Category Archives: Operations

Creating processes to become a great entrepreneur

creating processes

“Great entrepreneurs don’t have better ideas, they have better processes.” – Eric Ries

This quote is not suggesting that great entrepreneurs are building successful businesses out of terrible ideas. What it is saying is that what makes businesses successful, and the entrepreneurs that found them great, is execution. Developing processes and executing them is what allows a business to scale and become more than a sum of its parts.

The first step to developing processes is to start documenting everything you do. Anything you find yourself repeating is an opportunity to create a process. This can involve anything from onboarding customers to handling bug reports to processing expense reports. (StartOpz can help you with that last one.)

The next step is to write down each thing you do to complete the task. You have now documented the process and can find ways to streamline it, outsource it, or eliminate parts of it, All will help you be able to work more on your business rather than in your business. That is what ultimately will make you a great entrepreneur.

documenting processes

Documenting processes

There is no one way to document processes. You just have to find a system that works for you. At a previous employer the office manager kept dozens (it felt like hundreds) of spreadsheets to document different processes. It was an example of the process breaking down. Nobody knew about a new process unless they were told about it and, with no built in notification on completed tasks, if a process involved multiple people you had to rely on others to notify you they had completed their step and it was now time for you to work on yours.

I like creating project templates in Asana for each process as that handles the discovery and notification problem automatically. I duplicate the template each time we need to go through a process. For simple recurring processes (e.g. daily or weekly tasks) I create recurring tasks inside Asana and sub-lists inside of them if necessary.

Identify inefficiencies

When you are in the middle of a process you rarely stop to question it. You are concentrating on the task at hand. However, because you have them documented you are able to periodically review them and identify any inefficiencies they might have.

Frequently inefficiencies are there because “that is how it has always been done” or because something changed and nobody revisited the process when it did. Examples might be recording information that is no longer needed due to a change in your customer onboarding process or rolling out a new software solution and trying to create your old workflow when the software has a different, and better, workflow built in.

Bottom line is that if you make an annual effort to review all documented processes you will likely find steps you can eliminate and steps that can be done more efficiently.

Automation

In addition to identifying inefficiencies when you review your processes you can also look for steps that you can automate with technology. Techies might do that with shell scripts and cron jobs but there are plenty of tools that all of us can use.

A few ideas on easy automation wins:

  • Inbox rules to automatically file or forward emails or to create tasks from emails.
  • Zapier/IFTTT to pass data between different software systems that you use.
  • Excel macros for automating any repetitive tasks in spreadsheets.

Easier to hire

Documented process make hiring easier and training go a lot more smoothly. Hiring is easier as you can more readily identify the skills required for a position based on what processes and steps the position you are hiring is responsible for.

Training is easier as there is no question as to what needs to be taught in order to get the hire up to speed. You can just follow the process step by step.

blank notebook full of possibilities

Clarity

Part on the premise of the book Getting Things Done is getting all to do items out of your head and into your to do list. Doing so keeps you from having to remember the dozens of little things that crop up and instead work your list based on priority.

Perhaps the biggest reason to implement processes is so that you can maintain clarity and focus on the big initiatives that push your business forward rather than getting distracted by the day-to-day operations of your company.

Three places clutter kills concentration

I’m pretty sure that people universally despise clutter yet almost all of us let it invade most parts of our life. (My brother-in-law is one exception as he keeps the cleanest house you have ever seen which is quite a feat with two children.) There is always something more urgent to do than cleaning. But it must be done eventually and why put off until tomorrow that which can be done today?

These are three things that get always get cluttered for me and have a perceivable effect on my concentration and productivity.

Your desktop

I don’t mean your computer desktop though your file organization there could likely use work and reflects your overall state of organization.

I’m talking about your actual desk. This advice might not apply those that work in cafes all day but most of us work at desks. And unless there is a company policy about it those desks are likely covered in papers and post-its. Not everybody is wired the same way but for me a creative mind does not thrive in the clutter.

This one had the easiest fix. Really it is more of a hack. If your desk has drawers then open one and sweep everything inside of it. If not then get a manilla folder (I don’t know of anywhere that sells a single one so you can steal one from somebody else or your spouse when you meet up with then for lunch) and put everything in there. You will immediately feel better.

Now block out a half hour on your calendar at some time in the next week to organize everything in your drawer or folder.

Your browser

How many tabs do you have open right now?

Each tab represents a half-finished project. Yes, even your Gmail tab is a project. You’ll be much more productive if you only check it at set, scheduled, times of the day.

(Nobody’s job is to answer email. Nobody has that job title. Rather, responding to email is a means to an end. It is a tool, and only a tool, that you use for communications with people integral to what your real job is.)

If you’re like me then it isn’t that uncommon to have tabs open for two months or more. I have one particular tab that has been open for more than four. I am not proud of that.

What I should be doing is at the end of each day creating an Asana task for each open tab. (That would be a nice Chrome plugin. And as I finished up writing this Google Inbox prompts me to install a plugin that is the exact opposite which saves links to your Inbox. I find that to be a terrible idea.)

Your inbox

Just like you spend much of your day physically at your desk, you spend much of your day digitally inside of your inbox. Each email sitting there represents something you need to do. There are a couple ways to tackle this. The first is to handle it like you did your desk and create an email folder titled “Pending” and move all your emails into it.

