Tag Archives: project management

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.

The ONE Thing

(This is one of a series of posts about productivity books and the lessons I took from them. The series is: Getting Things Done, A Sense of Urgency, and The ONE Thing.)

The ONE ThingExtraordinary.

If there is one word to use to describe The ONE Thing it is that. The book’s premise is to figure out the one thing you can do that will make everything else easier or unnecessary and focus on that. The premise is simple enough but learning how to apply it, and then actually doing so, is a powerful change in the way you use your time.

(The other reason “extraordinary” is the one word is that the author uses it 115 times in the book. You can tell he is a true believer in what he preaches.)

I am in the middle of trying to start a business. It seems as if there is a never ending lists of things that need to be done. Often it feels like I am treading water and not making any progress. For a while now I have asked myself the question, “What is one thing I can do today to push the business forward?” After reading the book I realized the better question is, “What is the best thing I can do today to push the business forward?”

While I had expected the book’s message of concentrating on one, important thing, I was surprised at the emphasis on thinking big. In retrospect they should go hand in hand but often the big things are not achieved because they have not been broken down into smaller, actionable steps.

At the largest scale the steps are:

One passion -> one skill -> one person -> one life

And they all come back to the book’s central question:

“What’s the ONE Thing you can do such that by doing it everything else would be easier or unnecessary?”

Productivity in all situations

Everybody has the same number of hours in a day but some people seem to get so much more done than others. Obviously circumstances play a big part of that. A childless man in his 20s (the stereotypical startup guy or digital nomad) obviously has more hours to work with than a single mother of two.

I have heard many people say that when they have children they actually achieve more because they learned to focus on the really, really important things in their limited hours.

“When you want the absolute best chance to succeed at anything you want, your approach should always be the same. Go Small.”

Defer the busy work. Find the thing that matters most and concentrate your efforts on that.

When you let your inbox dictate your day, your calendar dictate your week, and have a to do list that would not be finished in months then likely you feel overwhelmed and that the success you strive for it out of reach.

That describe the demands on many of us but success does not come from busy work nor is success correlated with time or effort. Keller does a great job laying out that the results you are striving to achieve can be traced back to smaller, specific actions.

Passion

Throughout many conversations I have found that defining what you are passionate about is easier for some people than others. When I ask people I often get a response of “uhh…” followed by the generic responses of “my family” or “my job”. I then try to rephrase the question to, “if you had no other responsibilities what would you spend your day doing?”

Not every passion is something that you can build a business or career around. Nor do they have to be. Simply being able to indulge them is often enough to bring happiness into your life. If a business or career is your goal then Keller lays out a path to which to achieve it.

When you are passionate about something you spend more time on it which leads to developing skills. It is those skills that are what you will be able to build a business or career around.

Lies

This might be my favorite chapter of the book as it covers some of my biggest criticisms about the business world as it is practiced (by companies more than five years old). I will not go into those in depth here (you can find some of my rants elsewhere on the site).

One big lie that he covers, and perhaps the one most relevant to the topic, is that everything is equal. Most workers feel that all tasks need to be done and rank them by importance. Not all tasks need to be done. Importance cannot be defined by arbitrary things such as oldest item in inbox or even by anybody but you.

Breaking free from that lie allows you to truly focus on moving forward.

Big Ideas

While thinking big is an amazing exercise, and he encourages you to take your goal and make it larger so if you fall short you still achieve a lot, it can be hard to figure out how to get from where you stand today to where you want to be.

Keller presents a series of four practices you should explore:

  1. Go Small.
  2. Go Extreme.
  3. Say no.
  4. Don’t get trapped in the “check off” game.

Reading the book will provide you more color on those but all are powerful concepts to utilize on your quest to achieve big things.

Multitasking

Keller makes a case that multitasking, instead of getting two things done, results in getting nothing done.

“People can actually do two or more things at once, such as walk and talk, or chew gum and read a map; but, like computers, what we can’t do is focus on two things at once.”

When you are switching back and forth from task to task or project to project you are not finishing anything that is a priority (which I define as things that generate value to you or your business).

