April 25, 2017 Process Matters
Process is a widely misunderstood but essential component of effective work and successful teams. Disciplines may have different goals, timeframes, scale of projects and tasks, but they all follow a process. A process is a sequence of steps involving specific actions that need to be performed to complete a series of tasks. Some of these steps run in parallel, while others are directly dependent on the completion of previous steps. Also, some of these steps are discipline agnostic (generically referred to as “understand,” “research,” “analyze”) while others are specific to each domain (“code,” “design”). But most steps can be supported and optimized by methods and tools. The key is to know what each step involves.
Demystifying process in everyday work
Inspired by the extensive work of John Chris Jones, a founder of the design methods movement, and Hugh Dubberly, a design planner and teacher, last year we conducted a small study to have a closer look at individual and team processes and better understand how their processes could be optimized so that they could do more effective work. For that, we asked participants to visualize their process including as much details as possible.
From the analysis of collected process diagrams, we learned that for some the process was simply magic, intuitive, or just plain common sense, others considered it an utter enigma, and a few of them didn’t even believe in “process” at all. In line with Dubberly’s book, How Do You Design?, our results also showed that while, yes, in reality, we all work differently, we all do follow some kind of process, whether we are aware of it or not. Learning the particularities of that process can help a team make more strategic decisions.
Process awareness can bring vast improvements to the spectrum of everyday work activities. Here are five key areas where a little process knowledge can go a long way:
- Building teams: When deciding on new hires or forming new internal project teams, synchronizing diverse working styles can be a challenge. For instance, a project team that’s half brainstormers and half ultra-planners might have trouble agreeing on when to move from ideas to action without a shared understanding of process. Making individual processes visible, through drawings and other activities, and openly discussing preferences and areas of overlap among team members can help ensure a holistic view of process and balanced, complementary collaboration.
- Assigning roles: Apart from specific job titles, people can play different project-specific roles, such as team leader, facilitator, or coordinator. Knowing first what a project or initiative involves by mapping out the key phases and tasks, then matching up individual strengths and relevant duties to the project map can help bring order and clarity to role assignment. This approach can help increase accountability and reduce the risk of having incomplete tasks.
- Optimizing effort: Process awareness can help team members identify what steps are the hardest, the easiest, the most time-consuming, and see where certain roles, and methods might fit best. Mentally intensive “figuring out” work, often at the start of a project, generally involves more reading, analyzing, sketching, and reflecting using analog tools like post-its and whiteboards (although more software and technology tools are emerging to support this type of work). Later stage “making” work typically involves more technical skills like prototyping and building the final product and more dominant use of digital tools. In both cases, it takes the right combination of task, skill, tool, and preference to efficiently and effectively get work done.
- Project planning: Clearer understanding of what tasks need to be done and in what order (chain of tasks) can improve task coordination, especially when dealing with complex situations involving many players and numerous moving parts. Gantt charts and other visual representations of project flows are invaluable for getting teams and stakeholders on the same page, but what’s often missing is a layer of process awareness — understanding who does what, when, and why. Project status meetings can become more productive with a fuller picture of what a project involves, especially how the team will complement each other and what they all contribute to the process.
- Managing time and budget: The greater process awareness a team has, the more accurate the sense of timing the team will have to plan accordingly and outline more accurate budgets. For instance, an early-stage project where the problem isn’t clearly defined would require more time, and relatively more flexibility, for exploratory work (and more researcher involvement), while a more framed later-stage project where something specific needs to be created may require a more rigid schedule, with more time devoted to ideation and production, as necessary.
In short, putting process awareness and dynamics into practice can produce a higher quality outcome and improve your team’s chances of success.
Understand YOUR Process!
One of our new workshops focuses on helping people learn more about their work process and understanding what a balanced process looks like. Through hands-on activities, we show how basic methods and tools can help reinforce critical points in a process. With this newfound process awareness, you could better manage time, budgets, and expectations, and ultimately achieve more effective results.
Let us know if you would like to learn more about how your team works or what methods you could use to support your process!