Developing Systems Effectively – 7 Key Lessons I’ve Learnt
Do you currently have documented systems and processes governing your business activity?
Documented systems and processes are your route to business success and freedom from the trap that many small business owners find themselves in.
In this post I'll share with you the
7 Lessons I've Learnt About Developing Systems In My Own Business
Developing systems and processes was a skill I picked up very early in life.
As I’ve never really been a great reader or writer for that matter, I have always lent more towards visual communication to work effectively.
Flowcharts, Mind maps, Spider diagrams, Fit charts, Whiteboards, Post it notes, Flashcards, Posters, bullet point lists and so on.
In my former corporate job I was responsible for managing an entire youth service.
And this meant that I had to develop, implement and manage a number of systems and processes related to work strands I had the lead on.
And more importantly ensure that these systems and processes could be easily understood and followed by almost 100 people.
I quickly learnt that if the systems and processes were not clearly understood, then my workload would increase, as I had to respond to a number of questions and queries to clarify what I was trying to communicate.
I learnt that I needed the systems and processes to be super clear and simple to follow.
Now, in my own business, I have to do the same thing, however, this time, I have no admin team, no finance team, no legal team, no communications department, no IT department.
I have none of those core departments that I had in access to when I was in corporate.
All of which came with existing systems and processes that I could make use of and refer to when I needed to.
When developing my own systems and processes I had to start from scratch - from a blank canvas.
So here are the 7 key lessons I’ve learnt about developing systems and processes in my own business.
1. Understand What You Want To Achieve
Ask yourself the question:
Why am I developing this system?
Are you trying to speed a process up?
- Maybe you want to reduce friction in an existing process.
- You may have recognised that there's a bottleneck in a workflow which can be removed by developing or refining a system.
- Maybe you want to replace / reduce existing manual dependency by automating the process.
- Maybe you want to enhance the user experience, whether that be for yourself, an employee, a team member or a customer / supplier.
Whatever your reason for developing systems is, be clear on why you’re developing the system and what you want the system to do.
In my youth engagement agency, staff recruitment is a core part of our business model.
In the early days, although I had developed a recruitment process, I recognised that there was a bottle neck in that process.
It was me.
I had to manually check for new expressions of interest from candidates.
Then I would process those expressions of interest, and then make arrangements for shortlisting and interviews.
Although I had delegated part of the process, it was still very manually dependant which slowed the entire process down.
After looking at the process, I made a few small changes, such as;
- Implementing a new "Expression of interest" process
- Putting that process on a new and better web based platform that automatically sends completed forms to a specific email address.
That system is now almost 80 percent automated - the rest is handled by my VA (Virtual Assistant).
This saves me at least 2 hours of time per candidate.
Now, I just need to turn up to conduct the interview.
2. Don't Reinvent The Wheel.
We have all heard the saying “don't reinvent the wheel.”
Well don’t do it then!!
In the past, I have made the mistake of thinking that I have to create something from scratch for it to do what I need it to do.
This is just not the case.
Previously, as the saying would go….”knowledge is power”.
And previously those with access to that knowledge had a competitive advantage over those that didn’t.
However, things have changed.
We live in the information age and there are fewer barriers limiting our access to information.
Recruitment / email handling / lead generation / client on-boarding / customer enquiries / Quality assurance - there is a system somewhere that covers this.
Spend some time looking around at what others are already doing.
Even better, delegate the task to a VA to create a spreadsheet of potential systems that you could emulate.
All you then have to do is work through that list and identify the ones, or even just elements of them that you want to implement in your system.
One great hack is this....
Once you’ve identified the system / process you want to develop.....
identify another business / service provider who you know does the same thing you want to do....
and then go through their process and observe, record the steps involved.
When I worked in corporate, one of my goals was to develop an online booking system that would replace an existing paper based system we used - that was slow and inefficient.
I wanted a system that would allow parents and young people to book onto activities without them having to manually complete a booking form and deliver it to our central admin office.
I knew exactly what I needed that system to do, and I also knew that it was not a unique system.
However, because of the corporate red tape, we could not use many of the web based solutions that existed.
So what I did was looked at those existing options, and create a features list for the system we wanted.
We basically needed a scaled down version of events listing and booking site Eventbrite.com.
A site where our visitors could view a list of activities and book on the ones of interest to them.
My plan - I recruited 2 third year students from a local college to develop the system for us as a project.
The students jumped at the opportunity to take what they had been learning in the classroom and implement it in the real world.
The college also supported this project as it was great PR for them.
We got what we wanted at the fraction of the price.
And guess what?? - it worked great!!
I’ve since heard that the booking system is into its 4th year now, and has been refined and improved over time.
As a bonus - those 2 students went on to set up their own business (with my support) and are now running a web development service.
Result all round
So when planing to develop you system, take a look around
Does the system already exist?
Are there elements of existing systems that you can emulate?
Is there an older inefficient system that you want to update and improve?
Remember - you won’t get any points for reinventing the wheel.
But also - don't steal either.
3. View The System From Different Perspectives
When developing a system It's easy to just start the process from an internal perspective.
Or from your own personal perspective.
