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?

Design Firms Do Conferences Differently: FITC Toronto 2015

This past Sunday, April 12 through Tuesday, April 14, Toronto hosted the 14th annual Future Innovation Technology Creativity (FITC) conference. Now in its 14th year, FITC caters to a more design-heavy technology group, featuring equal parts technical workshops, wild parties and inspirational talks. I was able to attend the event as an “official blogger,” or volunteer media personnel. I really enjoyed the introduction to the world of design and digital art–the people who make tech beautiful and easy to use.

Why was I there? I wanted to learn more about creative firms and the challenges they face, because I’d like to have creative agencies as clients one day. If I learned one thing, it’s that a traditional legal marketing approach (focusing on expertise, stuffy speeches and pinstripe suits) is completely foreign to people in the design community. The experiences they share are more raw and honest.

When I arrived at FITC, I noticed right away how different it was from an ordinary conference. The design-conscious organizers made the Hilton’s basement conference zone look like a rock concert. Party lighting brought some energy to the otherwise neutral hotel concourse. The dress code was casual but stylish. Mohawks were not uncommon. Attendees included coders, designers, artists, and entrepreneurs, and they were all friendly.

FITC’s 14 years of success showed. The event ran like clockwork, with large teams of volunteers registering, ushering, collecting feedback, and directing the day. In particular it was nice to see breakout rooms for sketching, dancing and creative pursuits. FITC isn’t all about sitting down and listening–it was more like a supportive community coming together to share lessons, jobs, tools, and good times.

As part of my role, I got to cover a few specific talks:

  • Gavin Strange, Bristol UK-based animator for Wallace & Grommet’s creator Aardman, talked about pushing boundaries with “one-nighter” projects and new media.
  • Shawn Pucknell, FITC’s CEO spoke candidly about bankruptcy, failure, and how to survive.
  • Kim Alpert, a creative strategist and artist, talked about breaking through limits and refusing to be defined by anyone’s expectations.
  • Finally, I learned about Flickr’s ongoing growth and transformation following its acquisition by Yahoo. It was a great story about shifting competitive landscapes and leadership.

For anyone interested in design, technology or startups, I highly recommend connecting with the FITC community. Ideally I’d like to attend next year as a volunteer again or a speaker. If I do, one thing is for sure: a standard legal precedent walk-through won’t cut it.

Finally, big thanks to the FITC organizers for inviting me as an official blogger this year, it was a great experience.