The Creative Process

The start of the 2016/17 NBA season marked the debut of Philadelphia Sixers rookie Joel Embiid, and the culmination of what Sixers fans have been repeating for several years: “Trust the Process.”

Former Sixers GM Sam Hinkie coined the phrase, referring to his patient, frequently-painful, rebuild of the team through several losing years leading to high draft picks such as Embiid. At some points over the past several years “trust the process” morphed from mantra to joke. The process was painful, it seemed to take forever, and patience can be in short supply when dollars are being spent and team performance seems to be suffering.

As a Digital Account Manager, it’s easy for me to sympathize with the Sam Hinkies and Joel Embiids of the world who repeatedly ask their fans and followers to trust the process when results aren’t yet there. Much of my time is spent trying to understand goals and laying out steps to get there, working with teams who may not always see eye to eye about the journey or the destination. Over the past seven years managing digital products, I’ve found a few truths apply for just about any process to be successful.

Trust The Process

The quickest way for a process to fail is for stakeholders to believe it will fail. If anyone on your team doubts the goal, their role on the team, or the ability of other team members to achieve the goal, no process can be successful. It’s not required for everyone to agree in lockstep, nor does there need to be one authority saying “my way or the highway.” Building trust in the process really only requires three things:

  • Everyone agrees on the goal
  • Everyone understands their responsibilities
  • Everyone understands the responsibilities of the others on the team

When you have a common goal, clearly defined responsibilities, and understanding of where others in the team come in, the process becomes the map of what everyone already agrees to rather than a honey-do list of tasks.

Define Measurable Outcomes

Building trust, agreement, and understanding frequently requires all stakeholders having a say in deciding the ultimate goals. The goal might start as “build a successful website in six weeks,” and every person on the team may have a different understanding of what “successful” means. Starting a project with discovery meetings and a creative brief will help all stakeholders arrive at clearly defined, achievable, measurable outcomes.

After these meetings, the goal everyone agrees to could be “Launch a homepage and shop page in six weeks, and have a blog and social media integration ready 2 weeks after launch.” When the goals are specific and measurable, it becomes easier for everyone on the team to see their role in delivering, and it becomes even easier to map out how this will be achieved in a process.

Outline 5 Assumptions

Processes break down when stakeholders assume others are reading between the lines. With the website example above, clients, designers, marketers, and developers will have completely different definitions of successful. They’ll also have different assumptions of what constitutes a deliverable being ready for launch. The process might look something like this:

  1. Designer creates homepage design
  2. Marketer and client collaborate on content for homepage
  3. Developer builds homepage
  4. Testing team tests homepage
  5. Developer launches site

These five steps give opportunities for at least five assumptions. The designer might assume that the marketer and client will wait for a finished design before starting content, while the client assumes the homepage design will be able to accommodate whatever content they supply. The developer might assume the client and marketer are going to input content directly, but there is no step in the process for this.

The testing team will assume everything is final when they’re assigned the task to test. 75% of the time these assumptions will be valid and mutually agreed upon without needing to be spoken. But all it takes is one bad assumption and the whole process can be derailed.

Build The Process To The Team, Not The Other Way Around

The role of a process is simply to get a project to the agreed-upon outcome. The team agrees on the outcome and buys in to their role in achieving it, and the process maps how everyone gets there. A successful process will make it easy to find risks, roadblocks, and challenges. For some teams and projects, this process can be an Agile or SCRUM methodology with a defined backlog, daily stand up meetings, and sprints.

For other teams, daily meetings may not be feasible and tasks may require more definition or documentation up front. Sprints may not make sense for projects that have fewer resources assigned and a longer timeline.

Understanding the team, and how everyone on the team works, can lead to processes that advance work without being intrusive.

A Good Process Is A Simple Process

The best process will have as few steps as possible in order to deliver a successful outcome. If you’re prepping an airplane for takeoff or inspecting a nuclear generator, the process should include checks, double checks, triple checks, and as many approvals as possible to ensure safety. If you’re building a brochure website for a small business, you may not require three stamps of approval from each manager for every deliverable.

Every step added to the process, and every time a task moves from one stakeholder to another, will add time to the project. Identifying exactly where these steps and stakeholder transitions are required will ensure goals can be achieved as quickly as possible to be viable.

There are dozens of factors that lead to successful processes and successful projects, but these five provide a foundation upon which greatness can be built.