Systemization. At first, it doesn’t sound too exciting. If you’re a creative professional, turning what you do into repeatable systems might sound about as tempting as shopping for one-size-fits-all clothes.
Many of the best small agencies and firms pride themselves on tailoring solutions to clients. You want to be flexible and adaptable.
But resisting repeatable systems comes at a serious cost: before you know it, your team’s time is getting eaten up by tedious busywork. As someone who goes into agencies to streamline processes (like onboarding new clients), I see this all too often.
I want you to think about your team’s processes. Are handoffs smooth, or do things fall through the cracks? When a team member goes on vacation, can another step in and know what to do next? Or do you struggle just to meet your deadlines?
If you’re scrambling to get things done because you think that’s what good service requires, think again.
It’s time to consider the benefits of systemization. Yes, systemization.
What systemization isn’t — and what it is
The word systemization can conjure up visions of assembly lines or robots. They’re not exactly inspirational to a service business! If systemization makes you picture Henry Ford (or Lucille Ball), you’re in for a pleasant surprise.
Systemization doesn’t mean metaphorical conveyor belts, workers who don’t think for themselves, or an end product stamped out in cookie-cutter fashion.
At its most basic, systemization is:
- creating a process for handling a task you do over and over again
- finding the most streamlined way to accomplish it
- capturing that process in some way
Once you document a process, it becomes easy to repeat the steps — even automatic, you might say.
This doesn’t mean your work becomes a paint-by-numbers operation. But it does mean that routine tasks become efficient and easy to execute, which frees up valuable time for you.
Based on what I’ve seen working with creative agencies, here are 5 compelling reasons to embrace systemization:
Systemization motivator #1: You want happy clients
For the agencies I work with, this reason is at the top of the list. A streamlined client experience means happier clients, more recommendations — and more repeat business. It’s the holy grail of a thriving service-based business.
Making your clients happy means making time for a less happy word: audit.
To make sure your client experience is the best it can be, run a quick audit of all the steps a client experiences from first contact to project end.
Even if your agency is very successful, you’re likely to discover that your client process has gaps. Some points that are murky or confusing. There may even be places where it breaks down.
Mapping out your client experience will help you identify which systems, or internal roadmaps, you need to create to consistently deliver great results.
With just a little bit of discipline, the roadmaps become routines, and the routines become Best Practices — and your secret recipe for customer delight.
Systemization motivator #2: You want a more efficient team
I’ve noticed that having clear, well-documented procedures is like supplying your team with Red Bull — without any crashes later. It’s energizing and turns up the dial on productivity.
What’s happening here? It’s simple: Following a solid, streamlined process simply takes less time and energy that dealing with friction and ambiguity.
Lowering the exhaustion level for team members is always welcome, especially during busy seasons or crunch times.
Established procedures also decrease the chances of performance and judgment mistakes.
And if mistakes do happen, I’ve found that they’re caught earlier when they are easier to correct — because mistakes are easier to spot when there’s an established routine to check against.
Systemization motivator #3: You can’t grow your team or increase the budget
Surgeon and Harvard Medical School professor Atul Gawande made it his mission to introduce pre-surgery checklists to hospitals around the world. He documented his efforts in the bestselling book The Checklist Manifesto.
Dr. Gawande faced so much pushback that he wasn’t sure his efforts would succeed.
(Surgeons, it seems, are like entrepreneurs — often deeply doubtful that the humble checklist has a place in a discipline that calls for innovation and bold action).
“They imagine mindless automatons, heads down in a checklist,” he writes. “But what you find is exactly the opposite.”
What Dr. Gawande and hospital administrators around the world eventually found was remarkable.
Teams that consistently used their checklists observed striking improvements to surgical survival rates. Astonishing.
The results demonstrated that when teams adhere to their own procedures, they can “improve their outcomes with no increase in skill.”
They didn’t hire more people, send the surgeons or nurses for more training, or ask them to work more hours. They just adopted a checklist — and stuck to it.
Systemization motivator #4: You want to create built-in quality improvement triggers
One of the best things about documenting a process — which I see over and over again with my own clients — is that the very act of writing it down galvanizes people to improve it.
Seeing the steps laid out on paper forces our minds to confront the gaps and inefficiencies we see. Interestingly, we may never notice the same things as long as we’re doing those same steps ad hoc.
Once a procedure is documented, the improvements will continue. A small slip-up with the client, an external change that impacts the team — or even someone coming in to back-fill a team member on vacation — can prompt changes and tweaks.
The improvement process comes built-in: once the steps are called out as a process, people will optimize it. It’s almost automatic.
Systemization motivator #5: You want to make room for creativity
Am I really arguing that increased systemization can spur innovation and creativity? Yes! And I’m not alone.
Mark Zuckerberg knows this secret (and so did Steve Jobs), as Julie Anne Exter explains for Inc magazine. Both men are famous for automating their wardrobe to cut down on decision fatigue.
Instead of spending creative energy on his attire, Zuckerberg is “saving his brainpower for figuring out new ways to connect the world.”
Atul Gawande couldn’t agree more. “The checklist gets the dumb stuff out of the way, the routines your brain shouldn’t have to occupy itself with,” he writes.
The drudgery of repetitive tasks doesn’t just waste time, he asserts — it can short-change the more creative efforts a business needs to thrive.
It’s a worthy paradox: streamline in order to become more flexible. Systematize in order to unleash your team’s creativity. When their brainpower is freed up, they can focus on applying the talents you hired them for in the first place.