January 23, 2013

“What would we do if you were hit by a bus?” (Or in our case….living in the Philippines…a Jeepney!) This is a question Joe and I ask often from both ourselves and the key personnel in our business. We say it jokingly, but it’s become the lexicon in our business that refers to the fact that we must not be the gatekeepers of information. We have to consistently pass on the keys to others as we continue to grow.

The difference between a profitable freelancer and a profitable business is the success with which you are able to transfer skills, automate processes, and effectively remove yourself from the machine. This isn’t as easy as it sounds…many successful freelancers we know spend a ton of wasted time, effort, and energy trying to make this transition and might have been better off where they were.

There are no guarantees here, but your best chance for success will be to create a set of rules or procedures that can be organized and followed by others within your organization that will cut the cord between the IP in your head and your team.

How is this done? Creating Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) empowers your team with the knowledge, process, and guidelines to continue on with what you’ve built so far and allowing you to continue to expand your empire. In this post, we’ll cover how to get this implemented in your business from start to finish with the following steps:

Before we get into the details of how we use SOPs in our business, I wanted to give you a few warnings. We’ve had quite a few discussions recently with friends and peers regarding SOPs and thought I should point out a few cases where this will and will not work:

“Established Process”

If you haven’t worked out many of the details and don’t have a track record of success, you should NOT be worrying about SOPs. They can be helpful for an established, growing business, but are often HARMFUL in the early stages. You can end up handcuffing yourself at a point where your business needs to be extremely nimble. If your business is still in a rapid state of flux, I would recommend waiting until things have settled down.

“Team Blowback”

Some employees (and even partners) believe they work better in a slightly chaotic, ever-changing environment. Creating SOPs will change the dynamics in your company culture and you may come across some resistance. The best way to work through this is to make sure those team members have buy-in and are empowered in the process…more on this later.

“No Quick Fix”

In fact, you’re likely to spend quite a bit of productive time in setting this up and you might feel that time could have been better spent. You have to commit to your SOPs for the long haul…if you’re not ready to do that, Stop. Now. The work is front-loaded and the value is in the long-haul here.

Breaking Down The Process

Ok, so I’ll assume that you already have a working process (either in your head or somewhat documented) that you’re working with. The important things to consider here are:

  1. Linear Vs. Parallel – Which pieces require a previous step to be completed? (Step A and THEN Step B) Which can be done independently and/or in parallel with other steps?
  2. Group By Skillset – Someone that’s particularly capable when it comes to coding may not be the most prolific content writer you have. Even if you have team members that have cross-skills you can utilize now, remember the “What if he/she got hit by a bus” question. Grouping by skillsets will be better for your process in the long run.

Let’s use podcast publishing as an example. I’ll need to have my podcast edited BEFORE I have it transcribed…it’s a required step. Let’s say I’m also looking to have unique cartoon images created for each podcast. That will be a separate, parallel step created in the SOP.

Even if the same guy/gal that creates the image is the person uploading the content to my blog today, I’ll want to break those steps out because I know they’re different skillsets and that may change in the future. If any of the steps require decisions to be made based on a feelings or something much more subjective, I would consider “subjecting decision making” to be a skillset on its own and break that off as its own step accordingly.

Visual Mapping

Once you have those processes broken down it’s usually a good idea to visualize them as well. I like to use a whiteboard in my office:

Podcast Standard Operating Procedures

But you can also use a virtual service like Bubbl.us:

Bubbl Podcast Visual

Don’t worry that this is still fairly basic or high-level…we’ll be getting into the details later. The goal here is simply to make sure that you understand the pieces involved and to make sure you haven’t missed anything. This is pretty straightforward in the example I’m showing you, but I’ve done this for much more complicated projects filling 20+ whiteboards, hundreds of steps, etc.

Tier 1 SOPs – 30K Foot View

Now that you’ve broken down the entire process and have the relationships straight, you’re going to want to document the higher-level steps required to fully complete the project. This Tier 1 SOP will include:

SOP Podcasts Tier 1

If you already have a team that’s been working on this project, this is a great step to involve your Team Lead, Supervisor, etc. You can use your Visual Map as a guideline and your Team Lead can help you double-check the overall process.

Tier 2 SOPs – Documenting The Details

Once you have the Tier 1 SOP completed, you’re going to want to break this down each step even further in your Tier 2 SOPs. This is your opportunity to be as detailed as you like. I would suggest going into enough detail so that you could hand this over to someone that knows the basics and they could muddle through it.

Our Tier 2 SOPs include the same sections we’ve covered above for the Tier 1 SOPs, so I won’t mention them again here…I’ll just mention that the Project Steps will typically go into much more detail and can include sentences or even paragraphs, where required.