Now as the CEO of your business - you have the right to develop a system from your perspective, however, you need to also remember that you’re not necessarily the one who will be using the system on a daily basis.
It’s your roll to ensure that the system is in place, that it's effective and it's efficient.
But keep in mind;
- What the system is for
- Who it should benefit
- Who will be using it
View the system from your team's perspective
I tell my team all the time, that if they can see any blind spots, points of friction and improvements that can be made to make the systems better then I want to know about it.
“Let me know - talk to me - tell me”
In most areas of business, it is the employees that use these systems and processes on a daily basis.
If your team are frustrated and hindered by a snag in the system, this is going to impact on their performance, which will ultimately impact on the overall business performance.
View the system from your customers perspective
If the system and process your developing will be used by your customers, the best thing you can do is ask them “How would you want to be taken through this process?”
You may have an internal preference as to how you want or think the system should work, but if your customers don't like it, it could become a barrier to them sticking with you or referring your business to other people.
“Yeah, they’re ok but the sign-up process was a bit of a pain”.
“The service is good, but I hate the way you have to……”
Ask the question:
What steps / stages in the process are important to the client?
What steps / stages would the client prefer to skip through?
As time has gone on, I have become tired of having to sign up and create an account for new online services I want to use, all of whom are asking for the same data.
I’ve found that if the option is available that I'm using my Google account more and more to sign up.
Why? because I like Google?
No! - Because it’s quicker and easier for me to do that.
I click the “Sign in with Google” button - I’m in. I’m done - simple.
So alway view your systems from different perspectives and try to put yourself in the shoes of the users.
4. Only Use Automation To Improve The Process
With all the technology today - many people make the mistake of thinking that automation will automatically make something better.
Yes - in many cases automation can improve a process, if it is appropriate.
However, automation can actually make a process worse.
In his article : Sales Productivity Secret: Automation Isn’t Enough
Brandon Redlinger - Growth leader at PersistIQ share this dilemma…
“How do you balance automation with personalisation?”
He goes on tho say…
“Automating too much of the process can actually set you back in terms of productivity. If the ultimate goal is to close deals and increase revenue, some interactions require a level of personal attention that automation can’t (and very often shouldn’t) provide.”
And he’s right!
We are human beings - and people like to deal with other people.
Virtual CEO and author of Virtual Freedom - Chris Ducker calls it p2p (person 2 person).
So I guess you could say I’m a bit of a cyborg.
One thing which really brings the issue of poor use of automation home for me is an automated Direct Message in twitter.
I mean come on??
You follow someone and within about 5 seconds you get a DM from them saying…
“Hey thanks for following me. why not check out my XYZ...”
What?? Everyone knows it automated.
The idea of a DM is that it is from you to me or me to you.
It’s meant to be a personal touchpoint.
The worst thing is often times, the main culprits are people claiming to de digital / social media marketing experts.
Get lost - Unfollow!! - (I know - It's harsh)
A few things that I found works well automated are;
Customer enquiry responses
A simple acknowledgment that your enquiry has been received and and been looked at.
This auto response could include a link to a document that provides answers to your most frequently asked questions , a playlist of tutorial videos or audio podcasts, and links to other useful articles.
A candidate submits a completed application form for a post your recruiting to.
They then receive an auto response signposting them to a webpage with an online test they must complete which forms part of your shortlisting process.
This could include a video or audio welcome and introduction, followed by the instructions of what they need to do next.
It may take a little time to put it together at the front end, but it will save you a ton of time later on down the line.
So the key message here is that automation should only be used to better something.
Don’t get over excited with it.
As I’m writing this, I recently heard about one guy who was on a mission to automate everything that takes him more than 90 seconds of his time - that's a bit much if you ask me!
5. Have a MVS - Minimum Viable System
When I started developing my business systems, a mistake I made was trying to ensure that the system was water tight before I implemented it.
I was allowing my perfectionism to creep in and start messing with things.
I didn't want to give anyone any room to say "Ha.. we’ve spotted a leak!“
Yes, it's good to try to be as thorough as you can, however, it's almost impossible to cover every single step in every single stage.
Because you are not creating the systems and processes for yourself.
You are putting it together for someone else to follow.
So when you see all the bases covered, someone else will look at it and ask
“but what about this here??”
so how do you do that?
With a Minimum Viable System (MVS) you can roll out your core basic process, and have your team walk through the process with you.
Have them ask all the questions as early in the process development stage as possible.
My friend and podcast co-host, Vinay Patanker, CEO of Process.St told me the following….
“..you wanna know if your systems is thorough? Give it to someone who has never done that process before.
He went on to say
“If they can complete the task to the exact required standard without any further input, then you have achieved the result...”
We all know that it is unlikely that will be the case in the first instance.
There are steps in every process that are done without thinking about them.
When I was developing my process for podcast editing , I thought I had covered every base.
I created a number of video walkthroughs and even produced a detailed QA check sheet for the VA to work through.
However, the first time my audio editor went through the process, and sent back my podcast audio, I was slightly horrified!
It sounded completely different to all the previous episodes.