The second is to start tackling it right here and now. My post on Inbox Zero provides some tips on that but you can start now by identifying any email that will take you less than five minutes and then responding to it. Create filters for any mailing lists you receive so that those are automatically moved to a sub folder. And finally create tasks for any emails that will take you longer than five minutes to respond to. (For software such as Asana, Trello, or Evernote you can forward the email. For Outlook you can drag the email to the Task button and a task will be created.)

Remember that you should always use the best tool for the job. Email is a communication tool–not a to do list.

All of this clutter compounds on each other and occupies just a bit of your brain as you are trying to work on the projects that move your business forward–the projects that deserve your complete creative brain.

Four areas you can improve your workflows

Recently at work I’ve been pushing us to do something that none of us do often enough. That is to take a step back and examine the workflows that we go through every day without really thinking about them.

As your business changes, and the technology you use changes, there might be many things that you do currently that do not need to be done anymore, can be done differently and more efficiently, or can be automated.

Documenting workflows is the first step here and, as an added bonus, also the first step for establishing the standard operating procedures that your business should be creating anyway. So this exercise is one that should hopefully pay for itself many times over in the long run as your company grows.

These are four common places where your current workflows might need some work. It is in no way an exhaustive list as every business, and every individual that makes it up, has its own unique characteristics.

Death to the Stock Photo

You find yourself doing repetitive things in spreadsheets

When I first started my job at a financial services firm I spent the first week being shown the ropes. One of my jobs was to track all trades and make sure we got paid on them. This all happened in one big spreadsheet. Every day trade files were copied in followed by lots of sorting and copying and pasting data across many columns. Once a week commission files were received and were manually cross referenced to the spreadsheet.

I made the comment that a database would streamline this process and received the response, “Why don’t you wait until after your first week to make suggestions on how we do things?” (Lesson is that people rarely want to be told they are doing something inefficiently.)

As soon as I was done training and let loose I immediately built a database in Access that trimmed eight hours of work a week down to about eighty minutes. A couple of years later I developed a PHP/MySQL app that trimmed that eighty minutes a week down to about eight.

I love Excel and spend a lot of time in it but if you find yourself revisiting the same spreadsheet a lot, or do a lot of copying and pasting, then there might be better software for that task or a better system you can put in place to manage it.

You find yourself sharing documents via email

Email is great for communications but terrible for collaboration.I find email to be great for communication but terrible for collaboration. It is poor for collaboration for these reasons:

  • Two parties cannot work on a document simultaneously.
    • Once sent you have to wait for another party to send you their revisions before you can continue work on it.
  • Comments live separately from the document.
    • While most office software has the capability to include comments in practice nobody uses that. Instead they include their comments in the body of the email and reference the attachment.
  • Projects lose priority in an inbox
    • For better or worse many people still live their business lives in their inbox. While the project you are collaborating with somebody on might have priority over anything else subconsciously it is losing priority every time your collaborator receives an email that diverts their attention, (One of my big pet peeves is talking to somebody who gets distracted by the new email popup message.) They always read it to see if it is an emergency, maybe respond, but always take at least a few minutes to get their mind back into project mode.

We have just started sharing documents and gathering comments in Slack so it is a little too early to tell if it is a greatly better solution but I suspect it is for collaboration. Dropbox also just implemented comments on documents (I believe last week).

Personally I have found that I greatly prefer collaborating with people on files in Google Drive over files on a shared drive. Even then sometimes people make changes themselves or send comments back via email (less than optimal). Google Docs does has commenting built in that I just need to convince people to start using.

Whatever you are doing currently you should make sure that the software you are using to collaborate is something the compliments your workflow rather than trying to fit your workflow to software. (When all you have is a hammer you treat every problem as a nail.)

Great collaboration unleashes people and creates something that is more than the sum of its parts.

You find the data or documents you need exist in many different places

Most organizations have official ways of storing things. Many organizations also have unofficial ways of storing things as employees have found creative ways around bad software, decades old policies, and bureaucracy. That coupled with the explosion of SaaS in the workplace has companies having their data spread across many applications and servers.

  • Some documents for a project existing as attachments in emails, files on a shared drive, attachments to cards in Trello.
  • Feature requests and/or bug reports being put in both Trello and Github.
  • You have tasks in Outlook, in Asana, and on post-its on your monitor.
  • Multiple databases or web apps house your client data.

I have found that often Enterprise level software does a lot of jobs but it rarely is the best tool for each job. One great thing about the current generation of web apps is that you can often find and use the best tool for a job and it can communicate with your other tools via an API thus pulling all of your data into one place no matter where it is stored.

Tools such as Zapier or IFTTT can help you automatically get the data into the systems you need.

Startup Stock Photos

You need a system to keep track of all of your systems

If you are documenting all of your workflows and creating systems based on those then eventually you might reach what I’m referring to as protocol overload. At our company that is evidenced by having more tracking spreadsheets than you can count. Unless you are intimately involved with a process you might not know that a process already exists or where to find it documented.

Putting all of your systems in one, searchable, place is a great place to start. Excel documents that exist throughout a shared drive (and where you cannot search the contents across multiple files) is a terrible way to store protocols. Instead you could put them inside a company wiki, put them as different worksheets in the same Excel document, or, my favorite, create them all as templates in Asana so you can store the processes as well as implement them in the same place.

Every protocol or standard operation procedure should be periodically reviewed for steps that can be automated or are no longer needed.

Conclusion

Examining and optimizing workflows is a task that takes time but one that will be ultimately worth it. Eliminating busy work and increasing efficiencies will allow your organization to spend more resources on the projects that will continue to fuel your growth.