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The 5 Good Process Types

22.06.2021

I’m here to stick up for process, done right. When you have the right processes in place, it doesn’t feel like you’re bogged down with process. It feels like the organization is humming. Because it is!

Good process helps everyone at the company make more efficient progress towards their goals and ship better stuff. Good process reinforces your company’s values. Good process helps teams stay focused by setting predictable expectations for when work is open for feedback, and when teams should be heads-down building. Good process helps reduce cognitive load for project stakeholders because the next conversation about critical projects is already scheduled and on their calendars. Good process encourages people to do the requisite preparation and thinking before they make work-or-company-shaping decisions. Good process helps company leaders provide consistent direction and draw connections in work across the company. Good process makes sure there is an appropriate injection of variance-maximizing activity. Really good processes can even establish company-wide norms that eliminate the need for process.

Ultimately, good process makes working more satisfying.

There is undoubtedly an art to finding the right balance of where, when, and how to implement process. Part of that art is also a commitment to spotting and eliminating the bad processes that can pose an enormous risk to a company by slowing people down, diluting the work, and frustrating or demotivating those involved. This is especially tricky because what is a good process now may be a bad process in 6 months from now.

Here is a framework for thinking about the types of company wide-processes and then ideas for processes you can implement. As you consider bringing any of this to your company, be judicious. Take extreme care to not only choose the right mechanisms and develop the right version of them for your organization, but also to roll these out in a way that helps your team believe in their power to operate efficiently. This will also mean creating clear guidelines for who engages with what mechanisms, how they should engage, and what the expected outcome is.

Decisions about what processes to implement, when to implement them, and who to include are high-stakes, but the results that come with good process are worth it.

Overview of mechanisms

Here is an overview of the different types of mechanisms and their high-level purpose. The sections that follow go into a lot more depth and offers ideas for different manifestations of each mechanism.

  • Observability: keep an eye on work as it’s happening
    • ex: dashboards, regular updates (like snippets)
  • Rudder: make small decisions that guide direction
    • ex: leadership meeting, check-in’s on plans (like QBRs), product reviews
  • Standards: uphold the quality bar across all the work at a company
    • ex: launch review, code review
  • Peer perspectives: give/get feedback across the company in a structured way
    • ex: office hours, Q&A, dogfooding
  • Turpentine checks: keep an ear to user experience and perception of the product and company
    • ex: user feedback tune-in, watering hole tune-in, everybody does tickets

 

Observability Mechansims

Observability mechanisms help teams keep a pulse on their own work and share that with stakeholders and onlookers… without having to ask. To gut-check on whether your observability mechanisms are good ones, ask yourself, “if someone visited this dashboard with no context on our work, would they leave with an accurate understanding of how things are going?”

Teams benefit by building better (and shared) literacy for how things are going, generate the perspective that helps them notice trends, and even catch small aberrations before they become big mistakes. Over time, they also create an artifact of the team’s progress over time.

Stakeholders benefit because they have visibility on how the work is progressing… without having to ask. We’ve all had that “CEO is pinging about x, get all hands on deck,” and “Y from team A is checking on x, can you share an update?” moments. These mechanisms get ahead of those interruptions and promote visibility on work by making information reliably available to the rest of the organization proactively.

It’ll also show curious onlookers what their colleagues are up to, and what kind of impact they’re driving, which facilitates meaningful cross-company connections and pride in the collective work.

Typical Forum qualities

  • Host: workstream owner
  • Cadence: depends
  • Format: asynchronous
  • Content owner: workstream owner
  • Escalation/final decision maker/approver: closest leader

 

Rudder Mechanisms

Even the best-laid plans will require many, many adjustments as the work progresses and the team learns new things. Like adjusting a rudder to steer a boat, the small movements made in the-run-of-work (especially those early in the work’s life) will have a meaningful impact on where the project ends up.

Rudder forums help workstream owners make ongoing decisions that drive towards the outcomes of the plan, often with the support of others around the organization. They’re also a great opportunity to share and discuss learnings from the ground-floor with reviewers and onlookers.

Remember, asking to see work is not an implicit criticism or a breach of trust. It is a signal that you care about your users, your products, and your team.  If you run these forums well, they can build trust and maintain a shared view of the state and direction of work across the team. They can also train participants to make better decisions in the future that will help everyone move faster, ship better, and help others do the same.

 

Typical Forum qualities

  • Host: company/team leader
  • Cadence: regular
  • Format: asynchronous
  • Content owner: workstream owner
  • Escalation/final decision maker/approver: closest leader

 

Standards Mechanisms

All the company’s work must uphold the values and standards of the company. Not some of the work; all of the work. Standards forums ensure work upholds these standards before it’s shown to users (reminder: users can be internal or external, and quality for both is equally important even if the standards manifest differently).

It’s critical to be discerning about when in a project’s life it comes to a standards forum; focusing on polish too early can be a huge time-waster for teams. For any standards forum, build clear principles and guidelines for what work must come to the forum, when it should come, who the approver is, and how to present the work to the approver. Team, organization, and company leaders should own the creation of the forums and how to interact with them.

Standards reviews can be as lightweight as a ping to a Slack channel (good for copy reviews, for example) or as heavyweight as a meeting with a rotating agenda of projects about to launch (good for product reviews, for example). They can be opt-in (employees know to raise their hand for a review when a project reaches a certain state) or requested (employees are asked to come to review).

This is a place where it’s very easy to add bottle-necks and over-process your organization. Start with the things that you care the most about getting right; or conversely, you think could be the most harmful if you get wrong.

Typical Forum qualities

  • Host: company/team leader
  • Cadence: as needed
  • Format: depends
  • Content owner: workstream owner
  • Escalation/final decision maker/approver: closest leader, appointed standard-bearer

 

Peer Perspectives

Your organization is full of incredible people with a rich diversity of skills, experiences, and perspectives. Peer perspectives mechanisms establish norms to help your people take advantage of that in their work.

These mechanisms also help teams stay focused because inquiries and feedback are consolidated to blocks of time specifically allocated to it.

 

Typical Forum qualities

  • Host: project leader
  • Cadence: as needed
  • Format: depends
  • Content owner: workstream owner
  • Escalation/final decision maker/approver: closest leader

Turpentine Checks

Picasso said, “when art critics get together they talk about Form and Structure and Meaning. When artists get together they talk about where you can buy cheap turpentine.” Great organizations are obsessed with turpentine.

Turpentine is what is really going on at the one-inch altitude. It’s not the generic, cliched, shape of it observed from 10,000 feet. Even the smartest, most thoughtful, best-intentioned people won’t get it right without the ground-level perspective and visceral sense of what is.

Still not crystal clear on why turpentine matters? Pixar’s research trips are a great example. When making Ratatouille, the entire crew visited restaurant kitchens in Paris to get a feel for them. Ed Catmull credited these trips with the “obsessive specificity” of the kitchen scenes; the sound of clogs on the tiles, how chefs held their arms while chopping, and more. It’s why those scenes feel so real when you see them on the silver screen.

Turpentine makes the product and culture better. Getting neck-deep versus ankle-deep into the minds of users and watering holes of the problem space makes the work more rewarding because employees can feel their impact and hone their instincts for what to put into the world.

The entire organization should be posting to and reading from these channels all the time.

Typical Forum qualities

  • Host: project leader
  • Cadence: ongoing
  • Format: depends
  • Content owner: workstream owner
  • Escalation/final decision maker/approver: closest leader

 

 

Ready to dive into tactics and see how other companies have implemented these? Make The Shipping Great Work Issue your next stop.