I recently went on (stay)vacation (shoutout to my clients and team members for creating an environment where vacation time is actually a thing). Now, besides the complete surreal nature of taking a vacation at this particular time in history, something else became very clear in my absence. During the day-to-day minutiae, I had forgotten to teach my client how to fish.
Yes, I’m mixing analogies here between “Goldilocks” and “Give a person a fish…”. Bear (heh) with me a moment.
While I was out, my client wanted to implement a web form change. The process of the change should have been pretty straightforward and easy to do. But in our general busy-ness, I hadn’t stopped to show, explain, or document this very specific—though infrequent—task I do for her. So, as it ended up, my client and the team member who stepped in while I was unavailable couldn’t figure out how to update a web form in the way that works best for my client’s business set up.
(In my own defense, I do keep good documentation of higher-level, frequent tasks and information otherwise! It’s one of Don’t Panic’s best practices.)
When we talk about standard operating procedures (SOPs) on this blog and with our clients, it’s usually geared toward how the client can best help the assistant. But, as my vacation proved, when an assistant is a true business partner sometimes it’s the assistant who needs to create an SOP for the client and teach them how to fish.
In keeping with the Elmo gifs…
tl;dr – SOPs at Don’t Panic go both ways. ????
When Do You Need an SOP? (And When Don’t You?)
Ok, so I didn’t leave explicit instructions or documentation on how to update the web form’s code in Squarespace from Mailchimp. Typically, this is a very simple thing but for formatting and integration reasons, the process includes some more technical details that I didn’t, until recently, think to bother my client with.
Lesson learned. If it’s complicated, document it. Even if you think it’s “too small” or “too infrequent”, document it. Complexity trumps size and frequency when thinking about building helpful SOPs.
- Is lengthy (example: year-end inventory).
- Is complex (example: benefits administration).
- Is routine, but it’s essential that everyone strictly follows rules (example: payroll).
- Demands consistency (example: handling a refund request).
- Involves additional documentation (example: disciplining a staff member).
- Involves significant change (example: installing a new computer system).
- Has serious consequences if done wrong (example: safety guidelines)
- Similar questions are asked repeatedly.
- People seem confused.
- There are too many ways that people interpret the procedure.
Bottom line: If you need to sit someone down to show them how to do something, write a procedure. If you know someone could figure a process out easily enough on their own, don’t waste your time (or theirs!) writing a procedure.
Too Big, Too Small, and Just Right SOPs
This Procedure Is Too Big
A procedure is factual and instruction-based, right? Do Step #1, then Step #2, then Step #3 (and if you’re really good, you throw in visuals and maybe some tips to avoid getting caught at a tricky point in the process). But sometimes you have to leave room for the procedure-follower to make a decision. If your procedure is too strictly laid out, it might actually be overwhelming or confusing.
This Procedure Is Too Small
On the flip side, if you write your procedure assuming that the next person to follow it has all of the knowledge you do, you’re going to leave them without the tools to get the job done. If you don’t include enough information in your procedure, it will cost time instead of save it because the reader will have to start from scratch on any missing steps.
Having a coworker (or assistant!) read your procedure when you’re done is a surefire way to find out whether or not you’ve hit the sweet spot.
This Procedure Is Just Right
Before joining Don’t Panic, my career was built in higher education admin/communication roles, and let me tell you: procedures were ESSENTIAL to my job(s). Higher education, especially, is an incredibly cyclical place; you might spend a ton of your energy and brainpower on getting ready for next semester’s course registration and offerings, to the point where you have it down backward and forward, but then you go a full four months before doing it again.
There is no way you’re going to remember all the nuances to submitting course information for your department. All that hard work you did gaining good working relationships with your faculty and new friends in the registrar’s office has now gone out the window because you forgot to format the course descriptions just so and your courses are still unlisted at 4 pm on day one of registration (????).
If you write yourself a procedure, the whole process will go more smoothly the next time around. And you’ll not only be able to improve on your procedure; you might find areas of opportunity to improve the larger process and help out your organization, business, or client as a whole.
And this doesn’t just apply to things you do periodically. Any time a process can’t be intuited or easily figured out, an SOP helps you and those around you to maximize efficiency. Who doesn’t want that?
But I Don’t Have Time to Write a Procedure
Here’s a potentially hard truth: Yes, you do. Because you must.
There’s no better time to write out SOPs than right now. The world has slowed down. Take advantage of the additional time. It’s worth your while in the long run. Your future self and anyone who comes into contact with your beautifully clear, concise, and infinitely helpful procedures will thank you!
To get started, decide where your SOPs will live (some ideas: Google Drive, DropBox, your project management tool). From there, create a template that’s to be used for all SOPs and start with what you currently have on your plate by recording yourself as you go through a task you’ve deemed as needing documentation.
It doesn’t need to be fancy, though you certainly could make things as fleshed out as you’d like. Just remember, if your documentation process requires documentation… You might want to simplify things a little and find which style best serves your right size SOP.
And, for continuity’s sake…
Bye for now & stay safe and healthy!
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Jenn’s background ranges from IT to creative writing, making her a natural curious doer. Over the last decade, she's developed her professional writing, communication, and marketing skills because she's not afraid to ask questions, click around, and find the answer. Jenn is fixated on developing processes, creating templates, and designing workflows that help bring order and ease to everyday tasks. Outside of being a professional renaissance woman, Jenn enjoys a good cup of earl grey, dabbling in poetry, and working on her next book one word at a time.
Work superpower: Master planner
Favorite cheese: Blueberry, lemon, and thyme goat cheese
Go-to karaoke song: "Fancy" - Reba McEntire
Beverage of choice: Extra, extra, extra dirty Grey Goose martini
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