Managing two coworking spaces I need to be 100% on top of customer service at all times, no exceptions. Mind you, this is not only limited to customer service, but also includes building management, billing, sales and marketing, as well as, keeping an eye on my remote team, all while moving back and forth between offices. There are a lot of moving parts, which as you can imagine, can get exhausting at times.
The biggest saviors to my sanity and productivity for this job has been basic cloud service programs that are tried and true: TabCloud, Google Drive and Boomerang.
I can expound on the copious amounts of times that all three of these have provided the mental effort that I was too exhausted to conjure up on my own, however, I will spare you on those tedious narratives and specifically speak to how TabCloud has saved my sanity. I can almost recall the day I discovered it– what I was wearing and where I was — it was a revolutionary time in my life. It is difficult not to wax poetic about a resource that has been transformational to the way I operate. TabCloud has enabled me to separate the many facets of my business life in a clean and concise manner. I log into no less than eight programs (I like to call them “friends”) to start my day; billing software, Trello, calendars and reservation software. I have 17 sites that I use on a daily basis. They forever keep me company.
TabCloud enables me to pivot from backend information to front facing apps without a moment of lag. If a member has a question about billing, printing, etc. I’m able to go through the program step-by-step with them, while switching to my admin view to be sure all information is syncing correctly. It has also helped me change my mindset when going from “accounting” to the more fun ”marketing” component. I’m truly am able to be more effective in each task with the help of TabCloud.
The remote access is the biggest salvation. I’m able to go to any of our offices, login to the work computer with all my daily “friends”, and within a flash they are up and ready to work – even when I’m not! Now those are quality friends. I no longer even need to be at work to do work (hooray????).
Technology is wonderful, but it isn’t useful if it’s not easily accessible. Being able to organize my sites and have them all available at the click of a single button is tremendously helpful. I remember my mother saying “if only there were two of me I could get everything done.” It is through these cloud-based services that I’ve been able to duplicate my brain space to bear less of the burden.
Last week I met with a company to discuss their transition into a full-featured CRM (Customer Relationship Management) environment. Currently, they’re primarily using Act and pen and paper to track their thousands of contacts. Obviously, this is unacceptable. Post-it notes and napkins aren’t exactly efficient.
Their story is a typical one: for years, they’ve been meaning to step into a CRM – to move forward into a new age of efficiency and clarity – but they’ve never been able to pull the trigger on any solution. Like most organizations, they’ve been paralyzed by two competing fantasies – one of idealized success and one of catastrophic failure. The fantasy of failure is an easy one to understand: what if they step into a problematic system that ruins their company as whole? (After all, fear of commitment is not unique to 30-something year-old bachelors) Fortunately, this distopian fantasy is not hard to overcome, we deal with it so often in our everyday decision-making that we can see it for what it is – a phantom materialized by simple fear.
Fortunately, this distopian fantasy is not hard to overcome, we deal with it so often in our everyday decision-making that we can see it for what it is – a phantom materialized by simple fear.
The fantasy of success, however, is much harder to pin down. In fact, it is this delusional idealism that has been plaguing this company the most. Every time they’re about to choose a system to implement, they start comparing it to this utopian fantasy. Sure, this CRM can track my contacts and how I’ve communicated with them, but it doesn’t plug directly into my phone system; Or Salesforce is great for tracking most of the process, but does it sync with my coffee maker to make me coffee once a lead has been successfully converted. The more time they spend thinking about the solution, the more ridiculous the utopia looks.
So, how does someone break free from the shackles of fantasy? Well, like everything, I think the trick is to think logically. In Part 2 of this post, I will break down how I would organize my thoughts in order to make an informed decision on choosing the right technical solution (in this case, picking a CRM).
I’m no fan of meetings (you can read more about that here). Occasionally, they’re highly effective tools for communicating; usually, they’re time-sucking ego-fests where nothing gets done and nobody learns anything. Here are 9 tell-tale signs that your meeting is going to suck.
Lunch has been ordered for all of the attendees; the meeting started at 9:00 am.
The meeting is titled “How Salesforce Will Solve All Your Problems;” you’re in the IT department.
The host is going to show everyone a keynote presentation; her laptop is a PC.
The meeting is about business processes and how they can be improved; the host is a motivational speaker and the meeting is titled “If You Can Envision it, Then it’s Already Happened.”
The meeting is scheduled for 4:30 pm on a Friday; the host is your recently-divorced CEO.
The meeting is titled “New Marketing Strategies for 2013;” it’s hosted and organized by the IT department.
There are 6 people in the meeting; three of them are board members that are just “sitting in.”
The host has a portable disk drive with his multi-media presentation on it; he couldn’t fit the whole thing on a thumb drive.
