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How to create processes that foster creativity

As a COO, I can tell you that processes are a divisive subject. Some people love them, and some people really do hate them. I’m in the ‘love them’ camp, but only when it's the right process, used in the right way, by the right people. 

The divide most likely comes down to different working styles, but also a response to the fact we’ve all had different experiences of processes. There’s the company which has no process – where people in the same job are doing the same activity totally differently, everyone is using different tools, and no one quite knows what’s going on. And then there’s the company which has so much process that everything has to be done in an overly prescriptive way, signed off and rubber-stamped by multiple people at different levels of the company. Both of these situations create a horrible experience for anyone working in the company, so it’s not surprising that there are mixed feelings.

Why, then, am I in the 'love them' camp? At their best, processes are scaffolds for creativity. For me, it’s the difference between sitting down to stare at a blank page to try to figure out what to write and having the rough outline of an article that I can then give shape and color to with my writing. When you have a good process, you don’t have to think about the meta, about how to go about getting work done, you just need to get on with the work itself. 

Creativity is misunderstood

There is a misnomer that creativity is something mysterious that strikes people and they produce great works that appear out of nowhere. Every piece of work is only the end result of a process. It’s often the case that the more effortless a piece of work appears, the more structured the underlying process is.

In his book Atomic Habits, the author James Clear writes about the relationship between process and creativity. He argues that creativity is not based on inspiration, but it requires a systematic approach and disciplined process. High quality work requires a consistent creative approach that includes setting goals, developing skills, experimentation, and seeking feedback. 

Processes are organizational habits that have been codified into repeatable practices. By being intentional about them, we can make sure that we create good habits and embed them into our organizations. At a team level, they help everyone know what is expected of them. When we fail to create processes, we leave it to chance as to whether a good or bad habit is embedded, and we don’t have any systematic way of assessing the overall impact of a habit.  

It’s important to remember, however, that a process is a means to an end – it isn’t an end in itself. When we focus purely on establishing processes, we can end up with a well-documented, thorough process but not get the outcome we need to achieve. And over-adherence to that process can result in micromanagement or bureaucracy. 

One of the values of the agile manifesto is “individuals and interactions over processes and tools.” I find this principle helpful to keep in mind whenever designing a process. It’s a reminder that the processes we create are in the service of our people, our teams, and our companies. They should help us to achieve our goals and work together, not inhibit our ability to do that. If a process is slowing us down, causing stagnation, or inhibiting innovation, then it isn’t fit for its purpose.

How to design processes that support creativity

When you design your processes, they should support creativity, and to do that, ask yourself whether they will help people to achieve their outcomes or whether they will hinder them. Here are some ways that you can do that:  

  • Create processes that are people-first. Understand your employees’ needs, their motivations, and the challenges and barriers that they face. Processes should be additive – they should augment people’s work and help them to reach their outcomes more efficiently.

  • Set clear parameters and boundaries. Limitations can be immensely helpful for creativity. They prevent you from having to think about everything, and you can focus on solving a problem in a specific area. For example, a sales qualification framework lets your sales people easily qualify leads in or out, giving them more headspace to focus on understanding the needs of qualified leads. 

  • Codify the administrative tasks. Some admin tasks need to be done each time a process takes place. By mapping out admin into checklists or easy-to-follow steps, it allows people to whizz through them without having to expend much thought. At Human Made, our onboarding process is a good example of this, giving our people team and managers the headspace to focus on welcoming a new employee rather than worrying about what tools to add them to. 

  • Build in flexibility. Once you have codified the admin, make sure that the rest of the process is flexible so that people can bring their own skills and experience to it. It’s the difference between having a strict sales script and having your salespeople use their own intuition and knowledge. 

  • Document, but not overly so. Documentation is important for onboarding, understanding, and expectation setting, but it should contain the outline of the process without every possible permutation of it. This keeps your documentation maintainable and makes sure there is latitude for creativity.

  • Iterate on your processes. It’s important to reflect with your team on whether processes are working. You can run process retrospectives to surface anything that isn’t working and make improvements. 

However you approach them, make sure that your processes never become ossified. Instead, they should grow and flex with your organization, and they should adapt as you bring in new talent and skills. If innovation and creativity stagnate in your organization, then looking at your processes is a good place to start. Never be afraid to throw out a process that no longer serves its purpose and start again.

To learn how Qatalog can help document routine processes and create the foundations for creativity, book a call with our team

COO of Human Made
Siobhan McKeown is the author of 'A Life Lived Remotely: Being and Work in the Digital Age'. She is also the COO of Human Made, a global enterprise WordPress agency and the makers of Altis DXP. She has worked fully remotely since 2010 and has written extensively on remote and hybrid work, and remote transformation.
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