Balancing Process and Red Tape in a Small Professional Services Company

red tapeStandard operating procedures (SOPs) aren’t always glamorous, but they can be vitally important to ensuring a healthy and efficient organization. But how do you know when too much process has turned your organization into a bureaucracy, where employees are ignoring independent decision making in favor of blindly adhering to some steps in a training manual?

For RG+A, striking the right balance isn’t always easy. We’re a company with smart, creative, and independent employees, and stymieing their creativity and talent with rigid protocols would limit what we consider to be one of our key strengths. Nonetheless, we’ve got to ensure that we make the most of our talents and can scale to meet varying client needs. Putting written SOPs in place is oftentimes the best way to do that.

Let’s take a look at a simple but important task that business-to-business companies of all sizes must undertake – quality control.

As a risk mitigation practice arising from a spike in project load over the summer and the on-boarding of several new employees, we recently updated our SOP for quality control on research deliverables. For RG+A, an SOP around quality control is important as it speaks to our commitment to top-notch proposals, reports, and other out-bound deliverables. No matter how smart, insightful, or strategic our work is, we can’t maintain credibility with our clients if we aren’t tight on research execution.

A small team worked on the SOP, including stakeholders from operations and research, and the net output was a brief document built around four key areas – communications, timing, feedback, and proofing.

Due to the brevity of the SOP document, we elected to e-mail it to the entire organization, and specific follow-ups were made with individual personnel and at team meetings. Since pushing the SOP out, we’ve seen an increase in the quality of our outputs as new and old employees are taking accountability for quality control and integrating the process seamlessly into their day-to-day work habits.

Drawing on the above and other SOP experiences, here are a few tips that I’ve found can ensure that your SOPs are impactful:

  • Understand your environment. You’ve got to craft your SOPs to fit the culture and working style of your executive team and your front-line employees. SOPs that don’t take these factors into account will be disregarded quickly by those who are supposed to follow them.
  • Listen to your colleagues. Find out where their pain points are and focus on those areas. Ensure that SOPs are targeted to those areas where your team needs help and communicate that value to them. If the team doesn’t feel that their needs are being met or that there’s value in the process, you’ve lost the opportunity.
  • Find a partner (but not too many). Have a champion or two who can provide valuable input and be a supporter of the process, but avoid the “process by committee,” trap. You are more likely to get buy-in when you’ve given someone else a say in how the process gets defined and you avoid getting bogged down by a larger group’s conflicting interests.
  • Communicate early and often. Don’t assume that a single e-mail or team meeting mention is enough. Incorporate SOP training into new employee orientation sessions and remind everyone periodically with group and one-on-one written and verbal communications.
  • Show SOPs in varying formats. Create multiple formats for your SOP content, with one document including all SOP details and others being simpler, more visually attractive snapshots of information. People consume information in different ways, and it helps get the message across if we work to accommodate these styles.
  • Revisit your SOPs often. Keep your SOPs fresh by reviewing them periodically and modifying them to keep pace with changes in the business or by dropping ones that are no longer needed. You’ll gain trust from SOP-averse colleagues if you can give them back their creativity and freedom on certain items that may not be as key to your organization’s success.

 What tips do you have for making your SOPs impactful?  How much process is too much process? How do you achieve balance?

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