The Infinite Manager: How flows can eliminate work, so you only have to think once
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Published: March 2020
The following excerpt is from our in-house onboarding flow for new team members. We are publishing it as a series of articles, which we’re calling The Infinite Manager. The series describes the unconventional operating system that has enabled our small team to have such an impact on the web’s leading companies.
In this part, we give an example of a simple flow we created, and the four types of benefits that flows give.
One reason to create flows is so you can do all the hard thinking once. When you write down a flow for the first time, the written version augments your memory, so you can approach the work more logically.
Here’s a simple example. When we started our company, we used to receive an email from our accountant each month saying,
“Please send me any missing receipts.”
The missing receipts tended to be from services that wouldn’t email receipts, so we had to log in and fetch them ourselves. We documented the flow, and in doing so realized that the time-consuming part was logging in to each service and rummaging around for the page from which receipts could be downloaded. Now, our accounting software sends data to a Google Sheet in the following format, which shows which receipts are missing:
The Google Sheet has a section for each person in our company, showing which of their receipts are missing. The person can then fetch their missing receipts simply by clicking on the links.
The flow gave us four benefits:
- Benefit 1: The obvious benefit: it saved us hours of work.
- Benefit 2: Because the work had been defined, we were able to delegate it, by sharing logins with colleagues who could download them for us.
- Benefit 3: The flow became our winning control for how to do the work. And controls can be improved. The mere process of documenting the flow enabled us to understand how it could be improved. By externalizing the work from our memories onto a document, we were able to understand it better. Several opportunities became apparent: we unsubscribed from some of the apps we could do without; we switched some of the apps from pay-monthly to pay-annually, so we only had to fetch one receipt per year; and we considered using macro software to automate the clicking around (one of the services desperately needs a “download all invoices” function; it currently requires the user to click nine times to download each monthly invoice).
- Benefit 4: The flow is now visible and legible—it’s no longer stuck in one person’s head—so anyone can understand it well enough to come up with ideas for improving it further.
For your inspiration, here are some areas of our business for which we’ve created flows
We have flows for almost every repeating activity in our company.
Sales and marketing
- Prioritizing, creating, and publishing articles.
- Creating each podcast episode.
- Our whole sales funnel.
- Our whole process for email marketing.
- The whole conversion rate optimization process.
- Researching a client’s websites.
- Understanding a client’s business.
- Managing each client project.
- Creating winning test designs.
- Hiring the best people.
- Onboarding new consultants and training them in CRE’s methodology.
- Mentoring consultants.
- Planning our annual company conference (“SquirrelCon”).
- Onboarding new researchers.
- Flows for all areas of HR.
- Evaluating new software.
- Managing our finances.
- Managing our trademarks.
- Completing our annual tax return.
- Creating and updating financial reports.
- Managing health and safety.
- Managing the lifecycle of data.
- How we create flows (very meta).
As the years have progressed, you might expect that our enthusiasm for flows would have waned—that they would have become more effort than they were worth. On the contrary, we have increased the number of things for which we use flows, because we aren’t yet seeing diminishing returns.
For example, we recently created a “flows” document for every software app we use. There’s one called “Admin for Basecamp,” one called “Admin for Dropbox,” etc. The documents have been invaluable. Each document contains a section for onboarding new users; one for offboarding users; one for archiving data; a log of changes we make to the settings; and sections for anything else that’s likely to save us time in future. Once we work out how to do an activity—to decommission and archive a shared Dropbox folder, for example—it takes us relatively little time to document how we did it. And our current selves are grateful whenever we discover that our past selves had the discipline to create a good flow.
Which flows should you create first?
Where should you start?
Which flows should you create first?
We suggest you begin with whichever repetitive activity takes up most of your time—particularly if it’s complex and important. The best time to create the flow is next time you carry out that activity. And the best time to test the flow is the subsequent time you carry out that activity.
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