In The E-Myth Revisited, Michael Gerber encourages entrepreneurs to develop business systems, going as far as to suggest we should build our businesses as if we intended to create franchise operations. This idea of process and systems is a popular one—taken to an extreme by people such as Tim Ferris in The Four Hour Workweek. This complete systemization of business activities is rightly pushed back against by many people working in creative fields. The act of creating something new can’t be written out as a series of steps. The individual creator, the artist, is important. That role can’t be just anyone who is able to follow the instructions.
On a recent Startups for the Rest of Us podcast, the discussion was about people versus process. This suggested that you can either value people and their creativity, or you can develop a very process-driven business, where you can slot in any person to step through the tasks. I think there is a middle ground. Documenting procedures for tasks that benefit from a structured approach can leave more flexibility when tackling creative work.
What do we mean by process?
When we turn a task into a process or system, we identify all of the steps we go through to perform that task and make that a checklist. My process for reconciling transactions in Xero is:
- Look at the incoming bank transaction.
- Find the receipt or invoice for this transaction.
- Add the details from the receipt into Xero.
- Check that, if tax has been applied, I have entered the correct rate, and that it is detailed on the receipt.
- Upload a PDF version of the receipt to Xero and also store it in Dropbox named with a reference for the account name it came out of.
- Mark the transaction as reconciled.
This is not creative work, it’s a rote task. Following this practice around bank reconciliations has benefits:
- I know that any reconciled transaction will have an associated invoice or receipt. If I need to produce that proof, I know where they are stored, as the process prevents mistakes caused by me forgetting what to do here.
- It removes friction. I don’t need to expend any energy remembering what to do.
- It makes it easy for me to outsource this task. If I’m bringing on board a new bookkeeper, I can explain this process and be able to see that it is being followed.
By creating a process, I can get this task out of my head. Reconciling accounts isn’t my favorite job, but when I need to do it I can grab a coffee and step through each item on the checklist without spending any time thinking through it. I add these boring but important tasks to a special Context in OmniFocus that contains tasks to work through on those days where I’m having a hard job focusing for some reason.
This is a fairly simple example, but the same method can be applied to more complex tasks in your business. For example, which steps need to be followed when you take on a project with a brand new client? You might include:
- Creating a file (from a template) for their basic information, such as who to invoice, agreed terms and so on.
- Sending them a contract to sign.
- Saving the signed contract.
- Sending an initial invoice.
- Ensuring that payment terms have been agreed.
- Setting them up on a collaboration tool, such as Basecamp or Slack.
- Safely storing any login details you need for their hosting.
Again, this is not creative work. How you go about it might differ from client to client. You might go through this list in person with one client and via email with another. Either way, the checklist ensures that you have agreed payment terms. It ensures you have a contract, and that you have received any assets they need to provide you up front (which could well save you time when you need something and the client is out of the office).
Checklists and process can also help make jobs you find difficult far easier. Perhaps you dislike talking about money with new clients. Sending that email containing the estimate for a job can become an all-day procrastination affair! The checklist can take your mind off the potential result of the interaction and help you focus on performing the steps to get to that point.
Leaving your brain free for creativity
The power of process is that it can free up time and energy to do things that can never be reduced to a checklist. To-do lists stop your brain endlessly having to remember what you need to do today, and process documentation can work in the same way. You no longer need to remember what must happen to complete a certain task. Though often seen as a way to outsource parts of your business, putting process in place can also benefit the one- or two-person business.
If you do go on to expand your business, having good processes can make it far easier to bring in permanent or temporary help. Those tried and tested checklists can be given to someone who can perform the rote tasks, leaving you to do the more interesting creative work.
Most importantly, by not expending effort on the mundane you can leave more time free for the work you love to do—the work that can only be done by you. You can then feel free to put aside all thoughts of checklists and to-do lists and work in exactly the way you know enables your best accomplishments.