As my company passes 12 employees something I’ve been dealing with lately is getting more and more formalized in the way we operate.
When you’re small (< 5 or 6 people) you can be reactionary and that’s OK. Things will get done and overall you can grow.
But as you get bigger than that there are just too many moving parts to be so reactionary. Things start falling apart at the seams (trust me, it happens no matter how good you are at your job).
A good example is our dev team. We spent a lot of time over the last year investigating and trying out different workflows and methodologies when it comes to the development process.
In the end, we settled on an Agile kind of approach where we break down our workload into 2-week chunks called “Sprints”.
We use Story Points to estimate the workload of a particular feature/improvement/bug instead of hours.
And we conduct short focused meetings to sort our backlog, then conduct another short focused meeting for sprint planning to assign our story points to the tickets.
Everyone knows the format of these meetings and they run like clockwork.
The result? In short, it’s completely transformed the way we develop our products and run our projects for the better.
Reliability and predictability are baked into the process and now that we have been doing it for a while we know exactly how many story points should be added to a sprint in order to get a 2 weekly result.
This “development system” is the result of hours, days and weeks of tweaking, stopping, reversing course, revisiting, talking, debating and analyzing.
But damn, it’s worth it.
Systems Beyond The Development Team
I’m beginning to see the value of systems being deployed throughout an entire organization in the same way.
Imagine the “customer support” system for a second.
In order to give a consistent customer support experience, we need to systemize the way we interact and deal with customer requests. There’s a fixed number of request types so it’s easily systemizable.
For us it looks something like this:
- A customer has not purchased our products yet has a pre-sales question OR a customer who has purchased our products is having a query about using the product or about their account.
- We take those requests via email or via one of our support request forms (which generates a nicely formatted email).
- That email feeds into our customer support ticketing tool (we use Groove) which makes them easier to manage.
- The tickets get sorted into their appropriate mailboxes.
- The level 1 support engineers start from the oldest ticket and work their way forward, aiming to respond to all pending tickets during their shift.
- If a ticket needs to be escalated it’s assigned to a level 2 support engineer who does a similar process.
- Once a ticket has been solved and the customer is happy, we ask them to leave a review on our product listing which provides a positive image to our future prospective customers.
In reality, there are a few more nuances to it than that, but overall that is the main process.
So what about other parts of the company? Marketing?
Marketing is a very big part of the company and something I’ve tended to take on myself, but I was reminded this morning that a company cannot grow unless you have a system of growth in place.
Marketing can be systemized as well and while we have some systems in place, it’s an area I think we can systemize even further.
Systems Are Never “Done”
When you approach business building in this way, with systemized thinking, you might be forgiven for thinking that once you build the “perfect” system, it will run itself.
In my experience that’s just not true.
Over the years my job has shifted more and more to managing these systems and I’ve realized that the system is never “done” because there are always improvements that can be made.
As you go along you find things that aren’t quite working right, things that can work better, things you think could be improved by replacing part of that system or automating part of that system.
Technology evolves, people evolve in their job roles and there are more un-factored variables too that can affect your “perfect” system.
These outside influences are out of your control, So that, by definition, means that your system will never be done.
The Big Benefit Of Systems Thinking
The biggest benefit that I’ve seen as the output of systems thinking is consistency.
It’s hard to be consistent without it:
- Consistent experiences for your customers
- Consistent product
- Consistent development cycles
- Consistent people management
- Consistent marketing
Systems = consistency across your whole company.
Writing These Systems Down
Honestly, this is probably the part that the team and I have struggled with the most.
Writing down processes seems like “extra work” for very little benefit.
That kind of thinking is fine for companies with less than 8 or 10 staff members. There is a natural siloing that happens where information about certain topics is assigned to a particular person and that system mostly lives in that person’s head.
But what happens when that person leaves or changes job or someone else comes in under them or alongside them?
Usually, there’s an information download that happens from that person’s brain to the other person. But this process could be incomplete for various reasons such as the person forgets parts of it or they don’t want to share all the information to protect their position, etc.
If the process is written down or documented somehow, that makes the whole thing easier and more reliable and these information downloads are less risky. There is of course still going to be some information siloing in people’s heads, but it’s likely to be more specific stuff, not whole processes.
One thing I’m experimenting with at the moment is writing these systems down in flowcharts.
My aim here is to give a high-level view of the system. That lets me, the manager, see the whole system in one view.
My dream is to have a giant flow chart that lets me see the whole company and all it’s interconnected systems in one view. Now that I’ve started writing the systems down, I can now see this is possible, which I’m pretty excited about.