With the Olympics in Rio, baseball nearing the playoffs and football underway, I’ve been thinking, “What is it that separates high performers and world champions from everyone else?” 

Regardless of the sport, when you think about winning teams or individuals you know they didn’t just cruise to victory. They were under immense pressure from their coaches, their competitors, their fans and themselves. Becoming a champion depends on how you perform under that kind of pressure. 

Success Relies on Process

Whether it is in the world of sports or the world of business, success comes down to developing the ability to control natural human reactions to stress and systematically working through a set of refined processes. 

As Hall of Fame head coach Bill Walsh noted, “Concentrate on what will produce results rather than on the results, the process rather than the prize.” Driven by that attitude, it’s no accident that Walsh’s San Francisco 49ers won six division titles, three NFC Championship titles and three Super Bowls. 

Business success is much more complex and variable than a football game, so drilling your team for every possible outcome probably isn’t practical. But you can support your team with quick access to clear, easy-to-follow processes. 

First and foremost, you need staff to be able to find processes — and use them — wherever and whenever they are needed. And because process improvement is about teams sharing knowledge and helping each other, it is essential for processes to be presented in a way that makes them easy to use. 

If you genuinely want to help teams get things right the first time — especially in high pressure situations — provide process guidance that is easy to read and easy to understand.  

The following three tips can help organizations simplify process sharing and make processes easier to use every day, and especially when teams are under pressure: 

1. Keep it Simple: Describe the Normal Process Flow 

All too often, process maps tie themselves in knots as they seek to explain every possible process variation. Make things far easier for the reader by providing a flow chart to describe what normally happens. How to handle process exceptions can be described separately in the process detail.

For example, let’s say you’re describing the process for advertising a new position. A variation that can occur is the need to revise the ad copy because the first attempt doesn't make the grade. Rather than adding a decision box asking “Is the advertising copy sufficient?” followed by separate yes/no process flows, it's far easier for the reader to keep the process flow simple and just include a note under the activity step. The activity step might say “Confirm advertising copy is correct,” then the note underneath would say “What if the advertising copy is insufficient?” and describe to the reader what to do should this situation arise.

2. Don't Overwhelm: Group Common Tasks Under a Single Activity

Process maps with too many tasks are a lot to take in. Many people will simply avoid using the process or ask someone else what to do. 

Learning Opportunities

So instead of including lots of minor tasks in the process map, group tasks under a single common activity. For example, if you had an activity box in the process map that said “Prepare for the fishing trip,” all relevant tasks — such as determine weather conditions, check to see if fishing license is required, purchase bait, make lunch, bring thermos of coffee, etc. — should be grouped under that heading.

3. Inspire Action: Use Verbs

Verbs make instructions easier to comprehend. Academic studies show that instructions are far easier to follow if you start your sentences with verbs.  

So to make processes easier to follow, apply the verb first rule to process titles, activities and tasks. For example: enter sales order into system x, perform credit check, assign assembly location.  

Ideally, limit activity names to three to six words to ensure quick comprehension by those who need to understand and follow the process. 

While these may all seem to be simple, common sense approaches, it’s surprising how many businesses complicate these concepts to the point where their processes become unreadable and, therefore, unusable. 

Imagine what happens when those same businesses come under pressure. Processes are truly tested when teams are under pressure, when teams work through transformational change, or in situations when rapid decision-making depends on precise execution — it doesn’t have to be the Super Bowl or an Olympic performance. 

When a person or a team has to make rapid decisions under pressure — when a customer’s yelling down the end of the phone or something’s gone wrong on the factory floor — effective process management disciplines and simple process guidance can mean the difference between success and failure.