16 Operational Norms for Service-Based Small Business

Operational Norms for Small Business

“Business as usual.”

What does even mean, right?

As a small business owner you know full-well that “usual” means “normal.” Yet “normal” hardly ever happens on a day-to-day basis in the service industry! So much so that not-normal is actually normal!

To some degree that is very normal. However, we believe that standardizing as much as possible is the single greatest factor to creating stability in a line of business that is determined by ever-changing customer demands.

At Aculign we struggle just like you.

As a service-based consulting firm for service-based businesses we face two challenges daily:

  • The tyranny of the urgent
  • The devil of distraction

They’re both crouching at the door of our offices. Each and every day. All day long. Tackling these challenges starts with thoughtfulness and commitment.

Thinking carefully about the ideal state is important to us. It allows the higher functioning part of our brain to function as our wise advocate and tell us what’s really important to us.

Then, we attempt to put energy behind staying committed to those important things.

Those important things function very much like fences or guard rails. As we envision where we want to go, we also think through the distractions that pose a risk to us not getting there.

To help us get there, we created what we call our Operational Norms. These are the guard rails that protect us throughout the day to help us get where we want to go. We recommend using them as a guide to creating your own, in order to protect your time and get your projects, tasks, and goals accomplished.

  1. Only check and respond to email a max of twice daily.
  2. Arrive at the office with a clear list of priorities. Otherwise, how the heck do you get anything done?
  3. Don’t get in front of the computer without a clear list of priorities.  You’ll get distracted.
  4. Compile a task list for tomorrow no later than the evening before.  This helps you get ahead on #2 above.
  5. Don’t permit yourself to tackle any more than two mission-critical items per day.  If everything is important, then nothing is actually important.
  6. Do NOT multitask. It is one of the deadliest lies out there.
  7. Shorten your schedule and deadlines to force focused action and prevent procrastination.  Tasks with deadlines too far in the future almost always get delayed even more.
  8. All meetings should require an agenda and produce decisions and delegated action plans with deadlines.  Too much time is wasted in meetings without a  purpose and focus.
  9. Meetings should default to a maximum of 30 minutes.  We offer a 4 hour workshop on meetings for you and your team. You will walk away with prepped agendas for your most important meetings.  Contact us to learn more.
  10. Do not allow interruptions unless it is extremely urgent. Otherwise, send an email or chat message.
  11. Batch activities to limit setup costs. Group the same type of stuff together so you can keep your mind in that zone and do more quality work.
  12. If it’s not well-defined and important, don’t do it.  Otherwise, table it and schedule a block of time later to define and plan it.
  13. Analyze tasks to discover what to eliminate.  More than likely, some tasks evolved over time to become bigger than they really need to be.
  14. Delegate.  Give work away that someone cheaper than yourself can and should be doing.
  15. Never automate something that can be eliminated from the workflow.  If there’s not really a need for it, don’t try to make your software do it for you anyway.
  16. Outsource whenever and as often as possible. If you can’t or shouldn’t do #14, that is.
  17. Establish verbal flags that team members can use in discussions and meetings to call attention back to the agenda or matter at hand.  Give your team freedom to keep each other focused.

Like us, you will more than likely experience crashing through one or more guardrails. Probably on a daily basis, at first. But if everyone on your team agrees that operational norms are necessary, and if everyone agrees on what they should be, then shared agreement means that you’ve created a context where you can help each other. It’s not uncommon for one of us to say to another team member,


as a way of reminding that team member that a distraction or “rabbit trail” has just been introduced. And it’s common in meetings for one of us to say,

“Let’s anchor,”

as a means of re-anchoring the discussion to the agenda at hand.

Regardless of how you choose to do it, an environment of humility is important, as everyone is willing to admit their weakness and let their team member help them stay focused.

What are some of the operational norms that you feel are crucial for your business?  Share them in the comment field and help generate “aha!” moments for others who read.

4 Important Questions to Ask Your Software Vendor

4 Questions to ask your small business software automation vendor

Is Software Automation not automating the way you want or hope? Did you think that they would make your workflow more efficient?

Are you finding out that it’s not working out quite as efficiently as you’d hoped?

Here’s the hope we all have concerning the software we buy: that it will “automagically” make us be able to do our work better and faster.

Here’s the stark reality we all discover after we’ve bought the software: we feel like we aren’t working that much faster or better.

Why does it work out this way? There are two reasons.

First, a software platform generally has a ton of features and capabilities. This means we just need to learn it. That takes time. Sometimes we don’t feel like we have enough time. So we tell ourselves that we’ll just have to make do, get by with what we know, and figure it out later.

Meanwhile, we experience anxiety and stress about how long stuff takes to do, even with our software. But we stuff it away and press on with work. Deep down it builds up. Then we get irritated with the software we bought. Then we get angry. Then we shop for a new product. We get a little smarter next time around. But in reality, it’s merely a wash-rinse-repeat-cycle of the first experience.

In short, the software isn’t doing what we hoped it would do because we don’t know how to use it fully.

