Daniel Schutzsmith: Follow Thy Checklist and Prosper

During FITC Toronto 2015 I had the opportunity to hear Daniel Schutzsmith talk about project management in creative enterprise. In case you’ve never attended an FITC event, part of FITC is about dreaming big and fearlessly taking on life-changing projects. Another part of FITC is about actually getting them done. (For a full conference re-cap, click here.)

Daniel Schutzsmith’s talk was strongly in the second category. The main theme was that in a creative enterprise (or legal one), chances are that you’re not running short of great ideas. What may be missing, Schutzsmith says, are the processes that help you consistently deliver great results.

Checklist
Use a consistent check list for routine tasks and quality assurance

Background

After working for 17 different studios and co-founding digital creative design agency Mark & Phil, Schutzsmith shared his wisdom on what it takes to bring process into creative firms. The first step for entrepreneurs and agency owners is to get processes out of their heads. Answering over-the-shoulder questions on how to do things works when a company is five people or less. Larger teams quickly swamp managers, eating up precious time with questions that have been answered many times before.

That’s why Schutzsmith recommends we all live by DRY: Don’t Repeat Yourself. Documenting processes in an organization is that simple. In the early days, it actually helped save lives. Doctors eventually adopted a “checklist mentality” after realizing that doing every operation from memory led to some awful mistakes. Now every routine operation runs by checklist, and so should your business.

Clean Up the Mess

To start, Schutzsmith recommends documenting roles in your business. People generally like knowing what’s expected of them. Writing down what’s expected of each team member helps develop a work ethic and builds morale. It’s positive on all counts.

After roles are mapped out, everyone’s attention should turn towards the business. Schedule three sessions over beer or coffee, ideally at least a week apart:

  • Talk about everything that’s going wrong.
  • Talk about everything that’s going well.
  • Decide what the team would like to see working better.

That helps align everyone towards making things work better. Maybe there are things going wrong you’ve never thought of. Invite the usual gripers and the quiet ones. Find out how to clean up the mess before you’re running tight against a deadline.

Plan the Process

After your team has identified critical areas for improvement (for example, sales, HR or training new employees), it’s time to make a process. The final product should be documented, ideally in something simple like a checklist or flowchart. Schutzsmith recommends you find someone on your team who can help get this done. They can’t be too process-focused; it’s important to make room for creativity and freestyling. Similarly, he recommends defining tools but making space for people’s unique favourites. Balance is key, all with a DRY mentality.

A great example Schutzsmith featured in his slides was a checklist for the complete sales cycle. This list could be integrated into a CRM system, so initial contact with a prospect dropped the list in a client manager’s inbox. Processes don’t need to be stifling—ultimately they make time for more creative things.

Share, Evolve, and Scrap Every Process

Once your firm has a basic handle on its processes, Schutzsmith recommended they be openly shared, discussed, tweaked, and ultimately… scrapped entirely.

That’s because processes are living, breathing things. Sure, they change. They should be reviewed every six months. Steps might get obsoleted as teams find better ways. And they should be. Schutzsmith recommends that teams go a step further and throw processes in the garbage every five years. Building on the same skeleton only works for so long. If the entire process isn’t re-invented, we risk becoming dinosaurs.

Schutzsmith ended the talk with a call to action: go do it. Just write down a process. So what’s next on your list?

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