Originally published on Inc Magazine’s Process Playbook column by Chris Ronzio
Everyone wants a business that is easy to operate. But the unintended consequence of too much instruction might surprise you.
Ever since Ray Kroc brought McDonald’s to the masses, entrepreneurs have aspired to simplify and streamline their repeatable processes, boiling complex business operations down to easily trainable tasks.
But, there is a danger in going too far. If your goal is to dummy-proof your business, think again.
According to Reed Hastings, founder of Netflix, the unexpected consequence of simplifying your business model is that your incoming talent won’t be as high-achieving. He shared on the “Masters of Scale” podcast, “What we failed to understand is by dummy proofing all the systems that we would have a system where only dummies wanted to work there.”
Think about that for a minute.
If, inside your business, every decision is driven by policy instead of by people, there will be no room for autonomous, creative, talented individuals to think for themselves and to drive your business forward.
Netflix’s story is no exception — it always happens the same way. An organization starts off as a nimble startup, naive to all of the problems that it is bound to encounter.
Then, over time, as those problems pop up, policies and procedures are developed like body armor to protect the company from making the same mistakes again. Little by little, bureaucracy creeps in, and if you’re not careful you can end up under a mountain of red tape.
So, how do you balance the benefit of developing standard operating procedures without killing your cool startup vibe?
As CEO of Trainual, I’ve seen thousands of companies do this right. Here’s how:
Start with less detail than you think.
They say the best camera is the one you have with you. Similarly, the best written process is the one that is actually written. You don’t need a lot of detail out of the gates.
Maybe you’ve set out to create a comprehensive set of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), and you’re stuck. Here’s the secret: you’re probably overthinking it.
When you’re getting started, the less detail the better. Even if you’re a perfectionist by nature, your SOPs should not be your Sistine Chapel. It will exhaust you, and likely bore your employees to tears.
If your team needs more detail, they’ll ask for it! This bottom-up approach to documentation is a lot less burdensome, and a lot easier to keep up. Add detail over time, as requested.
Document your best practices, not your worst ones.
Netflix’s story is all too common. Most policies and procedures are created as a reaction to a problem.
If you’re constantly plugging holes in the ship, you’ll have no time to build a better ship.
Instead, your documentation should be driven by your team’s positive performance. In every area of your business, there is someone doing something right. There is a best practice for everything.
So, crowdsource your documentation by empowering your best performers to write down what’s working, and share it with the rest of the team.
Your rules are made to be broken.
When rules are written in stone, it means one of two things. Either you’re a dictator and not open to feedback, or your organization moves too slow to adapt to new best practices.
Think of your policies and procedures like the leaderboard on arcade game. As soon as someone comes up with a better way to do something, it should rise to the top as the clear and obvious winner, and everyone should recognize it.
At Facebook, there are about 10,000 different versions of the platform running at any given time, because its developers are constantly in competition to improve their own metrics. When a new feature or design outperforms the standard, the standard is re-written. Your business should run the same way.
You must curate as you create.
Over years of documenting, your business will evolve. Some processes will change and others will be totally irrelevant, so its your job to keep your collection up to date.
At minimum, schedule some time each year — perhaps during your annual planning — to scan through your SOPs and prune the list. Larger organizations should do this every 90 days, or more frequently, so that the clutter doesn’t confuse countless new hires.
Give everyone in your organization the authority to edit your processes, or at least to suggest edits as they review them, but select one person in the company to take ownership over the system in full.
Developing standard operating procedures shouldn’t mean dummy-proofing your business. If you empower your team to capture their best practices, challenge them to constant improvement, and keep your content clutter free and clear, you’ll rid the company of dumb mistakes without killing the culture.