At this point, Joe and I will typically leave it up to our Team Leads to work with their teams on documenting the Tier 2 processes, assigning responsibility, adding the FAQ’s, etc. We’ll likely look it over when it’s completed, but we’ve worked with them enough on this and trust that they’ll be able to complete it without us. In fact, because they’re often more involved with the details than we are, they’re significantly better at this level of documentation because they know the process intimately.

If this is your first time going through this with your team, you’re going to want to remain involved and see this all the way through. We’ve written about the skill transfer process in-depth and we also have a podcast episode dedicated to the subject on our other blog and I’d definitely recommend checking those links out. Keep in mind that you’re going to be transferring two skills to your Team Lead or Supervisor here:

  1. The skill or ability to perform each Tier 2 process from start to finish
  2. The skill or ability to work with his/her team in creating the Tier 2 documentation

We’ll use our skill transfer process to ensure the Team Lead competently understands each Tier 2 document and then we’ll bring the rest of his/her team together to show the Team Lead how to involve the rest of the crew in Tier 2 documentation.

Quality Assurance

Once all the documentation has been completed, you’re going to want to review everything one last time to see if there’s anything critical that’s been missed. Once the process has been established and run for a while, you can also implement spot-checks that the Team Lead can perform to ensure the process continues to run smoothly.

Additionally, you’re going to want to schedule regular reviews of the process to implement changes, correct documentation, etc. Depending on the importance and flexibility of the process, you can set monthly or quarterly review schedules for the person responsible for the SOPs. You can and should include quarterly, semi-annual, or annual reviews yourself to ensure everything is up-to-date.

Additional Resources

There are a few mind-numbing resources for writing and implementing SOPs from the EPA and from the State of Maine, but they are overly-complicated, technical, and designed for much larger organizations. Here are our recommendations “for the rest of us”!

I hope you find this helpful as you continue to grow and build your business.  Have anything to add?  Do let us know in the comments below!



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Discussion

Leave a comment
  1. Stacey says:

    Hey guys, this is something I am creating and implementing now. I realized how much time, creative energy and enthusiasm for certain projects was lost last year as a direct result of not having these. I have a question; ” What is a good way of getting old/existing clients educated about the new sop’s and swiftly acclimatized to the new way of working without ruffling to many well-paying feathers?”.

    I have found that quite often business relationships can become tricky because you didn’t manage them well in the beginning, yet starting to put processes, procedures and rules in place mid-flow can confuse and annoy customers. I’d appreciate your insights on this!

  2. Justin Cooke says:

    Hey Stacey,

    Our SOPs are behind-the-scenes and created as internal documents and so acclimating clients to the new process isn’t a problem…it’s baked into the tasks we do for them. If requests to change or new processes are implemented on the client side, we simply add to the standing SOPs we have.

    I’d be careful in pushing SOP creation onto the client if you don’t have to…there’s no need to add friction here and you’ll want this to be as painless and efficient for the client as possible. If setting this up WITH the client is now part of your service or your value-add and you’re looking to implement with previous customers, I would position it as just that…additional value you’re providing them to streamline the process, their work, etc.

    Use a testimonial from a client that you have on track, give them a case study where you saved a client time/money/energy, etc. Handle all of the “work” on your end…make the process fun and the decisions quick and easily made on their end and they’ll appreciate it.

  3. Pilks says:

    Hey Justin, great overview. I’d like to hear more about how you use lastpass to manage access. I’ve always been nervous about agents access levels both to documents and web services. Dropbox and gDrive go some way to protecting from loss of documents (just make sure you share the folder to them and not the other way around!) however logins to web services and accounts is something I’ve not found an ideal solution for. Logins for WordPress and cPanel are also a cause for concern.

    • Justin Cooke says:

      Hey Pilks,

      It’s really a trade-off between automation and security and we recommend pushing as far towards automation as you feel comfortable with, especially as you start to scale and grow your business. There comes a time where you really have to let go of the reigns to get over the hump…even if it presents a security risk.

      When you’re first starting off we typically don’t worry much about security at all. Once we’ve found we’ve got something that looks like a winner, we’ll tighten up a bit to present major disruptions only.

      LastPass allows you to share the password without actually giving it to the person…and you can revoke that access at any point…pretty sweet deal, there.

  4. Solid, well thought out and structured post!

    Jason Ansley
    http://www.ansleyRDgroup.com
    Online Business Management & Consulting Firm

  5. Justin – Very interesting topic. I agree that if you are in early stages of building your business, you shouldn’t be worrying about SOP. But considering SOP can help you structure your regular tasks to eventually be delegated once your business starts to grow.

    I also like the distinction you made between the profitable freelancer and the profitable business. The idea is to gradually replace yourself in the business through delegation.

  6. […] Standard Operating Procedures (SOP’s): Sweet Process – We’d previously used Google Docs, but found it more cumbersome to make changes and keep up-to-date. SP’s object-based steps and easy-to-use images/video made this a team favorite. You can find a bit more about how we use SOP’s in our business here. […]

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