Let me start with a trite statement, so we can all agree with it and get it out of the way. Change is hard. There are, however, fundamental steps and considerations that you can take to smooth out these transitions. In this post, let’s focus on developing and implementing process into a startup that has none so that, hopefully someday, you can scale.
Ah the attractiveness of one phrase: startup chaos. To those of us with something just a little bit off in our DNA, we’re drawn to it. Some people like it because you can throw things at the wall and see what sticks. To others, you can safely swim in the waters of the agency problem and go undetected for quite some time. For the rogue agents among us, nearly nothing is out of bounds. And then there’s me, who wants to infuse some structure, some repeatable process–not only herd the cats, but get them marching in the same direction–because what really excites me is when we can scale from five cats to fifty and then to two hundred and fifty, and some things will catch on fire, but they won’t completely breakdown and grind to a halt.
Having done this several times inside different industries, I wanted to share a few fundamental steps that anyone can take to start to forge a path through the wilderness of the wild west (aka bring structure to chaos).
Start by observing and learning. Note the notable but don’t immediately weigh in on it–everything is a part of the whole (even if it’s not). Let’s say your company has one physical location up and running and is going to grow that by 5-10x this year, here’s what this could look like:
Spend time at the location, focus on hitting all parts of the business–ask as many questions as you can think of.
Note anything that seems missing from a functional or strategic perspective (e.g., there is no localized marketing effort in place).
Soak in how things are working from onboarding, sales, cross-functional work, customer happiness, time tracking, etc.
In my opinion, observing, asking questions, and taking notes, will help you get a true sense of how things are running (ie the moment people have their guard up, you’ll get a whitewashed or temporary version of the operations).
Identify high performers and key stakeholders. You’ll need these people to help deploy change, get buy-in, and confirm assumptions you might have to make.
Improve what’s most impactful, not necessarily what’s fastest. For example:
You might notice a dozen processes you could button up relatively well within a week, but they have little-to-no impact for internal or external cohorts (e.g., adding a tracking link to job posts, enhancing what data is collected from customers, etc). It’s unlikely I’d start here.
Identify what’s most impactful for the customer (this should be obvious) and start there. E.g., are bookings being lost in the system, paid vs unpaid not registering, are new launches coming out unbeknownst to staff and it’s causing confusion for the customer? Start with these things–even if they take four times as long to sort out and launch.
If you’re having onboarding, hiring, or retention issues, do the same for whatever’s having the highest negative impact internally. Do people have no resources to reference when questions arise? Is leadership noticeably MIA or non-existent? Do people struggle to understand their role and responsibilities? Fix these things first.
Prioritization is hard, but it’s absolutely critical. As you’re improving operations by way of introducing processes, you should be winning over more people, making subsequent changes incrementally easier (ie, they believe in you, your vision, and your capability)
Communicate like the entire undertaking depends on it, because it does.
Don’t be afraid of redundant communication. This can take the form of repeating something more than once to the same group, or saying the same thing half a dozen different ways–the latter is what I’m most advocating for.
If the company has the following vehicles for communication, use all of them to keep people up-to-date and aware of what’s happening now and in the near future (and why!): email, in-person meetings, phone calls, slack, gchat, etc.
A commonly overlooked element of communication is to ensure it goes two ways. The feedback loop is critical when developing, deploying, and improving processes. Something might make a lot of sense on paper but prove to have negative consequences once operationalized.
Without clarity about how to provide that feedback, and an open door to receive it, you could be doing more harm than good–or at least be missing an opportunity to make simple adjustments to improve on the improvements.
Documentation is the same as and different from communication. Think of documentation as your time-travel tool, whereas the communication element described above is your method for treading water while adrift out to sea, trying to piece together a life raft.
Documentation will both consecrate the process that you’ve put in place and clarify any misunderstandings or confusion. Documentation should be thorough yet straightforward. It’s not easy, but understanding the scope of the problem will go a long way to making it excellent.
For all of the (dozens, hundreds, thousands?) of future hires who weren’t there to go through the change as it was happening, this is their connection to what happened and why you do things the way you do (for any given operation). How great is it to have something to lean on when questions or confusion arise (not to mention it helps breed a culture of autonomy and reliability).
The ugly part of documentation is that you’ll have to keep it up to date as things change and improve. A system with a hundred documented processes can be rendered useless by three out of date pages. There is a non-linear impact on these types of systems when something wrong or outdated is found–so put in place whatever processes (see how meta this becomes) are needed to keep everything in tip top shape.
Rolling out new processes is something to celebrate, because the scalability of the company depends on it. Don’t forget to give these changes the fanfare they deserve–congratulate everyone who helped along the way, and make this a team-wide win. Everyone deserves a little pat on the back because, as we all know, change is hard.
If you made it this far, you might as well leave a comment below and share your thoughts!