When I started my business, I focused on producing. Delivering good projects and delivering them on time.
It is demanding enough, I thought, to balance the different aspects of production, to follow up with clients, prepare estimates, take care of accounting. I thought I was doing a good job. After all, I am an expert in my field.
However, after a few months in, I noticed some annoying trends. I was spending an awful lot of time trying to find information, in my various notes and emails, about previous projects. The type of service we provide is deeply customized to each of our client. Therefore, these notes and emails contained important information on their specific products, on what we had agreed on and on interesting solutions we developed for them.
Best case scenario, I would finally find the information after spending, way too much time, looking for it. But in many cases, I ended up having to “reinvent the wheel” over and over. I would retrace steps of the previous research and redevelop a solution based on it. This was very inefficient. It was both a waste of time and a lost opportunity to build on existing knowledge.
By looking into the causes of this particular trend, I came to the realization I was improvising on many aspects of my work. All that wasted time looking for information had a source. I did not have a good process in place to document my client’s specific needs and details. And generally, I did not have processes in place for many other aspects of my work.
In this use case I will describe how I use Sam’s Folder Memos and Inbox function to:
Note : Before I start, let me be clear. I use SAM9000 Kanban software. That being said, you can use other apps for your memos. You could use Evernote, Google Docs etc.. You will see with my actual workflow and use case that a solution built specifically to manage projects, with notes as first class citizens, is a huge advantage. Instead of notes apps, I recommend project management apps. And this is when it becomes trickier. Notes apps are super easy to use and intuitive. Project Management apps... are not. It took me a long time to find a project management app easy enough to use, but powerful enough to do what I describe in this article.
Document what happened and collect knowledge from every project.
One thing I learned is that it is important to document what is happening during a project. There are many good reasons for this. Many things usually happen, not covered in the official scope of work. And, months after delivering a project I didn’t remember every small changes and adjustments. This is especially true in the context of an Agile project with many iterations and last minute adjustments. These notes, this history will go a long way when it comes to investigate what happened, if your client has questions about something you delivered.
Another reason is, I develop interesting strategies and solutions during most projects. But by not documenting them, I had to discover them again, for other projects. By not reusing them, I did not get the full leverage out of these strategies and solutions. And I did not build on them which is another lost opportunity.
Use Inbox and Assign Project to keep an history of what happened in your projects.
The best way I found to document this history is to use Inbox and Assign Project functions. For that purpose, I attach all emails that contain something unusual, like new requests or adjustments, to their related projects.
Few apps really make it easy to attach any email you receive to your projects. Most have plug ins within Outlook. This works well too, as long as your project management tool clearly displays all emails attached the project later. It should be easy to find this history, for anyone in the team working on the project.
To make them even easier to find afterwards, I add a Comment/Tag to these emails.
Using Comment/Tag has two advantages, emails with comments stand out when scrolling through all emails attached to projects. In addition, if I use smart keywords, this makes the Search function very effective. You can easily search for anything in Sam. It is a top menu function, and it scans everything including emails, notes, logs, tasks, etc.
Doing this quick extra step takes very little time compared to all the advantages I mentioned. Specially since you already attach emails to projects, as reference anyway. Simply take the habit to go a step further and add extra comments on emails with important information for future reference. This saved the day more times than I can count.
Build a knowledge database about your clients and their projects.
It is a good practice to gather information, as you go, on anything useful about your work. This may include typical challenges, special instructions from clients, best practices, to name a few. Building this knowledge database is extremely valuable for all future projects. It will also benefit other people in your team.
This acquired knowledge will give you a head start. You won’t have to start from scratch every time. Not to mention, it will also give you an edge on your competition. It can also be a good way to develop a good relationship with your clients, because you remember so much about them. Clients appreciate this attention and they will want to keep working with you.
Since this type of information will outlast a specific project, Memos are the best place to put them.
Sam’s memos have been designed to be easy and streamlined. It was very easy to integrate adding memos to my workflow. For example, when I click on Memos in the top bar menu the same list appears as in Folders. No need to re-create global Folders for my project’s memos, all I need to do is add my memos, directly in my client’s Folder (In my case a Folder is always a Client).
