Tango Blog
The Power of Process, Formal or Informal

The Power of Process, Formal or Informal

Table of Contents
Friends don't let friends learn the hard way.
Create how-to guides, in seconds.
Try Tango for free

Robin Spencer has the kind of career trajectory that makes people nod their heads admiringly—even if they can’t fully comprehend the impact she had as 1) Clearbit’s Chief Operating Officer, or 2) Google’s Head of Strategy & Operations.

Suffice it to say: Robin has had some big jobs. And despite her success, she’s more likely to talk about how bad she is at karaoke than about how good she is at building operationally excellent companies and teams.

In the latest episode of Change Enablers, Robin opens up and reflects on the highs and lows of scaling operations at Clearbit—with advice for operators at all levels. 

1. When in doubt, do nothing

Lesson #1 doesn’t sound like a hot take in and of itself—but it’s more controversial than it seems. Check out the clip below to watch Ken and Robin engage in a friendly debate:

As Clearbit’s COO, Robin had people coming to her with problems all day long. If one thing wasn’t on fire, something else was broken. In the early days, her instinct was to jump on it. She wanted to fix everything immediately. A bias towards action is good, right? Well—yes and no.

It was tempting for Robin to say, “I’ve seen this problem before, and here’s what we should do.” But she experienced firsthand what a trap that could be. Especially when she didn’t do her due diligence to understand what the problem actually was—and how it was affecting people.

These days, Robin coaches herself and others to “name the mess.” And until you can name the mess—do nothing. 

A quote from Clearbit's former COO the importance of diagnosing the problem before jumping into solutions.

To effectively name the mess, here are a few questions to ask:

  • Who are the stakeholders?
  • What are their goals and fears?
  • What are they doing? 
  • When and where are they doing it (and in which tools)? 
  • How does each stakeholder describe the source of friction?
  • Where are people seeing bottlenecks and redundancies? 
  • What or who is being underutilized? How about overburdened?
  • What are the common themes?
  • Which are symptoms vs. root causes? 
  • Who’s too close to the problem? Who’s not close enough? 
  • What would the ideal state look like? 
  • What would it take to get there? 

While you’re diagnosing the problem—ask about what’s working well, too. Even the biggest predicaments usually have some salvageable pieces. 🤞🏼

2. Processes are processes, no matter how informal

Robin came to Clearbit after years of serving as Google.org’s Head of Strategy & Operations. Where there was no shortage of well-established systems and processes.

At Clearbit…things looked a little different.

“I remember coming home on the first day and being like, oh man, there are so many missing processes and every existing process is broken. I had this list of everything we needed to fix. But ultimately, it ended up being the wrong list.”

-Robin Spencer, Former Chief Operating Officer at Clearbit

In her haste to help her team start making an impact, Robin did something many skilled operators do: she assumed that if a process wasn’t formally documented, it didn’t exist. So she asked her team to recreate the wheel with a top-down task list—when what they really needed to address was a lack of documentation. 

Sound familiar? 

Here are a few steps to take *before* diving headfirst into your knowledge base, learning management system, digital adoption platform, or work instructions tool:

3. Document your playbooks (even if you’re the only player)

When Robin joined Clearbit’s operations team, there were about a dozen team members. Finance, Legal, People, Revenue, and Facilities all rolled up into Ops, so she oversaw multiple functional heads without direct reports.

As a team of one, it’s easy to think you can get away with keeping knowledge in your head. It’s tempting to cut corners and let key business and process knowledge go undocumented a little while longer. 

The truth is—you can’t, and you shouldn’t.

According to Robin, the best time to change the way you think about documentation is early on—before your team of one becomes a team of two. As soon as you add another person, not having documentation will start slowing you down. And when you scale up more meaningfully, to 30 or 60 or 90 people? Back-writing documentation is the last thing you’ll want to be doing.

Here’s Robin on the mindset shift she helped her team make: 

4. The simplest solution = the most elegant solution

What’s the secret to change management? Resisting the temptation to overcomplicate things.

To get people with varying degrees of enthusiasm on board with new software and/or SOPs, Robin encourages operators to challenge themselves to identify the minimum viable process that will drive their desired change. 

What do you need to create a minimum viable process? Minimum viable context. ✨

If you’re teaching people how to use software, that means you have: 

➡️ Included a screenshot for every step in your how-to guide
➡️ Cropped your screenshots and zoomed in on the information that matters
➡️ Added big, clear annotations so people know where to look (and what to do)
➡️ Limited text to <10 words 
➡️ Kept any videos to two minutes or less 
➡️ Embedded the instructions in the tools where people are working
➡️ Created a table of content with anchor links to help people skip straight to where they’re stuck

A quote from Clearbit's former COO on the value of succinct solutions when it comes to empowering people to do their best work.

Every COO hopes to make a mark. Becoming an expert at problem solving, process improvement, and documentation might not sound like the most exciting path—but for Robin, it’s led to hundreds of little light bulbs and even bigger opportunities to make an impact. 

Want to hear more from other operations, training, and enablement experts? Subscribe to Change Enablers Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and YouTube

The bottom line


Keep in touch

We'll never show up
empty-handed (how rude!).

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
This is some text inside of a div block.