This is a guest post by Benjamin Brandall, a writer on productivity, SaaS and startups at Process Street.
Ever had to listen to yourself repeating the same instructions to coworkers? Or struggling to remember how to complete a task you last tackled a month ago? Remember feeling frustrated by the time and effort wasted? It doesn’t have to be this way.
You need Jane to take over some of your tasks because you’re moving onto another project.
It all seems simple enough to you, but there’s a lot of moving parts – and plenty of margin for error.
There are email templates you’ve been using for months, and pages of guidelines to stick to.
You explain the general idea to Jane before signing off with an admission of guilt.
The best way you can think of to say that you know you haven’t explained a task properly is: “Let me know if you have any questions”.
A week later, you find everything is a total mess.
Consistency of work is all over the place, and you wonder “How did this make it through the approval process?’.
Then you remember: there is no approval process. At least to Jane’s knowledge.
For you, the task was simple. For anyone else it was a confusing nightmare.
Our success lives and dies by the quality of our processes
A thorough set of processes is what separates success from an embarrassing shambles.
It may sound boring and bureaucratic, but trust me – you don’t know the meaning of the word boring until you’ve explained the same task over and over to different people.
And the great thing is that you can create processes for pretty much anything.
As a rule of thumb, I recommend you formalize processes for any task you do more than twice.
That’s why processes are 100% necessary for success in our roles, and ultimately for businesses too.
What exactly is a process?
To summarize in a sentence: a process is a set of instructions for carrying out a specific task.
For example, as a writer I often need to edit content for various purposes, meaning I regularly use an editing process. Here’s a sample of it:
- Wait for a day before editing
- Split the article into sections
- Check for spelling and grammar errors
- Check for inconsistent phrases
- Fact-check the article
- Remove adverbs and filler words
- Convert from the passive voice to the active voice
Now, obviously these simplified task overviews aren’t all that’s in the process. You’re going to need to flesh out the steps with text, maybe images, videos or file uploads.
For example, with the 2nd step, I’ve added clarifying information:
Since we’ve made creating processes our topic of expertise, as well as using Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for ourselves, we also create SOPs for our customers so they can systemize things like client data backup and software deployment.
While you’d expect process creation to take a lot of time, it generally takes an hour or two at first but pays off massively in the long run.
The editing checklist shown above took me an afternoon to create (it’s detailed, but most of it is for training purposes, not execution) and has been used ever since to train new writers.
Another vital process we’re currently perfecting is our customer support process. For support trainees, it covers exactly what to do with 95% of the tickets we get in.
Since leads could theoretically ask us about anything, it has taken a long time to perfect. It includes references to saved replies, procedures for sales and marketing, as well as how to test and report technical issues.
Sometimes there’s nothing you can do to make a lightweight process, because it’s better to make a process that covers all eventualities than it is to make one that falls through most of the time.
Now I’ve shown you some examples, I’ll tell you how we write them.
How to write the perfect process
In your experience with SOPs, you might have seen a couple of different kinds:
- Option #1: Ruthlessly thorough, legal document-style processes.
- Option #2: Amateurish, incomplete processes
Both of them have the same common issue: usability. This brings me to my first point:
The current assignee should write the process
In The Checklist Manifesto — one of the best books about processes — the author interviews Daniel Boorman, the man in charge of writing SOPs for pilots at Boeing.
“Bad checklists are vague and imprecise. They are too long; they are hard to use; they are impractical. They are made by desk jockeys with no awareness of the situations in which they are to be deployed. They treat the people using the tools as dumb and try to spell out every single step. They turn people’s brains off rather than turn them on.” — Daniel Boorman
Not only will it waste an unnecessary amount of time having someone learn a task from scratch so they can write a process, it will probably be a perfect how-to guide on how to make a quick job long-winded.
Someone with experience doesn’t just know a way to do it, they know the best way to do it.
So the best person to write up a process is the one currently performing the task itself.
Write like you speak
No one’s going to be impressed by your ability to complicate their job, so it’s best to write in the tone you’d use to speak.
- Option #1: Input the contents of document 368 into the “body” field before depressing the “send” element.
- Option #2: Paste this: [content here]. Hit send.
If option #1 wasn’t so verbosely hilarious, it’d be enough to bore anyone to quit their job. Option #2 is the clear winner in this fictitious comparison because it’s clear, concise and intelligible.
A pair of fantastic resources I often reference for this are:
Politics and the English Language — George Orwell
On Writing Well — William Zinsser
You’d be surprised at how Orwell’s essay on political language translates to writing processes.
The process for creating a process
This means I can naturally do the task then properly write the process and not slip up by trying to do too many things at once.
Once I’ve got a draft I’ll check if it’s concise or if I’ve overlooked anything. I’ll screenshot the screencast and annotate them using Evernote, then send it over to the person who needs to follow it with the original screencast attached.
Either by sitting next to them or video calling them, I’ll be there while the assignee goes through the process, and see if there are any parts that are unclear.
If they make a mistake, I know it’s my fault for not optimizing the process, so I edit it as I go so it doesn’t happen again.
After that, it’s all smooth sailing.
I usually make good use of the last step to demonstrate my keen sense of humor:
And there you have it.
From now on your only operational problems will be the result of un-optimized processes, which is much easier to fix than days of shabby work.
Any tips or stories to share about processes? Let me know in the comments!