It Takes a Process

Large projects can be very intimidating. It’s easy to feel like you are standing at the foot of a very tall and imposing mountain. Working on the project can easily overwhelm even very talented people. It can be hard to feel like you’re making progress when there’s always a lot to do and when it feels like problems are constantly cropping up. When you climb that mountain, it can often feel like there’s always fog ahead of you and behind you so that you can’t see how far you still have to go and you can’t tell how far you’ve come.

When I decided to write my first book, I didn’t jump in and start writing. Even though I’ve executed some very large projects, my first step was to learn a process for writing books. In this case, the process I used came from someone who had written over two dozen books, so I figured he had some clue what he was talking about. I subsequently modified the process by bringing in some of the lessons I’d learned from other complex projects and adjusting it to suit my personal style and to correct a few short-comings.

The trick with processes is that they serve to organize and simplify complex operations. They create structure. Writing a book is complex: there are a lot of moving parts. If nothing else, keeping track of the chapters, what’s ending up in each one, making sure there are no contradictions, that something mentioned in an earlier chapter is followed up on later, and so forth, can easily become nightmarish. However, using an organized system turns that nightmare into routine. Other projects have their own headaches that can by managed by having the right processes in place.

Processes, however, often feel awkward and alien when you’re first learning them. This is like the student in my jujitsu class who once said to me, “I’d never do that technique. It doesn’t feel natural.”

Of course it didn’t feel natural, he hadn’t practiced it! Processes are the same. They rarely feel natural at first. You have to get used to them. Processes also serve both logistical and psychological functions.

From a logistical perspective, a process serves as an organizational structure for projects that have a lot of moving parts. When designed well, the process captures the moving parts, or at least provides a way of making sure that they don’t get lost. Lost pieces of a project are a little like Roger Rabbit: just as he can escape from handcuffs only when it’s funny, lost pieces tend to show up only when it’s most inconvenient.

Psychologically, a good process protects us from having to spend our time and energy constantly wondering what we’re forgetting. This can be amazingly distracting. With a good process in place, even if some things still slip through the cracks, the frequency and severity of problems are minimized and are far less likely to derail the project. A process is, in essence, a way of breaking down a large project into goals and subgoals, while also providing a framework for keeping track of them all. This allows you to measure progress, making the whole project seem less intimidating. Put another way, you’ve at least cleared the fog from below, so you can see how far up the mountain you’ve climbed, and you have the tools to navigate the fog ahead of you.

Processes are not just about accomplishing large projects though. A good process can make it easier for new hires to become productive: for example, having a sales process helps new salesmen know what to say and how to demo the product. In this case, the process is serving to reduce confusion and provide structure to someone who is entering a new environment. By learning the process, they also learn what matters and what does not. Without a process, becoming productive is slower and involves a lot more wandering around in the fog.

Of course, no process is ever perfect. Once you’ve learned the process, you must modify it to fit you and to fix shortcomings. For team projects, part of how the team reaches its most productive stages is by figuring out how to modify the process so that it works for everyone on the team.

You wouldn’t climb a mountain without preparation. Tackling large projects without some sort of process is similarly unwise.

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