In-house counsel has decided to call a surprise meeting; as you step into the conference room, you see IT staff sneaking into your office.
For most of my youth, when I would hear someone use the term BPM, I just assumed that I was speaking to a DJ (beats per minute). Eventually, I came to spend more time working and less time dancing, and BPM came to mean something completely different. Although Business Process Management isn’t quite as edgy as “Beats Per Minute,” it is exciting in its own right.
These days, Business Process Management is more than just workflows and processes used to conduct business. Although most b-school grads and consultants will give you an abstract and somewhat nebulous definition of bpm – an iterative process cycle that emphasizes improvement – the fact of the matter is that modern bpm is completely dependent on technology. Trying to implement a business process life-cycle without the use of complicated software is just not possible. Organizations are so large, complicated, volatile, and cumbersome, that no single human (or group of humans) could even think about overseeing the entire bpm life-cycle without assistance from our silicon friends.
I hate to say it but, those glorious days of decision makers understanding all of the organization’s processes, writing out marching orders to managers on pieces of paper and watching the money flow are over. Firstly, most decision makers know as much about their organizations as drivers know about the cars they drive. Sure, they know that they can go left, right, faster or slower, but they have no idea what is going on under the hood or what processes enable them these actions. We all get along fine driving our cars without knowing what’s going on under the hood, but any manager worth her salt will tell you that unlike machines, people need feedback, not just directions. Smart employees need to understand why they are being asked to do the things they do and smart managers need to be able to understand, at a high level, what’s going on under the hood in order to make decisions and rationalize their marching orders.
With these needs in mind, it makes sense to define Business Process Management as a centralized set of tools and processes that automate, optimize, manage, and analyze work and the workers within anorganization. If that sounds an awful lot like an ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) system, that’s because it essentially is just that: an ERP with a specific set of goals, focused on maximizing efficiency and optimizing business processes. A magical machine forged from the dreams of smart managers, developers, engineers, workers, project managers, and anyone else who has ever worked in a large, complicated environment. The only problem is, this machine is usually more of a fantasy than reality.
Nearly 50% of all ERP systems fail before they’re even implemented. And most end up under-utilized by the people that they’re supposed to serve. With this blog, I hope to break down some of the problems with modern bpm and erp systems and describe some useful tricks for small and medium-sized businesses so they can leverage technology and get automated and optimized.
For the most part, meetings are the black holes of the office universe. They start out as a galactic dance of massive egos – gaseous bodies spinning around each other – and eventually converge into a single gravitational force. Soon, the gravity of this cosmic abomination begins to suck into itself time, space, and every productive person within ear shot of the conference room. Once you’re in, there is no getting out. You’re stuck: Trapped in a vacuum of eternal blackness, accompanied only by your coworkers and a never-ending supply of PowerPoint slides, “humble opinions” and white board notes, each floating by just out of reach of reality. You have been caught in the office singularity event, and your only hope now is that the host will get hungry soon.
Needless to say, I hate most meetings. But I realize that they are an invaluable part of the organizational process; not all meetings turn into violent, astronomic events.
80% of meetings are violent black holes, 19% are just ‘good,’ and about 1% approach greatness…
Some meetings – the really good ones – are actually very productive. In fact, a good meeting is probably the best way to communicate concepts, confirm that everyone is on the same page, and make well-informed, real-time decisions. Heck, on occasion you might even have the chance to be in a great meeting, a place where people work together to come up with innovative ideas and clever solutions that would otherwise not be possible. In keeping with the astronomy metaphor, those great meetings are where stars are born (i.e. Adwords, the iPhone, or even Justin Bieber). The problem is, 80% of meetings are violent black holes, 19% are just “good,” and about 1% approach greatness – not the best odds.
The Meeting is a Business Process
Regardless of how dismal they can be, meetings are invaluable tools in a successful organization. Although Basecamp, Salesforce, Evernote, and every other collaboration tool will try to tell you differently, a meeting – I’m talking real human interaction – is the most powerful form of communication possible. Discussing a problem or idea with other people in a real-time dialogue is exponentially more powerful than disguising monologues in fancy PowerPoint presentations. The best collaboration happens when people talk (remotely or in the same space).
The Profile of a Productive Meeting
Before I show you how Google Forms can help you improve the odds of having a successful meeting, let’s break down what a productive meeting looks like.
Everyone that is involved in the meeting has something to say or something to learn. One of my pet peeves when entering a meeting is seeing unnecessary participants. Every single person in a meeting should either have something to contribute or should need to know every detail of the meeting – unsolicited opinions are for pundits and fashion bloggers.
At least one decision must be made or a problem must be solved. Why invite six people into a room (that doesn’t include cocktails) if you don’t absolutely need their input to make decisions or solve problems. Before a meeting starts, know what decisions you have to make and what input you need in order to make those decisions.
