Be fanatical, not flexible, about your process

March 12, 2013
The importance of process

Doesn't everyone say to stay nimble, to be flexible? Yes, but you need to pick your battles and flex within some boundaries. When you go through a project with a client to build a new marketing plan and website … don't skimp on the process.

Sample scenario 

Here's one type of scenario we've seen:

Sales team: "This client needs the project by next month, it can help our cash flow if we can do it."

Web team: "Ok, the way you describe this client, we can skip the design discovery process because they aren't picky about design."

Danger, Will Robinson!

Every time we skip a step in our process, we regret it. 

Why did we create a process?

We created a process as we learned along the way—we didn't make it arbitrarily. Every time we encounter a bump in a project, we document that bump and how to avoid it in our project template. Future projects then start with that freshest project template. 

In addition to adding to our project template, we also audit the project process as we progress through a project. As things change, we update the current project and also update the project template for the future.

What's the harm?

What is wrong with being flexible? There is a temptation to think, "This is a unique situation. We can change our process this one time."

The trouble is this thought will happen in every project. There are no two identical projects, no two clients are exactly alike. Your process is in place to manage project risk, to help you maintain profitability, to ensure past lessons learned don't come back.

The consequences

I recently had this exact issue happen and I fell in the trap of thinking I could change my process. I thought I could skip design discovery. The sales and marketing teams told me this would be a simple design, the client wasn't as concerned with this piece as the campaigns. Interactions with the client reinforced this thought process.

I proceeded to create a site design based on what we knew from their marketing plan and what we had learned about the client to this point in the project.

The day came to present the site plan to the client, what it would look like and how it would work. Skip ahead an hour ... the client didn't like it. The design did not meet their expectations. 

We regrouped, explained that we wanted them to be happy with the design of their site, conducted a proper design discovery, created a new design and then created a product they loved. 

I fell into a trap that I warn people about. I fell into the trap that I could skip part of the project process. It isn't like I am new to this industry. I've been creating my process based on what I've learned for almost 20 years! 

Keep the process, flex on the implementation

In life, you have to be flexible. You can't be rigid.

How do you blend this with a resistance to change your process?

Always keep the spirit of your process—be nimble on the implementation of your process.

Since my mistake, I still encounter projects where I want to change my process. Instead of changing it, I change the implementation. 

Ideas on how to flex your design process:

  • Combine steps. Merge design discovery with information architecture meetings.
  • Be iterative. Instead of following a waterfall process, send the client drafts to determine if you are on the right track. (Warning: seeing an unfinished product can be confusing. I suggest doing these in person, on the phone ... as long as you can tightly control what they see and be explicit with what to look at and what to ignore.)
  • Use video. If you have difficulty scheduling time with a client, you can do a screen capture video walkthrough of a document, a wireframe, a mockup. You can explain the pieces that you need to explain and then schedule a quick followup call.

Ask the critical question

Every time you want to deviate in the implementation of a step, ask yourself this question: "What's the risk?"

If I use an iterative process with this client, do they have the personality, context, understanding to catch the vision I'm proposing? All of us have strengths in different areas. If you have a very visual, practical client, an iterative process might be frustrating and confusing because they may be too distracted by the unfinished pieces that you don't want them to see yet.

Agree or disagree, let me know! One thing I will say is that I am not advocating staying the same. Innovation is crucial. I'm saying maintain the spirit of your process. If you want to try something new like rapid prototyping, do it in a controlled, thoughtful manner. If it works, update your process. 

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[Image: Lost in Space]