Connecting Tools for Efficiency: 3 Things You Need to Do Now

Guest post by Tara Witterholt, Chief of Staff at Elevation Solutions.  

Email, chats, video conferences, document sharing, CRMs, phone bridges—we have no shortage of tools to power our businesses. We have unlimited options for tracking work, collaborating on documents, and managing our workload. The difficulty starts when all these items are kept in disparate places, usually the place most convenient for the person who started the communications, document, or activity. The risk is people giving up on broken systems, starting yet another system for tracking or collaborating, and the time-sucking cycle repeating all over.

Our management and technology consulting firm is engaged regularly to implement software that solves productivity problems. It’s our bread and butter. However, we prefer to come in before you implement the next great productivity tool. We work to understand operational pain points and the humans around the table before we move into the cloud.

Below are some key steps you can take to figure out what productivity tools you actually need and how to maximize the ones you keep. 

1. Inventory all the tools you’re using now, including anything used for document creation and storage, workflow and project management, scheduling and invoicing, etc. Then, get real… 

Organizations large and small are lured in by tools that look fun, shiny and new. They promise to increase our productivity, make us more effective, do our laundry, and cook us dinner. And they rarely deliver. You need to examine the tools you are using and ask yourself if they’re solving the problem that drove you to adoption.

I once had a client ask me to implement a productivity tool that had a Google Drive connector, a calendar (separate from their Outlook or Google calendar), and a task assignment feature. It could be branded to their company, shared easily with their teams, and adopted at a low cost. They were beaming at the possibility of having more time for strategic work. 

They wanted to tackle the fact that projects weren’t getting done on time and they didn’t have visibility into what work people were doing. It turns out they didn’t have standard expectations for project delivery and relatively few consequences when deadlines came and went with no results. The cloud-based solution had rave reviews, but it didn’t solve their root problem: accountability. In the end, I helped them create a better system of accountability rather than throwing new software at the problem. This included agreements on deadlines, progress updates, and what happens when people don’t get their work done. The executives were happy with the increased insight and their teams were more willing to communicate progress with the new, clearer expectations.  

2. Agree as a team what you will use for project management, internal and client-facing communications, and document creation and storage, then get rid of everything else.

And stick to it! No going rogue. Agree that you won’t suggest a new or replacement tool until you all have had a chance to talk about these key things: who will use it, what the benefits are, and what problem you are trying to solve.

We recently did this with our project management tools. We had 3 different ways to track projects and what we used differed by the client. At a strategy session (in the mountains, because, hey, it’s Colorado) we committed to using Trello to track progress on our implementation projects. We can assign tasks and provide access to internal and external users. Clients can see exactly what work is happening in real-time, as well as where we need their input.  Now, when we have questions about status and progress, we have one source of truth. It’s been a game-changer.

3. When you figure out which tools to keep, make sure they talk to each other.

Just like you encourage your team to collaborate, ensure your productivity tools are talking to each other! Our team has recently implemented an email connector that works with our Salesforce instance. We can set up meetings easily by sending suggested appointment times from our Google calendar, and the recipient can choose what works for them. We have also connected our project management tool to Google Drive, Slack, and our billing and project time-tracking software. When needed, our productivity tools enter information automatically into Salesforce. No more searching and wondering—it’s all in one place.

The above suggestions take time to work through. You have to get the team together, ask tough questions, and find out what people are really using and how it’s working, including what’s most effective for your clients. But rest assured, the amount of time you will get back when you finish these steps is worth it. And if you do decide to try something new, we can help you implement what you truly need with style!

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Tara Witterholt is Chief of Staff with Elevation Solutions, a rapidly growing management and IT consulting firm with clients and employees in every time zone. With over 15 years of project management experience, Tara works tirelessly to streamline processes and help people focus and be productive. She lives in Denver, Colorado, has a college-aged daughter, a cyclist husband and a very lazy but adorable cat. 

Check out their Business Impact Story to learn how Elevation Solutions leverages Earth Class Mail to streamline their back office.  

How to Introduce Automation Into Your Small Business (And Make It Stick)

By Laura Lopez on May 10, 2018 

Previously, we’ve shared specific tools that accountants and small businesses can use to automate their workflows. By automating core accounting tasks, scheduling, and more, businesses across all industries can redirect staff time away from manually-intensive projects while simultaneously saving money. This is especially true for small- to mid-sized companies that are often strapped for resources at the same time they’re striving for growth. 

By making employees’ jobs faster and easier, a practice can accelerate growth through increased efficiency and strengthen its overall service. But how do you go about implementing automated processes? Don’t throw your staff into the deep end and expect them to swim. Below are some tips on how to ease into the practice of automation to make it stick. 

Establish a plan and contingencies

Before anything else, practices need a plan that spells out their end goals. For example, automating the backup of email attachments into Dropbox with a program like Zapier may be convenient, but a business must also ask related questions, such as how their team’s ability to easily retrieve the attachments will be affected? Will everyone have access or only a single point person? Will this make collaboration between teams smoother? And so on. Failure to establish a roadmap will likely result in miscommunication and crossed wires.

Identify areas of biggest need

One of the easiest ways to begin automating a practice is by identifying the exact areas within the company that need it the most. Quite simply, pay attention to constant frustrations. By first plugging the biggest holes in workflow, firms can alleviate their employees’ collective stress, increasing the chances of getting everyone on the automation train. And you’ll help your business run more efficiently, too.

Automate easier processes first

On the flip side, if a business is fortunate enough to not have gaping operational holes that demand immediate attention, they can start their automation journey by attacking easier processes first. Returning to the example above, backing up email attachments is one of the simplest activities to automate. Following this route will make the task of introducing further automation into the practice less cumbersome and easier for everyone to incrementally grasp.

Start with a small test team

At the end of the day, you know your team best. If you anticipate that your automation roll-out might be complex or come with a steep learning curve, there’s no need to bog down the entire company all at once. Instead, form a small team who can test the software in advance.  

Project management automation software like Basecamp, for instance, is ideal for experimenting with smaller teams. By test driving it with only a few people, you can determine whether it would be a good fit for a particular department or the rest of your company. If this small subset feels like the software is clunky, unintuitive, or not user-friendly enough, then you’ve just saved time and effort that would go into rolling the program out to the rest of the company. Plus, if the test users prefer the software, they’re better able to provide support to their coworkers as software is adopted.

Evaluate process efficiency

Owners do themselves and their firms a big favor by evaluating the individual processes they wish to automate before they set forth in that direction. This involves raking over the process(es) with a fine-toothed comb to pinpoint flaws. Multi-directional feedback is key. Seek input from your employees, then, devise a process map to help every worker visualize the various processes in your company and highlights which areas need attention. If you skip this step and blindly press on, all the automated software in the world won’t fix your processes’ underlying inefficiencies. By taking stock of your business’s inefficiencies and initiating steps to correct them before committing to new software, you can reduce the risk of flushing money down the drain when you try and switch over to a new tool.

Conclusion

At its core, automation is about enabling and optimizing professionals’ work. However, automation tools can do harm as readily as they can help. The fault is not in the programs but in how they are used or if they “fit”. Companies that don’t take the time to understand which of their processes to automate, or who use software as a bandage for underlying dysfunctions in their processes, will likely decrease their efficiency. But by following the above tips on how to wisely use automation to optimize existing practices, owners can pave the way for fewer speed bumps and more growth.