Viewpoint : Process Mentors for Startup Companies

Startup companies operate in very uncertain and rapidly changing business environment.  Under such conditions delivering a high quality product in a timely and economical manner is crucial for obtaining tangible business benefits in terms of customer delight, revenue and profitability.

An effective and efficient product development process is one of the critical factors (the other two being people and technology) for developing a high quality product. Such a process is a set of related, structured well-defined activities or tasks – encompassing engineering, management and support areas like human resources development, marketing, sales, purchase, finance, facilities and administration- performed by skilled people using appropriate technology to develop a product.

Startups often encounter complex technical and business challenges which require creative out-of-the box solutions.  Well-defined processes for  activities like brainstorming, idea generation, innovation management,  prototyping , customer validation, risk identification, prioritizing the product/service features, estimation of effort, root-cause analysis of the problem, waste reduction,  decision making etc. , will greatly enhance the probability of arriving at appropriate solutions for such complex issues.

In addition to resolving complex issues a startup also has to deal with many routine, recurring operational activities which also need to be performed. Neglecting these activities may adversely impact the product engineering and business activities in a longer run.  These adverse impacts can either be prevented or can be handled in a very cost effective manner if appropriate processes are being followed while performing the necessary day-to-day tasks.

When the startup companies exit from the business incubators and scale-up their operations in terms of resources (staff, equipments, facilities)  and customer base, the product development, delivery and maintenance activities become more complex. This leads to increase in project management and people management issues especially those related to staffing, training, work environment, communication and coordination, performance appraisals, salaries and benefits. Business results depend a great deal on how well this increased complexity and issues are handled.

The informal way of product engineering and project management which worked well in the early stages of the startup will be found lacking in scaled-up operations. Business results will be unpredictable and there will be no repeatability of successful results in such scenario.  A well-established and documented process followed in a systematic manner will ensure such repeatability and will also reduce the dependencies on select few people.

Over the last few decades innumerable engineering and management best practices have been collated and organized into several process models or frameworks by various institutions, organizations or consortiums.  CMMI, ITIL, Agile, Lean, Six Sigma, ISO 9001, People –CMM are some of the more recognized ones.

Most of these process frameworks are defined from the perspective of a well-established medium to large size organization,  though the basic intent and principles of the practices described in these frameworks are applicable to organizations of any type and size.

For the startups and small organizations it means someone in their team investing a significant amount of time and effort to understand, interpret, choose , adapt these practices to their context and oversee their deployment  in order to reap maximum benefits out of these frameworks.

Few startups are willing to make such investment of their time and expertise in this area since they are preoccupied with their immediate short-term concern of getting their product out to their customers. As a result they are deprived of the business benefits which a good process can realize for them.

So though appropriate processes are a crucial need for furthering a startup’s business, factors like lack of bandwidth, expertise and inclination delay their definition and deployment till it is too late.

Business risks arising out of such situations can be mitigated by startups by engaging a process expert to serve as their mentor right from the inception phase of the startup till the culture of continuous process improvement takes root in the company.

Process Mentors first learn more about the startups they are mentoring – their business domain; their business model; their technology; their competitors etc.  They also get to know the current way of working of the company by observing the people at work for few days and holding focused conversations with them.

Having developed a basic understanding of these areas they start adding value to the startup’s operations by:

  • Identifying the current process pain points and bottlenecks to the smooth workflow.
  • Defining processes and procedures to address the pain points and bottle necks.
  • Basing the process solutions on the best practices drawn from various process frame works, and interpreting and tailoring it to the company’s needs and requirements.  Process solutions may cover various areas like product engineering, management and support functions.
  • Ensuring that the process solutions are as Agile and Lean as possible by focusing on minimizing the documentation overheads and waste reduction to improve operational efficiencies.
  • Training the staff on the defined processes and methodologies
  • Coaching and handholding the staff during implementation of processes.
  • Defining metrics to gauge the effectiveness of the processes.
  • Facilitating technical reviews and project reviews.
  • Facilitating periodic retrospectives to capture the lessons learned during the various stages of product development.
  • Facilitating root cause analysis and removal of commonly occurring problems
  • Promoting continuous learning and improvement by creating a information repository of reusable process artifacts and lessons learned
  • Preparing the company for external third-party assessments or certifications if needed.

To summarize, an effective and efficient product development process is a must not only for medium and large established companies but also for small startup companies. Process mentors with their wide experience in various established process frameworks can help set up agile and lean processes for startups. This will enable the company to deliver high quality products faster, better and cheaper.

(Please contact me for your Process Mentoring needs !)

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