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Q&A: Brass Tacks Operations - Where to start?

Last Friday, I was thrilled to be a part of the Innovation Women @ Home Virtual Summit. This collection of over 50 expert speakers covered topics as diverse as Meditation for High Achieving Women (um, I needed that), Pivoting Your Sales Strategy, Trauma Informed Leadership, and Resisting The Lure Of More (um, I needed that too). And I could go on. Really, I could - you can watch one session replay a week for the rest of the year!

My session was called "Brass Tacks: Building Your Operations Foundation". Luckily, I'm a lively speaker because this topic seems a little boring, right? Maybe, but a good foundation of processes, policies and templates is absolutely necessary if you want to build and grow a successful organization. We talked about why effective operations are important, how to identify your roadblocks, and some basic tools for overcoming them.

My favorite thing about leading a workshop is the discussion that follows, so I'm sharing a bit from our Q&A. Do you have a question to add? You can ask it here, download the workshop guide here and find an upcoming workshop here.


Q: We have nothing documented. It’s overwhelming and I don’t know where to start.

A: It can be hard to know what to tackle first. The good news is – you can only start one thing first. Band news is – you can only start one thing first! My suggestion is to ask yourself some questions: What is frustrating you the most? What would have the biggest customer service upside? What do you find yourself doing again and again? Is there a place you’re most concerned with not using your resources well? Make a list, prioritize it and get to work. A handful of processes, policies and templates that really help you day-to-day is an excellent start, and can really make a difference.


Q: We have some old processes that we haven’t used in years. Should we just start over?

A: I’d dust them off for a review. You’ll find some nuggets that are helpful and will be a good guide toward what to improve next. You’ll also find some things that you wish you’d looked at sooner, and some items that are laughably outdated. It is often easier to have something to build from than to start with a blank page. So get your red pen ready! At the very least you’re in the enviable position of having a view of what’s changed and how far you’ve come.


Q: Do I need a fancy software to house and keep track of my processes?

A: Nope. There are fancy systems out there, both to help you draft your process and to store and keep track of them. They’re helpful, but can be a hurdle to getting started and are often expensive. I still write most of my operations plans in a word document, and I’ve been at it a long time! You may eventually want to get more sophisticated, or a client or reporting need might require you to, but don’t let that slow you down. It is helpful to have a uniformity to your processes, policies and templates, so settle on common formats, fonts, headers, images, and anything else that will be recognizable and consistent from document to document.


Q: Are policies always legal documents?

A: Not always. There are certainly some policies that you’ll want to have an attorney look at, especially customer facing documents like customer contracts or usage agreements. But there are many policies that simply help you organize and set expectations and don’t require incurring the cost of legal review. For example, I have a client that put in place an attendance policy for the peer advisory groups it runs. You may have an internal policy that regulates when customers are offered a discount, or how employees request personal days, or how often product descriptions are updated.


Q: I like not having to start from scratch each time I draft a document, but I’m not sure that I understand how templates can help me be more efficient. Can you give an example?

A: Yes! The tried and true spot for a good template is in your business development process. You’re likely sending emails when you first contact a potential customer, again when you follow up, again with details for your first meeting, etc. Don’t write these from scratch each time! Instead, build a document with a few fields that can be customized each time you need it. Where else are you constantly starting from the beginning? You need a template!


Q: How do you handle building processes with a cofounder?

A: Having a cofounder makes a lot of thing about starting a business easier. But there is sometimes the question about who does what, and how to agree on what needs to be done. (Not just about processes, about everything! But that’s another post). If you’re having trouble agreeing that processes are necessary at all, pay attention to where you’re feeling stuck and what feedback you’re receiving from your employees and customers. As far as who is responsible for processes, I’ve found that one cofounder is often stronger at the “operations stuff” and naturally gravitates toward that work. It is helpful to have one person draft the first version, the other give it a reality check, and then look it over together as you finalize. A cofounder relationship has this built in!


Q: As a startup, is it possible to do too much, to “overprocess”?

A: I love this question, because I’m an “overprocesser” - that’s why I do this work! You’re already ahead of the game if you’re worried about doing too much in regards to documentation and likely have the important things down on paper. But yes – you can do to much in the beginning! Why? Especially with a startup, things change fast. You could spend a lot of valuable time writing, rewriting, and finalizing a process, only to have it change the next week - or the next day! I’d suggest picking a few places that need an operations plan the most (see the questions above) and letting the drafting process be your friend. Review, add to and take away from before you worry about making it final. Let it sit for a while as you do the work, get to know the customers and figure out best practices, and then call it official. You’ll learn a lot along the way.


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By the way, you can still purchase a ticket to watch the Innovation Women @ Home Summit on replay for just $29!

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