Depending on the situation, I like to use the Memo’s text field to enter:
You can organize memos further by categories. You can create these categories directly when you create a new memo. You can also create the category by editing the memo later, as in the image below.
When creating a new Memo, you will have the option to make it Public or Private. Public memos are visible to everybody in the team. Private memos are only visible to the person who created them. When using the Search function these private memos will only appear in your results, not other team members.
Another Memo function is Secret Memo. When entering text in this part of the memo it is encrypted and will also not show when doing a search. Sam is encrypted end-to-end, but search will analyze everything, except the secret page. This page has an extra layer of encryption. You can use it for sensitive information safely. Lastly, you can upload files and attach them to any memo for easy access.
Get to the next level, develop and document your processes.
Constant improvement is the key to great success. Just doing a job well is not enough. This should represent only part of how you spend your time. Working at constantly learning better ways to do it, is as important for your long-term success. In addition to learn how to do your work better, it is also important to learn about activities that supports your projects.
Developing and documenting processes is one of these activities I used to neglect. I would focus almost all my attention on what was the most profitable; producing and delivering projects for my clients. This worked relatively well initially but I quickly ran into some issues.
For example, one of my biggest challenges was managing my clients' expectations. Being new to having my own business, I did not even realize this was necessary. By not doing it, I would end up promising delivery dates that were unsustainable. I would then hurry and deliver these promised projects by cutting corners. I was miscalculating the impact my multiple projects had on their delivery timeline.
The situation was getting quickly out of hand. All these projects delivered with a lesser quality required much more work and time to fix afterwards. This was hurting my business’ bottom line. In addition, the relationship with my clients was suffering. This lack of knowledge was not helping anyone.
Part of the problem was, I did not know how to properly handle working on several projects in parallel. And this was compounded with the fact that most of my projects contain a certain degree of unknowns.
Luckily for me, I got the help of a mentor who explained what I could do to improve this situation dramatically.
He told me about the Agile Productivity methodology to improve efficiency and think in terms of constant improvement. He explained I needed to learn how to think in terms of projects' lead times instead of only time to actually complete a project. I also needed to learn how to communicate better this lead time concept to my clients and manage their expectations.
Based on this new understanding of the whole picture, I developed new processes and guidelines to handle various aspects of the business. And over the years I created a knowledge base with these processes and other supporting documents.
I use Sam’s Internal Folders structure and Memos functions, to create and store them.
Internal Folders are ideal to do this because they are independent from the Regular Folders I use for my projects.
This way I can build a complete knowledge database in parallel that does not interfere nor clutter my projects. Another reason I use separate internal folders is because these processes apply to all projects and would not fit into any regular folder (client folder). Internal folders support all the functionality of regular folder, which means I can even create projects in them!
By keeping them separate it is very easy to navigate and find my various notes, memos and documents. And when I can not find them by navigating, I can use the search function.
When I started my business, I made many mistakes. The biggest one was to not spend time to have proper processes for everything I needed to do.
It did not take long before seeing the shortcomings of my lack of organization. I was wasting time in retracing what had happen during projects. I was wasting time re-inventing the same solutions. I was miscalculating the impact my multiple projects had on their delivery timeline. I did not communicate efficiently and effectively with my clients.
I realized it is not enough to be excellent in my own field. I also needed to develop and use processes for all aspects that needs to be taken care of. I needed to be better at project and operations management.
One of my excuse was, it takes time to document processes and knowledge. Reality is, really, it is mostly a new habit to develop. And with the right tools, like Sam’s memos and email inbox functions, you can integrate this habit in your workflow. I now use memos and the Inbox function to keep track of what happened and what I learned. Now that I take notes and document while I work, it has become second nature. In very little time I saw the cumulative effects of doing this. It does save me time, and it eliminates a lot of stress too.
More generally, I also realized I was improvising too much in my work. This was hurting our business on many levels. I had to step back and decide to go to the next level by investing the time to develop processes to handle working on multiple projects. To do this properly, I needed the right tools to organize this new knowledge. And it was important to have all this available to the whole team when we need it most: when we work on projects. Sam’s internal folders and memos, although very similar to regular folders, are great to create and organize this knowledge database, separate from clients' folders. It is flexible and you can organize them in many ways. And all the knowledge is at my fingertips, anytime, when I need it.