Indeed, if you finish one project prior to starting the next, the first project will be creating value while you work on the second. If you are multitasking then you are getting no value from either.

Keller also makes an interesting point in the book that the word priority has been sapped of its meaning be people talking about “priorities”. It is a word that should not be pluralized. The definition of priority means that it should be the ONE Thing and that everything else takes a back seat.

Willpower

“Willpower is so important that using it effectively should be a high priority.”

The insight that I took from this section of the book is that willpower is a finite resource that must be recharged. One simply cannot ALWAYS be in control of their willpower. A long day of meetings, fires, and difficult decisions wears you and your willpower down thus making it easier for you to decide to skip the gym that night.

He goes into how your blood sugar level and the foods you eat contribute to your willpower.

“If you want to get the most out of your day, do your most important work–your ONE Thing–early, before your willpower is drawn down.”

Work-life balance

When you are focusing on doing one thing other things you view as priorities are going to suffer. It will be a constant balancing act. It is important to realize and accept that if have any hope of achieving the success you strive for.

“Time waits for no one.”

In order to make sure that you are doing your One Thing as well as not letting your family, job, or anything else important to you fall through the cracks Keller recommends time blocking which involves blocking out time on your calendar in advance. Switch tasks when your calendar tells you it is time. This way you will be constantly focused on whatever your one thing for that block of time is.

Other insights

There are many more insights in the book on topics such as happiness, responsibility, goals, fear, and success. All of them end up tying back to the book’s suggestion to focus on doing One Thing in order to get extraordinary results.

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.

Productivity Books: Getting Things Done

(This is one of a series of posts about productivity books and the lessons I took from them. The series is: Getting Things Done, A Sense of Urgency, and The ONE Thing.)

Getting Things DoneBeing productive doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice. A to do list doesn’t mean you can’t be spontaneous.

It is possible to be effectively doing while you are delightfully being, in your ordinary workaday world.

Getting Things Done lays out an effective system for managing your work and all of the tasks and emails that entails.

The Problem

Mental to do lists occupy brain space that could be used in more creative or productive fashions.

The clutter of mental to do lists creates stress. There is even stress in trying not to forget something. And often your mind only reminds you about something the next time you come across it at which point you likely put it off again.

It is a waste of time and energy to keep thinking about something that you make no progress on.

The System

Stop storing task lists in your mind.

Find a place to write down each and every thing you need to do (from high level stuff at work down to needing new batteries for the flashlight) in one place. That place could be a notepad, a spreadsheet, or task management software such as Asana. Commit to that one place.

Once you have a collection of tasks then you need to go through them and organize them. For each task:

  1. Ask yourself if it is actionable.
  2. If it is not actionable then either trash it or file it away for later reference.
  3. If it is actionable then do it if it takes less than two minutes.
  4. Otherwise either delegate it or defer it by creating an entry on your calendar for it.

Do It, Delegate It, or Defer It.

Never return an item back into your inbox.

(For Asana I consider the “New Tasks” section the collection place and anything that is deferred is marked for Today, Upcoming, or Later with a date set for tasks needing to be completed on a certain date rather than by a certain date.)

Projects

Breakdown larger projects into small steps as a project isn’t actionable in and of itself. The individual steps are actionable. Keep all of the supporting reference material for the project somewhere other than the to do list. Ideally keep it out of sight so it will be out of mind except when you’re working on the actionable steps.

When planning projects first ask yourself what the purpose of the project is. Doing so will define what the criteria for success is, allow you to focus resources, and provides motivation.

Next brainstorm all of the steps needed to complete the project. Organize the steps. Begin work on the actionable steps or assign resources to them.

Email

The Getting Things Done system works great for email and is probably the quickest way to get to inbox zero short of dragging all of your email into the trash. The book recommends creating a folder specifically for emails you have deferred as well as a second folder for emails you’ve delegated to others and are awaiting confirmation of the outcome on.

My inbox has actually been the largest benefactor of this system as I, like most of the working world, receive most of my business communication via email. Turning those emails into tasks or calendar items gets them out of my inbox and eliminates the feeling of being overwhelmed I used to have every morning when I would open Outlook.