Because, much of the effect processing is done by ear.
Yes, I have a standard set of effects and processing module I run the audio through every time, and I produced a list of those processing steps, with some basic guidelines.
I even included some links to some great articles about mixing and mastering podcast audio.
But when it comes to the output of my podcast, it is all down to one thing - how it sounds to me.
So I may run the audio through a compression module at a specific setting, but if I don't like how it sounds, I click undo, tweak the settings and run it again, until I'm happy.
Do I document those setting every time? No.
So after having a conversation with him, I then recorded another video of myself actually doing the processing and actually showing the VA each time I undo an effect added and why.
It was a little tedious, but it worked.
So launch your MVS fast.
6. Don’t Just Tell - Show!
Visual communication is powerful!
The art of communicating messages, ideas and information in a way that can be viewed and understood.
When a visual message is used along side text or speech, it has a greater power to inform, educate, or persuade a person or audience than the written or spoken message alone.
This is especially powerful in education and teaching.
When developing your system, use images, diagrams, screencasts, screenshots, annotation, links to other videos and so on.
The aim is to produce something that someone who has never carried out the task before can pick up and successfully achieve the task to the required standard.
There are no shortage of video tutorials on youtube.
If someone else has put something together, then just use it.
Also, give examples of what the finished product should look / sound / feel like.
If you want an image designing, then provide an example of a previous image that has been designed to the specification you want.
If you want a podcast editing and mastering, then provide an example of an existing piece of audio that you want your podcast to sound like.
This gives your team something to reach for, a point of reference.
Rather than feeling around in the dark, hoping they hit the mark you expect.
You’ve heard me mention that I use screencasts to walk my team through a process.
This is becoming standard procedure.
However, I’m also starting to use screen capture more and more to provide quick, rough and dirty feedback on anything.
Jing is a free screen capture app that lets you capture basic video, animation, and still images, and share them on the web.
Quicktime player also has screen capture capabilities.
I can hit a button in my task bar and start recording my screen and my voice in just a few seconds.
Or it can be dropped in a shared folder and a link sent over to them, and they can be watching and hearing my feedback in a few minutes.
I know for myself, I learn and understand things much clearer and quicker if I can see it.
So don't just tell me something - but show me.
7. Don't Be Afraid To Break The System
Author, entrepreneur and marketing thought leader Seth Godin introduced me to the concept of Breaking the system - and I love it!
The old saying goes “if it ain’t broke, don't fix it”
The new saying is “if you want to improve it, you have to be willing to break it”
But what does that really mean?
I’m sure you’ve seen or heard that quote being pushed around social….
“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”
I’ve seen this quote attributed to Henry Ford, Anthony Robbins, Mark Twain and others,
So I don't know who to credit, but none the less, the saying is true!
My version of the saying goes like this….
“If you want to see different results, do something different”
You will have invested a lot of time and energy in developing and implementing your system and it may be working well.
However, once you have all your systems functioning and your business is ticking away nicely, your job as the CEO, founder, managing director, president, or whatever other title you choose to hold, is to improve each of those systems.
Your job is to break the system.
It’s all about growth, change and innovation.
There are a few ways you can do this;
A/B Split Testing
A/B testing is a great way of figuring out what works best with different user groups.
These could include internal team members or external customers.
It can be used to test everything from the written messages you use on your webpages or in your Ads (Copy), down to the colours you use on your marketing materials and on website buttons.
It’s all about testing and optimising what works best and then implementing those results.
Here’s another extremely detailed guide of how to do split testing
Have fun with it!
A focus group is a small group of people, typically around 8 in total, brought together to take part in a focused discussion, evaluation and assessment of a specific product or topic.
The session is facilitated by a moderator who takes the group through a set series of questions or themes related to the topic.
Focus groups are another way of finding out how you can improve and optimise your systems.
You can run a focus group session internally with your team members or with a group of people from your target market.
This approach is great for encouraging and generating new ideas, however, the moderator (which will probably be you) must keep the session focused.
One effective approach when facilitating a focus group is not to ask the question…
“How can we improve the system? or what changes can we make to the system?”
But better to ask….
Here is step A in the process, what can we do to make it ... [insert the improvement you would like to see]
This helps to maintain the focus of the specific options, rather than leaving it open.
Don't be afraid to break the system.
If you don't currently have documented systems and processes governing your business activity, I encourage you to start the process of developing and implementing them as soon as you can.
Documented systems are your route to business success and freedom from the trap that many small business owners find themselves in.
“Working in the business, rather than on the business”
Call to action
Start your documentation process today!
- Grab a pen, some paper and/ or some sticky notes
- Identify the current processes you have in place for your core business activities - (You will have a process for most of what you currently do, though they may not be documented)
- Choose one of those processes - (e.g.Lead generation / new client on boarding)
- Using the sticky notes - Write down each and every step / stage of the process. - (order is not important at this stage)
- Once you’ve captured all the steps / stages - lay them out in a logical order.
- Document that workflow somewhere - e.g. Process Street, Evernote or a simple Google spreadsheet.
- Launch your prototype - Run tests - record and measure the results
- Continue the process of refining the process