In business, efficiency is key to progress. This is especially true during periods of growth and organizational change; times when we're most likely to pick up new responsibilities (and perhaps hand off existing ones to other teams). During periods of growth, new tasks need to get done all of the time regardless of whether there's a specialized person on the team to handle them.The thing is, the first time you do a new task, you likely aren't thinking about how many times you will do it again in the future. Rather, you just do it because it needs to get done, just as your colleagues go about picking up new tasks as well. As time marches on, some tasks prove worthwhile and need to be repeated, so we repeat them. In these situations, rarely does someone remark, “this is what I want my job to be” or “this is definitely not my job and there has to be a better way to do it.”“Growth naturally creates new interactions and processes, expected and unexpected, and often at a fast pace,” writes Martin Dewhurst, Suzanne Heywood, and Kirk Rieckhoff of McKinsey & Company in Preparing your Organization for Growth, “To manage them, the employees who face the greatest complexity—for example, those in functions or businesses that will see increased activity—must have ‘ambidextrous’ capabilities. These enable people to take initiative beyond the confines of their jobs, to cooperate and build linkages across the organization, and to complete many tasks in parallel. Companies sometimes forget to think about these capabilities in the units immediately involved in growth and very often don’t do so beyond them.”It's important to check in regularly and assess whether you (and the rest of your team) are spending time on the right tasks and ensure your processes are as efficient as possible. If left unchecked, the weight of these additional tasks that rely on "ambidextrous" capabilities can get in the way of further growth.
Sound familiar? Here are some things to keep in mind as you scour your organization’s (and your own) workflows to identify opportunities for optimization:
When deciding what processes to automate, Peter Hilton of Effektif says goal alignment should be a key consideration, “The process’ importance to the organisation – its business value – is a bigger factor than simplicity or relevance, but is easy to overlook. But it is important, there’s no point automating an organisation-specific process that’s just the right size and complexity if the process results aren’t important enough to justify the effort.” If your company has completed a goal-setting process and is actively working against specific objectives/key results, each time you are performing a recurring task you should ask yourself whether it lines up with one of those goals. If not, then it’s time to assess its value. If it still proves to be valuable, it should either be aligned with a goal (and therefore still be deserving of the man-hours it requires) or it should be automated since you’re being measured against other things.
When assessing the value of an ongoing or reoccurring process, you shouldn’t ask people “is this valuable?” They’ll likely say yes, since there’s no perceived cost to the affirmative, and you never know when it might come in handy. Instead, you should position this question as a choice. For example, “Would you rather see a weekly report on how many users we have in each state, or have me conduct weekly sales team updates on product features?” This assigns an opportunity cost to the current situation and forces a value judgment to be made.
“The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency.The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.” - Bill GatesJust as important as identifying tasks that need repeating, companies must also identify the tasks that are being performed inefficiently. Inefficiency can be measured in many ways, including whether the process has a high error rate, if it is resource intensive or if it is using up bandwidth that could be spent more wisely elsewhere. Depending on your industry, you can also assess whether it is creating a security or compliance issue using the current process.“When we determine efficiencies, we’re uncovering the steps we take and the time we waste every single time we perform a particular task,” says Kate Erickson of EntrepreneurOnFire. “By taking a step back, writing out the steps, and determining efficiencies, we now have the opportunity to put a process in place that takes us out of the equation almost completely.” http://www.eofire.com/step-3-creating-systems-and-processes-in-your-business/
Figure out what everyone does the most. It might seem obvious, but humans are not always the most accurate reporters of their own behavior. Asking everyone to do a time-tracking study for one week can reveal a lot about how they are actually spending their time (and running it for a limited time also means they are far more likely to actually keep track of things and not fear “Big Brother” is moving into town). For example, an IBM survey found that software testers spend 30%-50% of their time setting up testing environments instead of actually testing software (making that an excellent target for automating those tasks to make teams more productive). While this may not sound sexy or get your sales team excited, software testing is something that happens consistently, and making it more efficient frees up resources that are at a premium during growth.Whenever you identify a task where someone describes it as not difficult, just time-consuming, then you know you’re onto something.
Figure out how many people are touching the same data and use that as a guide for optimization opportunities. For example, the CFO, the VP of Sales, the head of marketing and product management could very easily be pulling similar data sets to create status updates and reports for different members of the management team, product teams and the Board of Directors. Instead of each of you going through these exercises, get together and figure out what should be in a multipurpose dashboard that informs all of the above purposes. Then assign one person to own it and refresh it regularly. Once everyone agrees that this dashboard is satisfying everyone’s needs, steps can be defined to automate its regular updating and then no one is spending time manually sucking data into a spreadsheet and creating graphs every week.
So where should you start? “Pick rote tasks where there is no human value-add,” says Randy Clark of UC4 Software. “Automation lets you avoid human error while saving time in execution.” How to automate your businessMuch like your product or company may have started with a Minimum Viable Product, your path to automation can also take an MVP approach by automating something important, but not so critical that a mistake or delay will derail the entire company.“The most important processes tend to be those related to core business, and getting paid, in particular,” says Peter Hilton of Effektif on which process to automate first “However, these aren’t necessarily a good choice for a first automation either, because the risks of mistakes and teething troubles with a new process implementation may be unacceptable. To the extent that the first process automation project is a learning exercise, it makes sense to choose a process where you can tolerate and easily correct mistakes.”
As your company pivots and expands, it’s the product manager’s job to ensure your organizational structure fits the company you want to be vs. the company you were. Maybe you started out as an enterprise-driven business with higher-touch engagements and more personalized support. As you grow the company into the small business or consumer market, you simply can’t afford to keep running that way, and you need to create lots of self-help support and automated account management tasks based on date- and trigger-driven events.
When a product is young and the team is small, it’s common for everyone to be involved in the decision-making process, which can create some bad habits and unrealistic expectations. When a company starts growing, the CEO can’t be attending every architecture review and the CFO shouldn’t have a vote on which bug should be prioritized. Not only is this not the best use of their time, but it can be increasingly hard to even get them in the same room or conference call which delays decisions from happening at all. But getting these early stakeholders to step back from the day-to-day doesn’t happen without being proactive. This is one area where process can be your friend. Establish a product steering committee or review board and make sure everyone buys off on who is a member. It should represent the key functions of the company (although you as the product manager are not only running the meeting but should also be able to adequately represent the interests from the “business” side of the house). This group should have the authority to make whatever decisions are required to run the product line as needed, with acknowledgment that for a major new release, a new product introduction or fundamental change that executive involvement may be required. Otherwise, this group should be empowered to make the hundreds of small decisions that keep the trains moving and engineering from idling while waiting for a decision to be decreed from on high.
As your company grows, it’s important to shift your own communications from 1:1 to a broadcast model. As your organization scales, sitting down with each team member, or even sending an individual email to each person, becomes impractical:
In general growth and the avalanche of changes that accompany it are good for you and great for your company. But to ensure you’re working on the new and exciting things, you should always be assessing what you can take off your plate through automation. P.S. If you're looking for more tips on organizing your tasks and staying focused on the most important ones, I've written before about the importance of effective time management for product mangers.