I think people often have the wrong idea about process. To many people, process is boring and corporate, but I actually believe it’s essential to make you efficient and to prepare you for high growth. Every organisation, no matter how entrepreneurial they are, has to have processes to be able to grow with speed. It’s really important. If you look at your organisation, you’ll see that you have a whole bunch of processes in whatever you do. It’s up to you how much detail you want to go into with each process, but what I’d like to share with you in this blog is how we created our processes at Cake. You can then decide how you want to approach your own processes. A good process will not affect your ability to be agile, creative and innovative. A good process provides flexibility and your culture should ensure that you do not lose your creativity and innovation.
Creating your key process
Cake was a software development company, so the key process for us was our software development process. I’m a big believer that process should always be owned. Not only that, but it should be articulated and owned by the people who are carrying it out on a day-to-day basis. It’s no good me, or another member of the senior team, coming up with a process and forcing people to use it. When you do that, there’s no ownership, and the process is probably wrong and not fit for purpose because you’re not close enough to what’s going on.
The way we developed our software development process at Cake was to put together a panel of five people that went right across the software development team. There was no hierarchy or anything like that, it was just five people who volunteered and said they’d be happy to help because they felt it was an interesting and important task to work on. This team put together a process. Then they circulated it and discussed it with their colleagues. After about three weeks, we had a really detailed process that had been developed by the team.
Once we had the process at the point where we were going to use it, we took it to a design company who made it look really nice, simplified the way it was presented and added some creative flair to it. Over the next six months, this process was refined slightly. But I would say that usually after this initial period, your process settles down. As the business develops and as the business world develops, there will be changes to your process. It might be that new technology comes along, that you have to build a new product, or offer a new service. In these cases, some things may have to change along the way, but the fundamentals will probably remain fairly consistent for a reasonably long period of time.
Always have your process in a live document
It’s really important that your process is a live document. This document should continually be reviewed, tweaked and updated. That said, there’s nothing wrong with printing your key process on a perspex frame and hanging it on a wall in the office once it’s pretty stable.
I’d say you could do that once you have a key process that’s been around for six to 12 months and is pretty stable, which is not to say it’s set in stone, because they never are. But the fundamentals of the process aren’t likely to change drastically.
Having your process on the wall in the office can help new employees, for example. It’s also useful for established members of the team, just to have it in the background as a reminder of the way that we want to do things to ensure that we maintain our edge, maintain quality and are doing everything in the right way.
We found that customers also like to come in and see that you have a process. Clients love it when a company has processes because it makes them feel like you’re organised and know what you’re doing.
At Cake, we used to have our software engineering process on the walls of the meeting rooms, as well as on our engineering area wall. It made sense to have it where our engineers sat, because it acted as a nice reminder to everyone. But we also put it up in our meeting rooms because we wanted our customers to see it. Your customers aren’t likely to look at your process in great detail, but the fact that you have something will give them confidence that you’re organised and know what you’re doing.
Look at all of your processes
As well as creating our development process at Cake, we also looked at our sales process. This process went all the way from spreading our notoriety as an organisation, through to what we’d do when we received a phone call, and then to when we signed a contract at the end of the process. This was also important for us as a business.
We had a finance process too, which changed over time as the business grew. In this case we needed more management information and we needed more strategic support to change the finance process, so we worked with our FD and non-exec on our finance process and the strategic planning for that finance process to make sure we got it right.
One of the key things we benefited from as an organisation as we grew was having a recruitment process. In the end, once we had about 40 to 45 people working for us, we hired an internal recruiter and they developed a really great recruitment process. In a competitive area like software engineering, where there are more vacancies than there are people to fill them, you, as a business, have to be pretty impressive.
Once we had a job applicant that we wanted to find out more about, our recruitment process kicked in. We began by getting the applicant excited about what we were about as a company, what we focused on and what our ethos and culture was. We talked about all of this, not in a salesy way, but just in terms of explaining who we were and what we were about. On the whole, this got people excited about joining Cake and then they wanted the job even more. We took them through quite a detailed process after this, but we did that as quickly as we could. This process involved some technical work with the engineering team, where people were assessed by the team using pair programming and an on-line technical test. But we also had a non-technical chat, usually with a member of the senior management team, where we would find out what that person wanted from a career point of view, what their aspirations were and what they were trying to do in life. Our aim with this part of the recruitment process was to get a feel for what they were about and make sure they were a good fit for our culture and the way we thought as a company.
