“If you can’t describe what you’re doing as a process, you don’t know what you’re doing.” - W. Edwards Deming

Some people say Cus D’Amato was clairvoyant. Arguably one of the world’s greatest boxing trainers of all time, he helped make Floyd Patterson legendary and turned unruly ruffian Mike Tyson into a disciplined (at least in the ring) fighting machine. In a sport known for antiquated, unfounded traditions, Cus studied and developed exacting training regimen for his fighters. There was no shortcutting, no quick-fix trickery.

While Cus may have had a “gift” for spotting natural talent, he famously rebuked the notion, saying, “There is no such thing as a natural puncher. There is a natural aptitude for punching and that is different. Nobody is born the best. You have to practice and train to become the best.”

Cus D'Amato

Indeed, the success he had as a trainer, and that of his fighters, can certainly be attributed almost fully to the processes he set out and unrelentingly enforced. It should be no surprise that, decades after his career peaks, he still serves as inspiration for companies and leaders who aim for the pinnacle in their field.

A good process leaves little room for error in execution. It focuses on continuous improvement. It separates the champions from the lightweights.

Good developers use README files to document project requirements, installation processes, and styles, saving them hours of time and ensuring code consistency when collaborating and switching between projects. Software development methodologies reinforce the importance of setting and adhering to standard processes.

Designers and creatives, however, are more often attached to a theory with roots deeper than the Wild Fig at Echo Caves: conscious and intentional processes are an impediment to creative work. The mere mention of the P word conjures horror stories where technical teams spend upwards of a year to produce a massive five hundred page process anthology and zero lines of code.

This all but guarantees brass-bound resistance to process documentation.

Do you rationalize not formally detailing processes by saying, “we’re a small team, we just know what needs to be done, and we do it?” If that were 100% true and it was working in your favour, why are you reading this article right now?

Effectively running and growing an agency requires efficiency. Being efficient in your work requires process and documentation. Documented, repeatable processes save time, effort and prevent mistakes.

Creatives need space to actually be creative, and a system or process should create space to do that & reduce effort wasted on the other parts.

– Barry O’Kane

Rather than dictating what you do, documented process should inform how you decide what needs to be done. It is the compass when things become unpredictable.

While I would agree there is no such thing as “the definitive design process,” a critical part of good design is building and crafting intentionally. This involves the sensibility and flexibility to select and utilise tools and processes relevant to your domain. It also calls for a consistent approach to developing an understanding of and diagnosing the problem and then defining the design methods to solve it.

So, how the heck do you tackle setting and documenting process without it getting in the way of producing the work to keep the lights on?

The trick is to make the steps fluid and flexible enough to allow you the room you need to create well, while still being structured enough to help you through when you’re having a hard time.

– George Shaw

Your process will be unique to your situation - what you create, your team dynamic, client relationships, among other factors. So, rather than outline a specific process, let’s cover some tips for how to go about formalising one that works for you.

Act like a newbie

Think about how you would introduce how you do what you do to someone who’s never worked in the field, let alone your agency. Dissect the way you do things now.

The level of granularity you’re after here is equivalent to the PB&J exercise used to teach the concept of algorithms. In other words, do not leave out a single step. If it is not explicit, it’s pretty tough to make it habit, which means it is not a repeatable process.

Creative Processes Need Definition and Documentation

Even though this sounds like something you’d like to do as much as getting a double root canal, consider it a short-term investment for long-term productivity.

During this activity, many agencies uncover the source of project delays and budget overruns.

As I said, your process needs to fit you, but here’s a basic structure you can use as a starting point for your review. Fill in the steps involved at each of these stages.

  • Discovery
  • Define the Challenge
  • Develop the Deliverables
  • Refine
  • Deliver
  • Iterate (Refine some more)

Make it iterative

OK, so you’ve worked out what your agency Peanut Butter & Jam recipe looks like, and it’s so crystal that a whole band of interns could crank through it with a smile on (as opposed to a look of ‘have I descended into the 4th circle of Hell?’). I’m sorry to rain on your parade, but you are not done yet.

Your aim is not to create a perfect compendium in one go. And if you approach with the mindset you’re creating a document for “future reference,” you’ll find it becomes obsolete at the very moment you type the last word.

Over time, the dynamics in your agency will change. The industry will change. YOU will change.

What is best practice today is likely (nay - is guaranteed) to change.

If you don’t adjust your process to the new conditions, you won’t produce great work.

Tradition is a stupid reason to continue a best practice that produces suboptimal results.

-Srini Rao

Therefore, include a mechanism that reminds you to update your documentation any time you take on new types of projects, use new tools to execute your work, or work with a new client who may have a different communication system (there’s probably loads more scenarios I could include here).

As a fail-safe you should also set up periodic process reviews.

Yes, checking process is part of the process.

Check it off

Awesome. You’ve got your process clarified, you’re updating it regularly. You’re a freaking productivity machine.

Or are you?

The trickiest thing for a growing agency is to avoid taking shortcuts. Once you make the exception to do it once, someone else on the team will do it the next time.

Before you know it, you’ve got an agency full of deviants. If your process document were anthropomorphized, it would rap you over the knuckles with a white-hot Muji Sketchbook.

Rest easy, there’s a way to avoid that wrath.

Checklists help you fight the normalization of deviance by keeping the steps front and center. Incorporate them into your communication system as a way to set up checks and balances and improve accountability across your team.

Checklists ensure you follow process

As Cus D’Amato once lamented, “To see a man beaten not by a better opponent, but by himself is a tragedy.”

If you’re hanging on to old notions that creatives don’t need process, stop being a palooka. It’s time to get off the ropes and start winning your long game.

In our upcoming final installation in this series, we’ll reveal the secret the very best agencies have uncovered for creating work they love to do and that keeps their clients returning and ROI flowing all around.

Processing your goals

Look at process documents as your training & conditioning plan to make your agency a prized fighter in the industry.

We're talking with some of the best web agencies about their challenges and sharing proven tips to reach your agency endgame. It's all happening right now on Twitter.

Stay tuned...

This post is the seventh in our series examining the 7 reasons creative agencies are not winning the long game and what they can do to overcome those obstacles.

Here's our roadmap.

  • Not seeking & optimising partnerships