Second, software gets used by a ton of people who try to make it work for their processes. When it doesn’t, they email the vendor. The vendor reads the complaint and creates a new feature request. The new feature might be put on the roadmap for a future version. When it doesn’t, they email the vendor. The vendor reads the complaint and creates a new feature request. The new feature might be put on the roadmap for a future version.

But it might not be. Until then, you’re out-of-luck. This forces you to compensate with manual tasks and processes. Yet you bought the software product to eliminate this. So what do you do?

Depending on the critical nature of the thing you want your software to do, you might need a solutions engineer. What role do they fill?

Solution engineering is centered on three primary challenges:

  • The parts of my workflow that I can automate with the technology I currently have.
  • The parts of my workflow that I will have to manually configure.
  • Making #1 and #2 work together seamlessly for an efficient business process.

How can you tackle these three challenges with your software vendors? We recommend starting with four important questions to get you heading in the right direction.

Here are 4 questions you should ask every software automation vendor:

1. What part(s) of my workflow can my software product(s) automate today?

The first step assumes that you have diagrammed or charted your workflow. If you’ve never done that before, use our infographic tool to get started.

If you’ve already got this covered, head over to the support site for your product. Use the tutorials. Read the FAQs. Interact on the forums.

If you still can’t find what you want, it’s time to contact the vendor. Setup an appointment. Ask them for help. Send them a copy of your workflow diagram. Show them what you’re trying to accomplish. They may be able to suggest a way to use current functionality to get it done.

Whatever path you take, just make sure to take the time to actually do it. You’ll save yourself a ton of frustration in the long run.

2. What other software products can my current platform integrate with in order to automate my workflow?

If the vendor says that the thing you need isn’t offered in their product yet, it’s time to move on to the next hurdle. Ask the vendor if they integrate with other software products that can do the thing you need to do in order to automate your workflow.

Is the answer yes? Ask them to help you chart out the pathway to get the products integrated. Is the answer no? Move to question 3.

3. What features are on the platform’s roadmap that might address my needs in the next 3 months? 6 months? 12 months?

Next, ask the vendor if the thing you need is something that they are planning on building into their product. Remember one important thing before you get mad at their answer: there are a ton of people using the product and they have feature requests just like yours.

Deciding what to build into a software product is actually very tricky. The vendor knows that (a) there needs to be enough people asking for the same thing, and (b) there needs to be enough money in their bank account to pay developers to build it.

Is the thing you need the software product to do going to be released in the next 3, 6 or 12 months? If the answer is yes, then you’re in pretty good shape. All you need to do next is figure out how to limp along with manual processes while you wait on the new feature. If the answer is no, move on to the question 4.

4. How might I think about revising my workflow around the capabilities the current platform?

Ask this question next to your software vendor.  Put another way:

“How should I think about my workflow based on what your product can do for me right now?”


“If you were in my shoes, given the automation I need in my business right now, how would you do it with your product?”

Essentially, you’re being humble and realizing that you can’t have your cake and eat it too. You’re going to have to compromise somewhere.

It’s a crapshoot as to whether your vendor has some quality business analysts or product owners on their team. If they do, you’re probably in luck. That person on their team will be able to listen to what you’re trying to accomplish, understand the business value behind what you need, and then help you get that done with their software. That will probably mean revising your workflow or business process.  Which is okay, really.  Because in the end, your process will probably be more efficient.  That will, in turn, free up the superpowers of the people who were hired to do awesome things.

Along the way it’s important not to panic. Too much, at least. Try what the vendor suggests. Give it a month. See if it works. You may be surprised. And you may, in fact, discover that the whole process so far has led you to something you never thought of before.  So what about the other stuff my software can’t do for me?  Keep scrolling.


What Do I Do Next?

When you have the answers to the above four questions, there are two tasks remaining:

First, analyze the leftover activities of your workflow. These will need to be configured manually. Maybe you’ll need an old-school, paper checklist. Maybe you need a sticky note. Maybe your calendar application can handle recurring tasks to remind you to do the things on the checklist. Perhaps there’s a spreadsheet solution. Then there’s checklist apps.  The bottom line is you’re pretty smart. You started a business, remember? You’ll figure it out.

Second, analyze how you will integrate the manual processes together with the automated ones. You’ve got automated tasks. And you’ve got manual tasks. They need to work together so that the whole workflow is reasonably efficient. It won’t be seamless, of course. Whatever the case, the workflow should be easy enough to train someone else to do so that you don’t have to babysit it. Take your time, though. Figure it carefully. Getting it right means getting it done faster and better.

What if I Need Help With This?

Some of this work can be tricky. Some of it is simple.  Other parts can be complex. And some people just don’t want to spend the time to work with the software vendors.  Regardless of your situation, you need to automate in order to be able to grow and remain stable.

Some business owners want to manage this stuff on their own. Others don’t want to spend their time or their employees’ time to make it work together.

Do you need help creating and documenting your workflow or process? Do you need somebody else to analyze and implement the most optimal solutions to automate your workflow? Let Aculign help. Schedule a free consult below and get started working on the workflow you’ve always dreamed of.