I would, and have, recommend this book to pretty much anybody as freeing the mind from remembering tasks allows one focus on the larger projects that move businesses forward. It also allows one to enjoy their free time more knowing that there is nothing for them to forget as they’ve already written it down.

Productivity Books: A Sense of Urgency

(This is one of a series of posts about productivity books and the lessons I took from them. The series is: Getting Things Done, A Sense of Urgency, and The ONE Thing.)

A Sense of UrgencyI bought A Sense of Urgency in India in 2008 and finished it on my flight home. It didn’t cover the day to day productivity tips that a lot of other books have covered so well. Instead it looks at being productive on a team or organization wide scale by aligning efforts behind the initiatives that will push the business forward.

It wasn’t just the turbulence that kept my head nodding up and down.

Recognizing many of the issues laid out in the book inside of my company I immediately set out to invoke change. However, even with the tips in this book, it can be an uphill battle but it is definitely a battle worth fighting.

Activity is not urgency

Activity is not even progress. You can be complacent and perpetuate the status quo by engaging in busy work such as unproductive meetings, needless PowerPoints, and endless emails rather than searching for new opportunities.

True urgency is driven by a deep determination to win, not anxiety about losing.

To finish the projects that will really move your business forward be sure you accomplish one important thing every day.

Urgency refers to things that are critically important

If an action or event is not central to success or survival then it is not critically important and thus not urgent.

Complacency comes from success whether that be real or perceived. False urgency comes from failure. Real urgency comes from leadership.

False urgency is much more common than real urgency and it is what leads to the frenetic activity of meetings, presentations, and projects that don’t lead to progress but rather lead to burnout. False urgency is about activity rather than productivity.

Urgency is not stressful

Deadlines are stressful. Urgency isn’t about a timeline but rather about being alert and focusing your efforts on areas of importance.

Actually urgency can lead to less stress as a person with a high sense of urgency will look for ways to shed the tasks and busy work that aren’t critical to success. When one is working on an important initiative a meeting to set a meeting (those happen way too often) is something that should be shunned. (Reading the meeting minutes will take mere minutes.)

Red flags

  • Meetings which end with only more meetings being scheduled or task forces created.
  • Consultants (if it is truly urgent then management would stop what they are doing and lead the effort themselves).
  • Calendar slippage (where through a combination of coordinating calendars and task forces you find yourselves months down the road without any progress being made).
  • Departmental battles (often waged passive aggressively) instead of aligning towards a solution and working towards it by placing a priority on that project over the “important” daily tasks of the department.
  • Discussions that look inward (intracompany) rather than externally (markets, new technology, and competitors).

Creating true urgency

The strategy outlined for creating a true sense of urgency involves winning over both the hearts and minds of the people in the organization. Facts alone do not lead to determination.

The four tactics are:

  1. Bring the Outside In
    • Bring in outside data, views, and people which will help identify the company’s place in the market as well as opportunities or hazards that should be acted upon.
  2. Behave with Urgency Every Day
    • Demonstrate your own sense of urgency in meetings, emails, and interactions while, at the same time, not not appearing content, anxious, or angry.
  3. Find Opportunity in Crises
    • A crisis internally can be an opportunity to break away from systems that aren’t working and implementing new ones. An external crisis can be an opportunity to increase market share or expand into new markets.
  4. Deal with the NoNos
    • NoNos are people who will not only question any new initiative but will often actively work against it. They cannot be ignored and must be dealt with by distraction, social pressure, or termination.

Setting yourself up for success

Clean Desk

Clearing your plate is one of the most important things you can do to set yourself up to tackle truly urgent projects.

Clutter undermines true urgency. Fatigue undermines true urgency.

Clearing your calendar, inbox zero, and other methods of controlling demands on your time will clear the mental clutter that creates anxiety and leads to false urgency.

Sustaining urgency

Urgency is not sustainable in and of itself. It needs to be created over and over again and ideally before it has fallen. Short-term successes can lead to complacency which can be fatal for a large project that spans many months or years. At that point revisiting the four tactics outlined above would be wise.