By combining those two elements, I would say that we made very few bad hires. Don’t get me wrong, we made some, but I think in comparison to a lot of companies we did pretty well on that front, but I believe that was because we had a very well defined recruitment process. It just goes to show why having processes in place is important.
As well as these bigger processes, there are also other smaller processes that you’ll require.
Different companies will have different key processes
I’ve talked about the key processes that we had at Cake, which were our software development process, our sales process, our recruitment process and our finance process. These might be the same key processes that your company needs, or your key processes might be different.
It’s important to remember that different companies have different key processes. Or it might be that the key processes fall broadly into the same area, for example sales, but that your sales process will look very different to the one we had at Cake.
For example, there’s a leasing company I’m working with at the moment and its sales process is one of its key processes. It’s far more important than the sales process was at Cake, because this company is selling lots of smaller items, whereas we used to engage with customers on big projects involving tens of people and lasting for a period of maybe six to 18 months.
A leasing company may receive 40 to 50 phone calls a day. Their business is leasing equipment to offices. That means their sales process is the most important one. Whereas at Cake, our software development process was the key.
This leasing company also has a logistics process, which was never something we needed at Cake. This logistics process is really important to them because when an order comes in and they get the sale, that’s all good, but to get another sale from that client they need to fulfil their order in a timely and efficient manner. To do that they need a logistics process.
My point is that every company will have slightly different requirements and priorities for their processes and for the process itself. Where sales is concerned, the difference in process should reflect the different kinds of products that you’re selling, for instance.
A process is a guide, not a set of rules
It’s important to emphasise here that processes are there to guide and support, they’re not there to drive the innovation and creativity out of the business. Good processes should support innovation and creativity. That’s a really important point.
What you often find is that more corporate processes kill creativity and innovation. They’re the kind of processes that force you to work in a particular way and if you don’t, you’re in trouble.
We absolutely didn’t work like that at Cake. Our processes were there to guide and help people to follow a general direction, but there was every opportunity at various points in that process to think outside the box, be creative, come up with ideas and challenge things. We encouraged people to speak to the Head of Engineering if they came up with a good idea. Anyone in the team could come up with a good idea and if we felt it had merit we’d try it. Our ethos was, ‘What’s the worst that can happen? Let’s give that go.’
You need to have that flexibility within your process. It’s part of developing a culture of continual improvement, which is what you should strive for. Doing this allows you to tap into your team’s creativity and ideas. You should make it clear that you want them to come forward with suggestions and let them try new things. Failure, to a point, should be embraced because there’s nothing wrong with failing when you’ve tried to do something new. What is wrong is doing the same thing three times and failing at the same thing three times because you didn’t do anything differently. Of course there is a line, but failure should never be punished. You learn more from failure than you do from things going right.
If you don’t try new things then I just don’t think you’ll stay ahead of the field that you’re in. You have to keep coming up with new ideas, doing things differently and trying new tools, techniques and processes. That’s how you continue to improve and that’s how you keep your team interested in what you’re doing.
Find the right balance
There’s a real balance to find when you’re developing your process. Every company that wants to grow has to have a process. But I think that there are different types of processes. When you’re an entrepreneurial, agile company, you need a process that does a few things. The first is that it continually evolves. You’re growing all the time and your process is going to change because the scale of what you’re doing will change. It might be that you grow the number of services you offer, change the number of products you sell, or change the number of people you employ. As a result, your processes are going to have to evolve constantly. This is why it’s so important that your process is in a live document that is updated on a regular basis and available to the whole team at the push of a button. Using collaboration software like Google Docs is a good way to store it so that everyone has access to the latest version of the process.
Secondly, because your process is continually evolving and because you’re an entrepreneurial, agile organisation, you can’t get too hung up on your process. You have to allow it to flex as and when required. You don’t want it to stifle innovation or creativity.
On the opposite side of the scale, you don’t want things to descend into chaos because people aren’t following any process at all. You need to find that nice happy medium. I sometimes feel that at some of the bigger corporates they lose this balance. They have maybe tens of thousands of employees and they have very defined processes that people are scared to deviate from.
What I’m saying is that your processes should act as a guide and if people feel a need to deviate from the process from time to time for a particular reason then that should be fine. Your process should evolve and if you need to update it because you’ve found a better way of doing things then brilliant. You want to keep it fresh and fit for purpose. That’s the difference between what I’d describe as a static, corporate-type process and an entrepreneurial, agile process. They are very different things.