Zen Systems: Two Case Studies in Small Biz Productivity

by Annie

in ruthless productivity, systematic

Guy in a suit sitting in field and meditatingYesterday, I walked you rock stars through a basic business systems creation process.  Today’s post is all about the experience in practice: how I worked with two clients to help them refine and simplify how work gets done.

But before we go there, let me introduce you to POGE.

POGE: The “Principle of Good Enough” Explained

POGE stands for “principle of good enough.” It’s also one of the 13 principles of Pajama Productivity (“Principle #3: Pick the least expensive and least complicated tool that works”).

I have a long & twisted history with POGE.

One of the biggest problems for me in the early days of past businesses (including the one that culminated in the Mother of All Failures) was that I kept trying to transform “good enough” into “brilliant.”

This all-consuming obsession to keep improving on things that were, at least arguably, working for me ultimately became pathological in a sense. It was the ultimate distraction, the quintessential feel-good substitute for the real work I was avoiding because that real work was just too damned hard.

POGE is a basic truth that, once grasped and fully embraced, can save you from bankruptcy and/or total business failure. And it’s universally applicable.  There’s not a business I’ve come across where this principle doesn’t apply to some extent and in some context. Take, for example, this quote:

In software and systems, designers talk about the principle of good enough (POGE). According to the POGE, the quick-and-simple design is better than the more complicated or elaborate system. A quick-and-simple design can be released, used, and then upgraded based on the experience and needs of consumers.

From Rochelle Melander’s guest post at Jane Friedman’s blog. (She’s talking about creating a story bible in the context of fiction writing. Every. Business.)

So, with that in mind, let’s look at a few examples of systems-in-action.

Case Study 1: Steph and The Never-Ending Struggle to Get Paid, Dammit

You’ve met Steph before. She’s the super-awesome woman whose life is a stress test.

Steph runs a consulting business out of her home, and is widely considered by the profession she’s niched her practice to as “THE Best.”

She’s also “The Cheapest.” (Which is something we’re working on.)

And that’s why, when we first started working on the systems creation process with her business, I was kind of struck by how quickly she answered this question: “What’s causing you the most pain right now in your business?”

Her fast answer: “Collecting on invoices.”

There’s a disconnect here, I told her. You’re widely considered the best at what you do, and your rates are among the lowest in your field. Why is collecting an issue for you?

She sighed. “I. Don’t. Know.” Deep breath, deep gulp of coffee. “But it is. I’m running at 40% uncollected invoices over the last 12 months.”

Forty percent is kind of shocking. She’s cheap, she’s good … why are people not paying her invoices?

Well, as we dug further into step two (analyzing her current process), it became apparent what was really going on. In a nutshell: she had no system. Or rather, her system changed with every client.

Here were the specific issues we pinpointed:

  • Steph was reinventing the wheel with every invoice. She used a comprehensive time, billing, and accounting app but there was no set system in place to communicate the invoices to the clients. Typically she’d email the invoice, but how and when she emailed them, and what language she used in the email that accompanied the invoices, would change from client to client.
  • Steph had no operating agreement in place with her clients. Not even a simple one-page agreement that addressed what she’d do, how much the client was obligated to pay for it, and — most basically — the terms of payment. That was a problem because …
  • … Steph’s clients were demonstrating an alarming pattern over the last six months, by claiming that they couldn’t pay Steph until their clients paid them. They were somehow operating (or trying to operate) under the principle that Steph’s payment was contingent on the end-user client paying first. This, despite the fact that Steph made it quite clear in discussions with new clients that she worked for the professional, not the professional’s client.
  • Steph wasn’t sending hard copies of her late invoices. She’d just keep sending a polite, friendly email reminder with the invoice attached. This was a problem because people can ignore emails. Pieces of paper, especially in a professional’s office with (as most of Steph’s clients had) full-time office managers, get acted upon. Especially with “FINAL NOTICE” stamped across the top in red ink.

Steph and I worked to refine her billing and collecting system with the following painless tweaks:

  1. First and foremost, we decided on some basic steps. Ultimately, after considering industry standards in Steph’s field, we pinpointed the following timeframe: initial billing with the delivery of the product; 40-day reminder, 65-day reminder, 91-day final notice.
  2. Steph then put each of these deadlines into place using her calendar app. Every time an assignment was completed and billed, Steph took two minutes then and there to create each of these deadlines. When payment was received, Steph took 2 minutes then and there to delete all future reminders for that account.
  3. For each of those deadlines, we created template emails that Steph could simply copy and paste, instead of having to sit down and write a new email every time.
  4. Steph went out and bought “SECOND NOTICE” & “FINAL NOTICE” stamps and a red ink pad. For the 40-day reminder and the final notice, she’d send hard copies, appropriately stamped, through the mail.
  5. To avoid future misunderstandings, we drafted an email for current clients, and a one-page agreement for future clients. The email simply (and politely) reiterated (albeit in firm language) that Steph’s right to be paid was not contingent on the client receiving funds from anyone else. The agreement covered that point, as well as some other basic terms that had caused misunderstandings in the past.

Within a few months, Steph reported back that the time she spent tracking down payments and talking with clients about payment terms had decreased by at least half. Her AR fell to 30%, and she felt much less anxious about keeping a roof over her kids’ heads.

Gettin’ paid? Is GOOD, people.

Case Study #2: Jen’s Nightmare on Blog Street

Oh, Jen.

Poor, poor Jen. Her pain was almost palpable.

She told me she was completely overwhelmed with her blog. It was getting good traffic — the right traffic — and lots of folks — the right folks — were talking about it.

So what on earth could be the problem here, right?

Well, as it turns out, success carries with it its own special problems. They might be good problems to have, but they are problems, nonetheless.

