May 11, 2020 | 12:01

Increase Your Team's Productivity by Establishing Processes - Part I

This is the first post in a series of articles that will focus on how teams can be more productive by standardizing their workflow using clearly defined processes:

  1. Increase Your Team’s Productivity By Establishing Clear Processes (this article)
  2. How To Define Team Processes
  3. What To Cover With Processes

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process - a series of actions that you take in order to achieve a result

Cambridge English Dictionary

Processes are present all over in our lives, even if we are not aware of them:

  1. When a barista (or you) is making your coffee, they follow a series of specific actions that allow them to brew that magnificent espresso for you to savor.
  2. When you do your laundry, you follow a series of steps in a specific order.
  3. When a copywriter prepares a piece of text, they usually have a process they follow.

Thus, processes are observed in the daily chores, in the services and products industry and even in somewhat creative and artistic activities that seem to defy the necessity of any predefined set of steps in order to achieve a result. Actually, in such creative domains processes are observed at a higher, more abstract level, but they are present nonetheless.

Although well established processes can benefit us in all areas of our life, in this article I’d like to take a more focused view on team processes. According to Marks et al.1, a team process is defined as:

members’ interdependent actions of team members that convert inputs to outcomes through cognitive, verbal, and behavioral activities directed toward organizing taskwork to achieve collective goals

A quite verbose, but comprehensive statement that touches on all aspects of a team process:

  • activity of one team member directly affect others (interdependent actions of team members)
  • all types of activities (thinking, speaking, actions) affect the outcome (convert inputs to outcomes through cognitive, verbal, and behavioral activities)
  • activities are organized to achieve organizational goals (directed toward organizing taskwork to achieve collective goals)

If to take a moment and think about it, the main difference between an individual process and a team process is that a team process' actions are interdependent between team members. This makes it more challenging to incorporate and follow a process within a team, since it requires talking, collaborating and keeping others up to date on the progress and humans proved sometimes to be not very reliable when it comes to syncing and communicating effectively with others. According to one study, 68% of all respondents experience work delays while waiting for information from others that they have attempted to reach live multiple times using multiple methods. The average delay is 3.5 hours per week per knowledge worker.2 That is almost half of a full work day, which is a lot, so let’s see why to consider defining some processes within a team.

Why Team Processes Are Useful

Usually, a team doesn’t have much control over which inputs it gets and which outputs it should generate. What it does have some control over is how to transform a given input into an output. And here is where processes can make a huge difference.

1. Team Processes Standardize The Workflow

Having one way of obtaining a desired goal simplifies so many things that it is hard to overestimate its benefits.

It makes work more predictable, since you get to know how many steps you have and how long on average every step of the process is going to take. In contrast, when each team member has their own way of doing things, you cannot possibly tell how much time it will take, since one person could do that in 4 steps (by taking some shortcuts) while others can do that in 9 steps (with unnecessary work done).

A standardized process saves energy and time by eliminating the need to choose the next action you should take in order to get to that result. It frees up cognitive resources spent on unnecessary tasks and allows you to spend more time on productive work. On the other hand, having to think about whether a step is required or not might deplete your energy levels.

Another benefit is allowing for easier integration of new people since a clearly defined process facilitates understanding of the workflow and its constituent steps.

2. Team Processes Allow For Improvements Of The Workflow

Since a process consists of clearly defined steps, this means the overall workflow can be improved by improving individual steps. And an individual step is much smaller and easier to reason about than trying to think about the workflow as a whole.

Complementary to that, a process helps to identify the bottlenecks in a workflow, allowing for adjustments or changes of the workflow to improve the overall performance of the team.

As a side effect, the quality of the final outcome improves as well, since the whole process is nothing but means to achieve the goal, and once you improve the process, you will have better results.

3. Team Processes Enforce Responsibility And Accountability

Once you have a process in place, it is easier to make people accountable for their work, since as you know how the work should be done, it’s easier to track who does things differently (and hence causing potential problems).

That last sentence may sound a bit bureaucratic and counterproductive, since people are not machines and may “have their vision” of things. But it is important to keep in mind that we are talking about processes on a macro level, transforming inputs into desired goals on a team level rather than attempting to define action steps on an individual level, thus attempting to micromanage people.

For instance, a person may or may not consult StackOverflow in the process of writing code, or they may or may not catch up with other colleagues' code changes. But if a step in the development process of a software product states that a piece of code has to be approved by at least two people, merging that code with one approval (or none) is a violation of the process and might lead to unpredictable consequences and more unnecessary work down the road.

It is important to note that accountability doesn’t happen all by itself. While a process makes it easier to enforce it, unless you have a strong company culture around responsibility and/or accountability, it is still a responsibility of the team leader/manager to keep people accountable.

Why Team Processes Might Decline Productivity

For a better perspective on the topic, let’s see why processes might be bad for a team.

Although processes can benefit a team and an organization in their workflow, it’s important to keep in mind to not overdo it.

Maybe you are working in a huge corporation (or have a friend who works there) and have heard stories how a simple task that in a small company can easily be realized in one week can take months (or even years!) until they will be implemented in a corporation. That’s because corporations have layers over layers of processes that makes it hard to accomplish anything in a relative short period of time.

According to FastCompany3, there are five ways process can kill productivity:

  1. Empowering with permission–but without action: If people are given more responsibility, yet must still obtain an unreasonable number of approvals and sign-offs to get anything done, this signals a lack of trust and will slow down things rather than speed them up.
  2. Leaders focused on process instead of people: In an effort to standardize and sanitize everything we do, nothing at work is personal anymore. Leaders look to processes, not people, to solve problems. Where’s the inspiration, the vision? This signals a lack of humanity.
  3. Overdependence on meetings: “Collaborative” and “inclusive” are corporate buzzwords, but productive teamwork does not require meetings for every single action or decision. People become overwhelmed and ineffective when they are always stuck in meetings.
  4. Lack of (clear) vision: Great companies need a grand vision and important goals. Too often, companies have vision or mission statements laden with jargon but devoid of meaning. This misalignment signals a lack of purpose.
  5. Management acts as judge, not jury: If the purpose of a meeting is to think, create, or build, management has to stop tearing people down when they propose new ideas or question the status quo. This signals a lack of perspective and openness.

Some of the things mentioned above are related to processes that span multiple teams or even the entire organization. Still, a team process might be dependent on some other processes or teams and thus be affected by the bureaucracy of it all.

What’s Next?

Thus, team processes can either bring huge value to a team or can tear down its productivity, if overdone.

In the next post in this series, you’ll find out about How to define a team process and What to cover with processes, since not everything has to be defined as a sequence of specific steps.

If you liked this article, consider subscribing below and following me on twitter (@iuliangulea).

  1. Marks, M.A., Mathieu, J.E. and Zaccaro, S.J. (2001), “A temporally based framework and taxonomy of team processes”, The Academy of Management Review, Vol. 26 No. 3,pp. 356-76. ↩︎

  2. SMB Communications Pain Study White Paper ↩︎

  3. 5 Ways Process Is Killing Your Productivity ↩︎

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