Sloppy Operating Procedure – Love Your Work, Episode 224

April 02 2020 – 07:30am

sloppy operating procedureMany businesses have “SOP’s” It sounds very official as an acronym, and what it stands for sounds even more official: Standard Operating Procedure. It’s a document which outlines a process within a business. What’s the purpose of the process? What are the steps to follow? Who will do different parts of the processes, and which parts can’t begin until another part is finished?

I was telling a friend about the process documents I have for running my business, and he said, “oh, you mean SOPs?” I could feel a visceral reaction to that term. It made the muscles in my back and neck tense up.

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“Yeah, SOPs,” I said. “But they aren’t Standard Operating Procedures. They’re Sloppy Operating Procedures.”

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Processes make businesses possible

Every business has processes. The employees of that business follow these processes to build a product, or perform a service.

Processes make businesses possible. Processes help the business create a consistent product, at scale. Through repetition, processes allow businesses to create more of their product, at higher quality, with lower expenses — to increase profits. Each time a process is followed is another opportunity to reduce error, or to simplify the process.

It took me a really long time to realize that processes are important for creatives, too. I thought that process was the enemy of creativity. I’ve come to learn that process is creativity’s best friend.

For creativity, forget the Standard Operating Procedure — try the Sloppy Operating Procedure

I wasn’t completely wrong in thinking that process was the enemy of creativity. My problem was that I was thinking about process in the wrong way. I was thinking of process as an SOP — Standard Operating Procedure, when I needed to be thinking of a process as the other SOP — Sloppy Operating Procedure.

Whenever I sat down to try to writing a Standard Operating Procedure, my brain would shut down. It wasn’t until I gave myself permission to suck — permission to create a Sloppy Operating Procedure — that I really made progress.

The Sloppy Operating Procedure is not a neatly-edited list of steps and standards and dependencies that help you deliver a product.

No, the Sloppy Operating Procedure is a living document. It’s disorganized. It has free-written paragraphs that might be incomplete or end mid-sentence. It’s full of grammar and spelling mistakes. The Sloppy Operating Procedure is, well, sloppy.

Sloppy Operating Procedures kill procrastination

There are two important mechanisms that make the Sloppy Operating Procedure powerful.

One is that the Sloppy Operating Procedure kills procrastination. It does this in a couple of ways.

One way the Sloppy Operating Procedure kills procrastination is that it gets you started on creating a process document. If you’re expecting to sit down and crank out a polished Standard Operating Procedure document, you’re going to put it off.

The second way that the Sloppy Operating Procedure kills procrastination is that it makes it easier to do things that are boring or repetitive. This point requires some more explanation.

SOPs kill boredom and drudgery

I may dread collecting data for my monthly income reports, but the reason for the dread can be found in a document called “How to Be a Hacker.” A document dating back to 1996, which outlines the values of the “hacker” — a word which has gained a lot of baggage over the years, but which to me still means someone who likes to know how something works, who will tinker around to find new ways of doing things.

I shared this hacker credo in my first book, Design for Hackers, and rule number three of this credo explains the second way that the Sloppy Operating Procedure kills procrastination. That rule is as follows: Boredom and drudgery are evil.

Boredom and drudgery are evil. Anything that you’ve had to figure out one time, you shouldn’t have to figure out a second time. And this, I’ve found, is at the root of why I procrastinate on some tasks in my business.

So the reason I used to dread collecting the information for my income reports is that I’ve already figured out how to collect information for my income reports, and I don’t want to figure it out again.

I don’t want to ask myself again, “are book sales cash-based or accrual-based? What are all of the places my books are published again? How do I get a report from this aggregator?” I’ve already answered these questions once. I don’t want to answer them again.

Since I create Sloppy Operating Procedures, the second time I do a process, I don’t have everything all figured out from the first time I did that process. I have some sloppy notes. My notes might say:

“Collecting Amazon book sales: Have to convert currencies from each country into USD. Maybe there’s a way to automate this?”

That’s what it might say after the first time I collect Amazon book sales. And because it says that, the next time I have to collect Amazon book sales, there’s just a little less boredom — just a little less drudgery.