In short: Jen was feeling the pressure to come up with ever-cooler, ever-better, ever-fresher content, and simultaneously struggling with getting simple blog administration tasks completed.  Managing and responding to sixty comments? Is a whole lot different than responding to six.

We looked at her process, beginning to end, and it was apparent to me rather quickly why Jen was overwhelmed: her process was simply not scaleable at the growing levels of success she was enjoying — as the blog became more popular, and her clients increased, it left her with less time to produce at the level her readers had come to expect.

It required a pace of energy that was so frenetic and focused it was threatening Jen’s health.

Specific issues Jen was coping with:

  • No real routine for content creation. If something struck her as interesting, she’d either bookmark it (and forget it) or right then and there fire up the WordPress dashboard and start writing. This led her to feel scattered and unfocused.
  • No editorial calendar. If inspiration struck, great. She’d be golden. But if it didn’t, she’d ramble on in her posts until she found a point, then go back and re-edit the post around the point. Time-consuming, not to mention hit-or-miss on quality. And no through-plan. Jen was overlooking a major source of impetus/momentum with her blog growth strategy here.
  • No schedule for repeated tasks. She felt like she was always working on her blog because — surprise! — she was really always working on her blog. In a somewhat haphazard, catch-as-catch-can manner, but, still. Work. Alllll the time.

In a nutshell, Jen was continuously winging it.

After we talked in depth about Jen’s approach to creativity, and her fears over being locked in artistically by “too much of that left brain crap,” we came up with the following approach that — we hoped — would temper that creative fire with a little down-to-earth practicality:

  1. Jen created an editorial calendar for the first time in her blogging life. She discovered (as most folks do) that the act of creating a super-simple plan for topics did a couple of things that were kinda wonderful: (a) It allowed her to adopt a strategy with her content and her marketing efforts and (b) it freed up her creativity — allowing her to be creative within a framework actually called forth the muses (“the lazy bitches,” Jen called ’em) more consistently, she reported back.
  2. Jen adopted the same “input-retrieval” system I use. Whenever she came across something she thought might make good “blog fodder,” she clipped the page to Evernote, along with the URL, and tagged it “blog ideas.” When she was ready to work on her editorial calendar (see #1 above) she pulled up the notes with that tag and browsed through them. When she came across supporting items for her research, she did the same but tagged them “research” & “(some random descriptor for the blog post topic).”
  3. Then we introduced the concept of chunking into Jen’s schedule. She determined that her most creative time of day was early morning, and her most detail-oriented, high-intellectual-energy time of day was mid-afternoon. So she stopped doing everything, all the time. And started using the mornings to write content, and mid-afternoons to research and plan.
Jen had some rough patches there for awhile, as she got used to what she perceived as constraints. But she’d promised me she’d give it at least two months before making any changes, and ahead of schedule, somewhere around week 9, she reported “cautious optimism.” By week 12, she was a believer.

POGE Revisited

Now, remember my earlier warning up there about the principle of “good enough”? Let’s go back to that for a second.

‘Cause both Steph and Jen caught the “systems bug” after their first positive experiences with creating and adhering to systems.

Each one of them tried to improve on their respective system for awhile. Steph ultimately decided a few changes were in order to better integrate her collection efforts with her accounting tasks. So far, she’s pleased with the results.

Jen also tweaked and fiddled for a while by looking for and trying other capture methods instead of Evernote. Every week, during the check-in portion of her weekly coaching call, she’d run through the latest app she’d tried for capturing ideas and research.

Finally, I had to ask.

“Jen, hang on a second. Answer me this one question: What is it about Evernote that isn’t performing for you?”

Silence for a few seconds. Then Jen said, “Well, it’s not so much that it’s not performing … ” She talked vaguely for awhile, but then finally she just stopped and said, “I don’t know why I do this.

Because you’re a perfectionist, and you want to make sure you’re doing it right, I explained. But sometimes good enough? Is good enough.

Meaning you should stop now until you know for sure what it is that the current system isn’t bringing to the table.

Then you can go off searching for the elusive improvement and actually have a chance of finding it.

Until then? GOOD ENOUGH IS GOOD ENOUGH.

 

 

 

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Tea Silvestre October 18, 2011 at 8:03 pm

Wow! This is some great solid advice with a clear outline of HOW to do it. Sharing!
Tea Silvestre recently posted..It’s All About YOU

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Annie October 18, 2011 at 8:35 pm

Thank you mightily, Chef Tea! It’s way longer than I intended it to be but in reviewing it a few thousand times, I think it’s just as long as it needs to be, so I am so glad to hear it’s helpful!

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Rochelle Melander October 19, 2011 at 10:36 pm

Great article on POGE. I’ve worked with so many writers who never finish projects because they are waiting for–as you mention above–brilliant and passing up good enough. Thank you!
Rochelle Melander recently posted..The Write Now! Coach

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Annie October 19, 2011 at 11:19 pm

Heya Rochelle! POGE alone, I am convinced, could save many small businesses from abject failure. I swear. (Now if I could just learn to apply it to my own interminable fiction writing efforts …)

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Nicole Fende October 24, 2011 at 2:28 pm

I think you could actually turn this into an ebook or short ecourse. Great content. And as the numbers geek I must tell you that POGE is a great example of Pareto’s Principle 🙂
Nicole Fende recently posted..No Cost, Risk Free Start-Up Business Idea | Jim Beach

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Annie October 24, 2011 at 2:51 pm

Oh, Nicole. You say the sweetest things. “Pareto Principle.” ::shiver:: I think I just had a nerdgasm. (That’s the 80/20 rule for those of you unfamiliar with the name. :D)

And yep, the posts this month are all taken from an upcoming ebook, which I’ll be sharing more about in the newsletter next Monday and here on the blog a few weeks after that.

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