Your guide to managing complex processes
I have been managing processes – editorial, communications, public relations campaigns, content marketing, etc – in some way for nine years. And if there’s one thing I have learned, it’s that complex processes are often simple processes that are poorly managed.
There are plenty of tips to help your day-to-day process management – some of which are listed below – but you need to set a good foundation first. So, here’s a quick audit you can do right now, to simplify your process, and ensure you understand it.
Documenting your current process
You may already know that your process isn’t working or could work better. You may even have an idea where it’s going wrong. At this stage, you could start from scratch on a new process. But in failing to analyse what is and isn’t working, you may miss opportunities to further refine your process. This could lead to further problems down the line.
Write down your steps
Write down as many steps of your process as you can, then question how you get to each point and what you need to do next. For example, you may think your process starts with writing a content brief. But how did you get the information for your brief? And once you’ve produced the brief, can you dive into writing the copy, or does the brief need approval from a client or manager first?
Here is an example of an editorial process for writing an article:
If you have multiple assets – an article with graphics or photos, and a social marketing plan, for example – write them down separately. We’ll bring them back together later. For now, think simple!
Review your process
The next step is to critique every part of your process.
Ask yourself: what is the purpose of this step? How does it benefit the business or the client? Jot your answers down.
If there is a step that doesn’t have an obvious purpose or benefit, highlight it in red. If there are separate parts of your process that have the same answer, highlight them in orange.
Your list should start to look like this section from the process above:
Read your process once more. This time, highlight everything in green that is critical to your production process and attaining the quality you or your client expect.
Your list will start looking like this:
In this example, manager feedback and a second draft are critical. You can’t send work to a client that hasn’t been quality checked. Quality checking is also an essential opportunity for you to provide feedback for junior staff, and develop their skills and knowledge.
The other steps aren’t critical. You’ve already got the benefit of quality control earlier in the process, and peer review is nice to have, but not essential.
Refine your process
You should now have a delightfully technicolour process in front of you. Here’s what to do with each colour:
Red – get rid of it
This part serves no purpose, provides no benefits, and isn’t critical to the process.
Orange – get rid of it (at some point)
This step has a purpose, but it isn’t adding anything new to the process, and it isn’t essential. Get rid of these steps, if you can. However, you may have a valid reason for these extra checks. For example, perhaps a junior staff member previously introduced new mistakes during a redraft, and as a result you introduced extra review stages. If this is the case, keep these steps, but review your process every four to six weeks until you’re able to remove it.
Black (or original colour) – move it
It isn’t critical to the process, but it does serve a purpose and has benefits. Add it as an optional extra to a step that is critical.
Green – keep these steps
These parts have a purpose, add benefit to the business and/or client, and are essential for the completion of each product.
After you’ve done all this, you should be left with your core process. The example we’ve been using now looks much simpler:
Combining multiple complex processes
If you have multiple processes, and you’ve completed the above audit for each, you can start fitting them together:
- Put your lists next to each other one at a time. Try starting with the key deliverable on the left: for an infographic, this may be graphic design; for written content, it will be the copy itself. Put your second process next to it.
- Starting from the top down, combine any steps that should be done at the same time.
- If there is a step in one process that can’t (or shouldn’t) start until a certain step from the next list has occurred, leave blank spaces.
- Keep adding processes and repeating these steps.
Here is a simplified version of what you will end up with:
Day-to-day management of complex processes
It’s easy to write down and review your process – the tricky part is sticking to the steps that you have set in your day-to-day process management. Here are some tips and tricks for stress-free process management:
Keep a work-in-progress (WIP) document
One mistake that people often make is to rely on memory or their emails to know what stage a piece of content is at. If someone comes up to you right now and asks for an update on the infographic you’re working on, you shouldn’t need to sit there thinking, or checking emails or folders to answer this.
Instead, you should be able to confidently open your master document and read out the exact details your colleague needs.
One of the easiest ways to create a WIP document is using Excel. Use key steps of your process as column headers, and use one row per asset or deliverable. You can then simply move along the row, adding a note such as ‘Done’ or ‘In progress’, or filling the cell with colour. Importantly, try to include an ‘at-a-glance’ section or status summary as one of the first columns.
You could also use a Word document, notebook, online subscription tool or even a whiteboard to do the same job. The important part is being able to quickly see where the asset is along your process.
Version control is a way to differentiate the steps of your process by adding a number to the file name. It’s is a measure that many people, having previously resisted the practice, can’t live without. If you don’t use it, try it!
Your first draft is version 1 – or v01 on your file name. For each redraft, just add 1 eg v02, v03, v04, etc.
Quick tip: using a 0 before the 1 means your versions will be listed in numerical order when viewing in certain file management systems such as Windows Explorer. If you don’t use the 0, version 11 will appear between v1 and v2.
Minor changes, such as a few corrected typos or rewriting a single sentence, can be noted as a decimal eg v01.1, v01.2, v01.3, etc. But don’t worry too much if you get your decimals confused. If the newest version at least has a number that’s higher than the last, you’ll know which one to look at.
When you’re busy, it’s tempting to file everything in one big folder (perhaps labelling it “TO FILE”). The tip here is not just to file your content, but to file it logically!
If you work for a website, file everything based on the site structure. That way, if you’re ill and someone needs to pick up where you left off, they’ll know exactly where to look.
If you work for an agency, file everything by client, then by workstream and project.
You may know that the white paper you’re working on is saved under “Stuff” > “Things I have written” > “Drafts” > “Clients 3”… but it’s may take your colleagues a while to work this out.
Remember… think simple!
If it’s helpful for your business, you can turn the work you did for your audit into a formal process document. You can define the roles and responsibilities at each step, and start to record each document or workstream that has an impact on your process.
Think simple. Your process is essentially a checklist – all you need to do is to check off the tasks. Don’t make a straightforward process complex by over-complicating it.
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