Conclusion

Remember, words are not the test. Action is the test.

While the author has found few companies where it is the case, urgency should be ingrained in your company’s culture. Behaviours that create false urgency should not be engaged in. Long term views are needed and managers should use whatever tools they can to overcome the complacency that comes from short term successes.

A Sense of Urgency is a great read and will help you deal with the big issues that your company will face as the speed of business continues to increase.

 

Using Trello To Manage Your Sales Pipeline

There are some amazing CRMs available on the web. A lot of great innovation has happened in that space. Some are specialized to industries and some try to be everything to everyone.

Sometimes you don’t need a full CRM. Maybe your sales team is small (or only you) so you don’t need need all of the lead splitting and pipeline graphs. Or maybe your industry is fairly old-school so social media integration isn’t a need. But, no matter what you can’t be having potential business fall through the cracks by not being on top of things.

If you don’t need the bells and whistles then Trello is something you could look at to manage your sales pipeline. It free as well as being dead simple to use.

Start by creating a new Trello board for your sales pipeline.

Create board.

Add your sales team.

Add members.

Create lists for each stage of your sales pipeline.

Create list.

I use the following lists:

  • Leads
  • Follow Up (1 week out)
  • Follow Up (2 weeks out)
  • Follow Up (3 weeks out)
  • Proposal
  • Closed (Won)
  • Closed (Lost)

Sales pipeline board.

Rather than use a list for when to follow up you can also add a due date for a card and then get notifications for when you need to act on it.

When you get a lead you create a new card for it.

Create leads (cards).

Tip: You can forward emails to Trello to have cards automatically created.

Once you have created a card you can assign it to a member of your sales team.

You can use labels to keep track of either the probability of the deal or the size of the deal.

Create labels.

Every time you interact with the prospect you should add a comment to the card. Trello will have the full history of those as well as any movements between each.

Add activity.

Move the card between lists depending on the stage of the deal.

Move prospects between lists.

Hopefully you’ll be moving many to “Closed (won)”.

With Trello you can get much deeper into the sale process as well. You can create checklists under each card if you want to track more. For example you could create a checklist for the actual proposal with a item for each stop of the process.

If you’re a small business I urge you to not automatically go with the first CRM that comes up in your Google search. Do some research and find the one that best fits your needs. If your needs aren’t complicated then maybe Trello would fit the bill for you. And you could redirect the cash you would have spent on CRM software on something else.

Excel Needs to Die

I love Excel.

We’ve been buddies since the Windows 3.1 days. It took me through school and well into my work life. I’ve strayed a few times and used Open Office (at home on my Linux desktop) and am finding I’m doing more of my personal projects in Google Drive but I still spend a great deal of my work day in Excel. I’m even still learning new features that save me time and headaches (I do not know how I just learned about repeating columns on pages when printing).

But I also hate Excel.

There is one particular use case that is getting my goat today. And that is using Excel for project management.

One of the things, if not the main thing, that has made Excel so popular is that it is so flexible. People use it for anything and everything they can fit into its grid format. Little or no thought is given as to whether or not it is the best tool for the job. And many people, including my office, use it to track projects.

Company map

I’ve got my department on Asana but many projects cross departmental boundaries. Every other department at the company uses Excel to track projects and we have dozens of spreadsheets for that purpose. Some of those are approaching a hundred columns. The workflow is thus:

1. New client comes on.
2. New rows get added to any project spreadsheets that are needed.
3. People need to remember to check spreadsheets for their tasks.
4. People complete their tasks, update the spreadsheets, and email others that their task is done.
5. People sometimes forget to email.
6. Balls are dropped. Tasks don’t get done.

The beauty of project management software is that you don’t need to manually notify others or remember to check files for tasks. The software does it for you magically! That cuts down on communications, and more importantly, errors. That leads to a happier and more efficient work environment.

Less email equals more smiles

With so much quality project management software being offered for free there is absolutely no reason to use Excel for that task. So I plead to you to make the world a better place and use Excel for what God intended it for. To store recipes.

(And if you want to replace the spreadsheets you use to track bills, client invoices, or time-off StartOpz has got you covered.)