Most startups are so busy racing around that they rarely take the time to evaluate and improve their own processes. It’s unfortunate, because as a startup matures it won’t be able to function the same way it did at the very beginning. Once you throw in users, customers, more code, freelancers, more employees, etc. it becomes painfully obvious if existing processes for development and communication aren’t scaling. And that lack of scale can sabotage good intentions and good effort: things take longer, milestones are missed, quality slips, and confusion (and frustration) infiltrate the startup’s collective psyche.
Project management is inevitable.
You may get the heebie-jeebies just thinking about it, but it’s true. At a higher level, think of it as operations. You want your startup to run as smoothly as possible, and eliminate as many risk factors and roadblocks as possible. You want to provide employees and freelancers with the best path towards maximum productivity.
Every startup has multiple systems for managing itself. Those typically include: email, calendaring, chat, code management, document management, task management, issue/bug tracking and customer communication. Google Apps is ideal for a number of those, but oftentimes you’re stringing a few different applications together into some “proprietary” (read: confusing and probably ineffective) system. Having multiple applications is fine (and I don’t believe “one application to rule them all” really works; the applications end up being too broad and not deep enough); it’s just important that you work with your team to understand how they’re used and why.
I think of “continuous process improvement” as a way of constantly evaluating and tweaking how you get things done successfully. It takes less effort than you might think (once you get into it and commit). The key is being aware of what’s going on, where there could be bottlenecks, and remaining open to fixing them. Continuous process improvement stops you from getting comfortable with the status quo and accepting sub par results. It recognizes the processes by which you build your product and your company as one of the key risk factors affecting success.
Here are 6 tips for implementing continuous process improvement:
- Solicit feedback. You’ll almost always see the results of failing processes, but you may not necessarily be able to identify the root causes. Solicit feedback from your team on an ongoing basis. Make sure you’re open to suggestions about how things are being done.
- Share more, not less. Even in a small company, silos emerge. A policy of more sharing will help everyone stay in touch with what others are doing, and create a collective expectation. Keeping everyone pointed in the same direction is hard; sharing more about what’s going on, how you’re doing things, reasoning behind decisions, etc. will help.
- Document stuff. I often find startups are uninterested in documenting what they’re doing. They “fly by the seat of their pants” because that’s what a startup is all about. I prefer to document things, even if it’s jotting some quick notes down so I can remember what I was thinking and the context at certain points in time. It also helps people stay fresh on what you’re trying to accomplish and helps new employees. What is your process for handling customer support inquiries? What is your process for designing new features? What’s your communication process between developers? Etc.
- Don’t automatically blame the tool. It’s not the hammer’s fault if the person swinging it uses the wrong end. It just won’t work well. Most tools are decent enough, they’re just used incorrectly. Rushing to change a tool because things aren’t working well may be a mistake.
- Identify changing requirements. Over time your needs will change. You need to stay aware of this, so you can change processes accordingly. Keep a list of your top requirements to help you make better decisions on tools to use.
- Think Lean. Lean Startup (build->measure->learn) is quite apropos for continuous process improvement. When designing a process (and picking the appropriate tools), define the goal you’re aiming to achieve. Timebox the experiment (implementing a new/changed process) and measure the results qualitatively and quantitatively. If you think of process changes as cycles rather than big, chunky steps, it keeps things rolling at a good speed.
Process isn’t a bad word.
It can certainly get too heavy-handed and top down in its implementation, but without good processes in place your startup will sputter along instead of hum smoothly. Good processes and a way of continuously improving them serves as a constant, in an environment of frantic change.