The meeting should have a clear, well-defined agenda. Every single participant should be – well before the meeting begins – aware of the agenda and raison d’être of the meeting.
The solutions to 1, 2, and 3 seem pretty self-explanatory. One, don’t invite everyone and her secretary to your meeting – this is not a bat mitzvah; two, be ready to make some decisions and solve some problems; and three, think of what you want your meeting to be about and make sure is clear to everyone involved. All of this seems easy enough, but what it requires is a great deal of preliminary work. In fact, the work you do setting up a meeting is just as important as the actual meeting itself.
Meetings are NOT Lectures, Everyone has an Agenda
At some point in the last 10 years, “setting up a meeting” began to mean sending out calendar invites. As if having everyone in the same room would be enough to generate some cosmic levels of productivity. Well, the birth of a black hole is definitely a cosmic event, but it’s not very productive for an organization. In order to have a highly focused and productive meeting, you need to have a highly focused and productive agenda. That’s easier said than done.
It’s not always easy to know what the true focus of a meeting will be. Sure, you might have your agenda, but once you put five opinionated people in a room, a whole lot of new agendas suddenly appear. For an occasional narcissist like myself, this is completely unacceptable. Not to mention, it’s very unproductive . So, how does one manage to create a focused meeting with an agenda if the agenda is not easily predictable?
The Pre-Meeting Questionnaire
First, let me say that the “Pre-Meeting Questionnaire” is not necessary for every meeting. Sometimes, you know your colleagues well enough (and you’re all professional enough) that a meeting plays out like a John Coltrane jam session – each attendee hits his or her notes at all the right times, and beautiful music is made. Unfortunately, that’s usually not the case.
Usually, you end up in a meeting with a bunch of amateurs and all you can do is pray that you’ll eventually be released from the vortex and get back to the business of working. For those occasions, a “Pre-Meeting Questionnaire” might just save you from such a catastrophe.
The idea behind the questionnaire is very simple: send out some questions to those that you wish to invite to the meeting, and get a feel for what their agenda might be. This sounds simple enough. The hard part is making sure to have questions that do not insult potential attendees but do get them to reveal their agendas.
I like to use a simple introduction to my questionnaire that explains the need for such a document and then I jump right into the questions. Here is sample:
I’m looking forward to our meeting tomorrow. In order to put together an agenda for the blah blah blah meeting this afternoon, I’ll need some input from all of you. Please answer the following questionnaire so that I can make sure to account for any specific concerns or ideas.
At this point, I usually have a link to an online questionnaire that they can use to keep track of their responses. Why the questionnaire? Well, if meetings are a business process, then we should treat them like important ones. The online questionnaire tracks and simplifies this preliminary step. More importantly, it adds gravitas to your meeting.
Using Google Forms to Discover the True Agenda of a Meeting
Firstly, you should know that Google Forms is free. This is an important distinction because I don’t like paying for things if I don’t have to. To use the product, all you have to have is a Google account and a web browser. Simply log into your Google account here: www.google.com/drive. If you you don’t have a Google account, you can sign up for one there.
Once you’re in, simply press the “Create” button on the upper, left-hand side of your browser. Select to create a new “Form” and voila! You’re in the the new form wizard. From here, you can easily add questions to your form, save your form, add text to the top of the form page, and send a link to your form to anyone that you wish.
Some Canned Questions I Like to Ask in my Pre-Meeting Questionnaires
Does “project/decision/process/problem/outcome” affect your team/department? If so, how and how often? (Usually, this is a resounding “yes!”)
Does this “project/decision/process/problem/outcome” work the way it’s supposed to? Why not?
Based on your judgement, is this “problem” getting worse?
Based on your judgement, is this “solution” working?
How does this “project/decision/process/problem/outcome” impact our organization as a whole?
Obviously, you would have to change the “project/decision/process/problem/outcome” to reflect the subject of your meeting, but the idea is pretty straightforward. At first, you might get some push back, but eventually, people will appreciate having more effective meetings. I like think that everyone, like me, loves an efficient meeting. Every minute you save by finishing early, is a minute you’ve earned to be unproductive elsewhere. After all, nba.com does not check itself.
This is actually a difficult question to answer. The acronym itself stands for Small and Mid-size Business, but what that means is pretty vague. According to the small business administration (government), depending on the sector and the size of the market share of a business, a company making $20 million a year can be categorized as a small business. I know a lot of small business owners that would consider that a pretty large sum.
Most of the organizations that consider themselves within the SMB sector, are actually micro-businesses. If your business was just demoted, I’m sorry. Here are some guidelines that I like to use. They’re based loosely on the European Commissions guidelines as well those used at Big-5 consulting houses.
