated to go out and seek consensus. Not wanting onerous extra work, they avoided important decision-making.

Often when we work with a process or system for some time it becomes second nature, even if there are obscure exceptions, caveats and some parts are “just make a good guess”. There are plenty of times when I’ve encountered a system that seemed byzantine on my first day, and entirely reasonable after six months. But it’s easy to forget that first day.

Most people working at the codeface of digital products—developers, visual designers, and so on—encounter only parts of these processes regularly. Therefore it’s hard to remember the standard way of approaching particular problems that are anything other than routine. Considering a new technology, seeking security assurance, handling a new customer request… all these things and more are often outside the norm. If there isn’t clarity around these atypical processes then it easily leads to confusion, wasted conversations, and wasted time.

So when process isn’t clear to some key stakeholders—which are pretty much all situations outside small companies with people who have all worked together for ages—I advocate very simple messaging and signposting to tell people what to do.

For example, “if you’ve got any question about scope then the first person to talk to is the product manager,” or “there’s a priority meeting for the team every Wednesday; there’s a priority meeting for the programme every month,” or “ask the team, escalate to the leads, and they’ll escalate to the board if needed”.

The important thing is to keep the messaging really simple so that—for the majority of people who don’t operate across the whole process every day—it’s really easy to remember. And if it can’t be simplified then that’s a sign that some process rationalisation is needed.

An important additional help is to keep repeating that messaging again and again and again. That may sound a bit crass, but if knowing what to do is so simple and automatic that it means people barely have to think, then it reduces stress, ensures consistency, and helps everyone work together much more effectively.

Photo by Peggy Shanks

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