Don't Let Your Process Get the Best of You

Guides for Work Flow Are Useful, but a Culture That Can Work Together Is Key

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My business partner, who has been harping about our agency's workflow, recently forwarded me an article titled, "5 Ways Process Is Killing Your Productivity."

I agree with most of it. Yes, process can block finding a solution. Yes, we need to empower our teams to make more decisions without seeking tons of approvals. Yes, we need to reduce the number (or at least the length) of the meetings we sit in each week. I loved the observations on how some companies have Six Sigma'd the innovation and inspiration right out of their culture.

Sign me up. I would love to limit the role process plays in our business. But where do I start? We are an idea industry at our core, but we also have to make the ideas real. A religious adherence to process can easily kill the ideas we are trying to birth. Even so, don't we need some sort of process for job flow, to keep things on track?

It comes down to creating a culture that knows how to work together, which is more than a process that tells us how to work. The best of processes can't keep up with the twists and turns of a campaign launch, the development of a new site or the two-day turnaround on a promotion to defend turf against a competitor's new offering.

Our agency constantly struggles to strike the right balance between process and project stewardship. We have assembled three internal, cross-departmental task forces over the past four years, each charged with fine-tuning our process for opening jobs, briefing and producing work. Things have gotten better. But we still find ourselves saying, "Boy, our process stinks" more than I would like.

The first task force, in 2008, failed to propose specific improvements, so we went back to our bad habits. The second group, in 2010, developed an overarching concept called Flow that provided the agency with a common framework for moving work through from beginning to end. The concept had a ton of good ideas, with some of the best work flow charts I have seen, but we moved the ball forward only a little bit in practice. The third group addressed the shortcomings of Flow, producing Flow 2.0.

Under Flow 2.0, for internal workflow and job tracking we use a web-based tool called ActiveCollab, which allows projects to be tracked in real time. It acts as the central hub for creative development and production, allowing all parties to collaborate, manage progress and view historical work. Everyone who is working on a job is alerted that something has opened, changed or is routing. There is no excuse for not being in the know.

Unfortunately the system cannot do the human work of asking all the right questions before a job is opened, drafting a brief that inspires original thinking or mapping out a plan of attack that includes the right people on the distribution list. Nor can it think through timing and budget issues, or remember to update the changes from a client meeting in a timely manner, making sure all the right people have seen the work before it is released to a meeting or a printer, or before it goes live.

Despite all the bells and whistles built into the system, occasionally we find ourselves releasing files before all the right folks have signed off. Or routing a copy change back to the client that the copywriter never saw. All fixable mistakes but frustrating breakdowns in the process that cost us money and time.

No process can think for us. So we have asked our agency to think of our process as guidelines, as opposed to strict rules, suggestions rather than mandates, double checks versus must-dos. The process provides a rough roadmap for how a type of job should go under ideal circumstances (which never exist), and it is there to help us get an initiative back on track when it inevitably goes a bit off the path.

Instead of hoping for strict adherence, we preach a spirit of courtesy. When courteous, team leaders remember to gather all the information required before opening the job and to include their team promptly as things change (client input, competitive intelligence, etc.). They always think of how changes will impact the team, the budget and the deadline. And they make sure that process never gets in the way of communication. When our process breaks down, I am sure that lack of courtesy will be at the root of the problem.

Bryan Christian is president/principal of Proof Advertising in Austin, Texas.
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