Small Business: Between 5 and 50 employees (excluding sub-contractors); revenues NOT exceeding $15 million per year
Mid-size Business: Between 51 and 250 employees (excluding contractors); revenue NOT exceeding $50 million per year
Yes, you do. Lists and todos are for grocery stores and dentist appointments – real processes require real, logical steps. If you aren’t already putting together workflows and ordered lists, then you (A) don’t know what these are or (B) think that winging it is just a better way of doing things. For those of you that believe in the Gospel of Wingin’ it, I say this: sometimes, you’re right. Sometimes, it really is just better to wing it and play it by ear – improvise. But sometimes is not always, and even Miles Davis needed sheet music from time to time to get him started.
For those of you that have no idea what a workflow is or have some vague notions of diagrams, charts, graphs, cats, cogs, and gears with arrows sticking out them – fear not. You probably already know how to diagram a workflow. In fact, you probably did this in grade school when you were learning how to brainstorm or every time you played Candyland. You certainly don’t need an MBA and you definitely don’t need an expensive program. All you need is the ability to draw and a list of ordered steps. A workflow is nothing more than each of those steps, laid out in one place, with arrows connecting them in order. The value of a workflow over an ordered list of steps is that you can visualize the process more easily, and you can add some basic logic to your steps, i.e. if my mailman delivers my Netflix DVD today, then I go to step 3, otherwise, I go to step 4. (You’ll see what I mean when we get to an example below.)
Step One: Figure out steps two, three, four…
Some people like to just jump into the drawing part of the process – putting squares and arrows down on paper. I think it’s best to just start with an ordered set of steps. The process I will workflow as an example is “A low-key Friday night.” My steps are laid out below:
A Low-Key Friday Night:
Commute home from work
Pick up some groceries
Arrive at home
Get the mail
Cook some dinner
Open a bottle of wine (or beer)
Wash the dishes
Watch a movie
Read a book
Go to sleep
This seems like a pretty discreet and simple set of steps, but as you’ll see once we put these steps into a workflow, there is a world of logic between each item.
Step 2: Put it in a “Drawering.”
Now that we’ve got the steps down on paper (errrrrr… on screen), we need to start drawing. Each one of these items can be represented by an individual box, or circle, or whatever graphical representation you would like to use. There are all sorts of diagramming standards, but we don’t really care about any of them. Right now, we just want to get started with workflows.
The tool I like to use for drawing out workflows is Google’s Draw. I’m no Google fanboy, but they definitely make some useful products. Most importantly, the app is free and it’s easy to use. You can drag and drop all sorts of shapes and easily add text within the shapes by double clicking. You can access Draw using Google Drive clicking the “Create New” button. Get access to Google Drive, you’ll need a Gmail account (or any Google account). If you don’t already have one, you may sign up here: www.google.com/drive.
As you can see above, I used Google draw to just create boxes that represent each of the steps in my new workflow. So far, this doesn’t look like much, but in the next step, I will add the actual logic to the workflow. Note that the first box is a different color than the other boxes – I consider that the entry point or starting point into my workflow (i.e. the first step).
Step 3: That’s pretty illogical.
At this point, we need to stat adding some logic to our workflow diagram. So far, all we’ve got are actual steps, but in between some of these steps are decisions that determine which step we will take next. For instance, if there is a Netflix movie in the mail, then a movie will be watched, otherwise, it looks like a quiet night with a book. (Obviously, we could also watch TV, but except for NBA playoffs, Friday nights are generally pretty crappy.)
As you can see from the example above, the workflow of the evening is beginning to make a lot more sense. The logic I added accounts for the availability of a movie to watch as well as whether or not I purchased all of the necessary ingredients to make a nice dinner. The one thing it doesn’t account for is that wine is usually paired with a movie or a book, but we can always chalk that bit up to “wingin’ it.”
What’s the point again?
Obviously, my example is somewhat nonsensical. If you need a workflow to step through a Friday evening, then you don’t really understand the point of a Friday evening. However, by using the same process above, you could easily create workflows for some of your more intensive business processes. Say for instance you have a sales department. It would be good to know how leads are generated,and how they are processed once they come in contact with your team. You could map out each individual person’s workflow or the entire process from beginning to end. Heck, you could even make a workflow about how to make workflows (feel free to use this guide as a base) – a kind of meta-workflow… trippy.
The whole point of documenting processes is so that you can more easily understand what is going on. With the “Low-key Friday night example” above, it’s obvious what’s going on – I’m going to turn off my phone, eat something delicious, and get blotto. However, in a complex organization, it’s somewhat difficult to know how things work. By documenting workflows, you can better understand how an organization works, how you can improve the process, and what sort of technology you can use make everything run more smoothly.