In fact, it makes the task more interesting. I know that as I do the task again, I’ll have a little less boredom and drudgery, but I’ll also have a new task: I’ll improve a little on these notes. I’ll improve a little on this process.

The first time I did the process, I didn’t have the time or energy to think about automating the process of converting currencies. I just wanted to get the task done. A Sloppy Operating Procedure was all I could muster.

But between doing the process the first time and the second time, maybe I’ve heard about reporting software that can automate it for me. Or maybe I’ve tasked myself to look up some spreadsheet formulas.

So the second time I do the process, I have to think less about some parts of the process, and so I have more mental energy leftover to better automate and document other parts of the process.

Ideally, the first time you do a process, write some quick notes; the second time you do a process, write instructions and make a training screencast; the third time you do a process, delegate it.

Now, I don’t even collect the Amazon book income for my income reports anymore. I have instructions and even a screencast showing how to do it. My assistant does this process now.

So, the Sloppy Operating Procedure kills procrastination because it gives you permission to suck in writing your SOP, and the mere existence of that SOP removes the boredom and drudgery from the task.

SOPs help you produce more with less

I mentioned that there were two mechanisms that make the Sloppy Operating Procedure powerful. The first mechanism is that it kills procrastination. The second mechanism is that the Sloppy Operating Procedure helps you produce more work with fewer resources.

How does it do that? You’re doing the same amount of work, after all. Eventually, your Sloppy Operating Procedure is a clean and clear list of steps to follow in order to produce something.

At this point, it’s not so different from a Standard Operating Procedure. What’s different, is how you produced it.

But once you have a process that you can follow, without fail, to produce your product, that process does much of the work for you. This is especially true if you use the process in order to delegate the task, but it’s also true if you use the process simply to assist yourself in doing the task.

This is especially important with the most creative parts of your work. Your own mind is the secret sauce — the proverbial secret mix of eleven herbs and spices — that make your product special, and you want your process to highlight your secret sauce, not to water it down.

SOPs take you from “front burner” to “back burner”

As your Sloppy Operating Procedure evolves into a Standard Operating Procedure, the task evolves, too. The task evolves from requiring Front Burner Creativity, to requiring only Back Burner Creativity.

I talked about the distinction of Front Burner Creativity and Back Burner Creativity back on episode 194, but here’s a short refresher.

Front Burner Creativity takes your very best creative energy. It’s like you’re stir frying some vegetables, and you want to get them just right.

Back Burner Creativity still requires creative energy, but it doesn’t necessarily require your very best creative energy. It’s like you’re boiling some pasta. You know about how long to let it boil to get it al dente. You’ll stir it here and there, and you’ll check in on it in about seven minutes.

As your Sloppy Operating Procedure becomes a Standard Operating Procedure, the tasks involved in creating your work go from needing Front Burner Creativity to needing only Back Burner Creativity.

And when you can keep a project cooking on the Back Burner, that frees up your Front Burner.

When I started this podcast four years ago, it was Front Burner Creativity — big time. It took my very best creative energy, every day, just to keep it coming every week.

But now it’s Back Burner Creativity. My Sloppy Operating Procedures have become Standard Operating Procedures. I have a checklist I follow every time I record. I have a spreadsheet I use to share the relevant information with my production team. My production team has a detailed checklist and standards document to follow. Finally, I have a spreadsheet that generates the relevant tasks for each episode, and my assistant has a screencast to follow to upload those tasks to my task manager.

Even though each episode still requires creative energy, it requires much less creative energy. My SOPs save that energy for me, and I even keep some of those SOPs a little sloppy. I let myself mix things up, creatively, so long as they don’t screw up the process that helps me keep this show coming each week.

Sloppy Operating Procedures boost your creative output, bit by bit

So now that the podcast is a Back Burner project, I’ve been able to develop other projects on the Front Burner. I’ve published a book, several short reads, and I’m writing another book. Along the way, I also brought my Love Mondays emails from Sloppy Operating Procedure to Standard Operating Procedure. I keep those coming each week, too.

I’m still one person, one creative, but I’m able to create more, with the same — even fewer — resources.

The next time you find yourself in boredom or drudgery, try making a Sloppy Operating Procedure. I hope it helps you cook up something delicious.

Image: Still Live with Gingerpot 2, Piet Mondrian

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