How to respond to failure. Or, after the problem came the procedure.

Encountering problems and making mistakes is a consequence of life, business, and everything else — and unavoidable. But the value is in how you respond to them.

As I said on Twitter this past week:

I’ve found that the best lessons in life — by far — are those where you learn how NOT to do something.

But still, as good as vicarious experiences are, they only get you so far.

In the beginning, there was the mistake…

By gum, was it a doozy! I’ll spare you the gory details (because they are — for the most part — irrelevant) but it was less a bug and more an infestation in the code. In the grand scheme of things, it has caused problems for our schedule, but the Under Cloud remains on course.

Stripping the whole problem down and tracing it to its source, it was — as these things often are — a failure to communicate, which resulted in team members and myself labouring under the assumption that something was when it wasn’t.

And then came the procedure…

So how did I respond?

We’re using a number of things to manage what we do. As a team of 3, we don’t need a lot, but we find that Slack and Trello are enough to keep things together, although we often find things said and done become lost inside the whirring cogs of the communication machine!

I created a list in Trello and added a card entitled: “Deprecated”, within which I wrote the following description:

“Here are all of the parts, components, and libraries of the application that have been deprecated, and what they’ve been superseded with.

Please update this card as and when required, but also refer to it, too!”

Some might argue it’s just a patching of holes, while some might claim it’s only of any use if people follow the procedure, but I would counter by saying that’s life, business, and everything else…


Why I switch web browsers, and — perhaps — you should, too!

When it comes to web browsers, I’m a bit of a nomad; I tend to shift around a lot. Also, I use a particular web browser for a specific task. Obvious question, here: why? So here are few things I do, which you might find useful…

Work smart with web browsers

What, you’re using just the one web browser? Madness! It’s all about being efficient. I find it faster and easier to switch between applications than tabs, since there are more keyboard shortcuts for the former than there are for the latter.

Here’s a bunch of essential keyboard shortcuts for Mac and Windows.

So let’s say I’m cataloguing web pages in the not-so hush-hush project I’m working on, the Under Cloud. I have the web page open in Apple’s Safari — for example — and the Under Cloud open in Google Chrome, using the keyboard shortcuts to switch between the two, copying and pasting between the two (we’re working on an extension for Google Chrome, which would cut out the copy-paste thing).

Whether you’re on a Mac or Windows, switching between applications is simple (command+tab for Mac, and alt+tab on Windows).

I mostly use Safari for phpMyAdmin, to manage the databases for client and personal projects, whereas I tend to use Google Chrome for Pocket, doing research, and so on. I sometimes use Firefox Developer Edition for development and testing. But as I said, I’m a web browser nomad, so things can change (I was using Opera for a time).

Getting more from Google Chrome

If you are using Google Chrome (which a lot of people are, these days), and you use lots of tabs, as I do, I recommend you use the following extensions, both by Suspension Labs:

  • Spaces, allows you to store windows containing tabs and load them when you need them. You can also assign a keyboard shortcut to bring up a dialogue listing your spaces (I use alt+space), which can navigate via the up and down arrow keys, and active via the return key.
  • The Great Suspender, “pauses” tabs so they don’t take up tons of memory, which is a boon for active websites (web applications) such as Twitter or Facebook.

I hope you gleaned something new and / or useful from this minor excursion into my workflow…


Is it possible to run a paperless business?

Ten years ago, going paperless would have been desirable but almost impossible. Now, the idea of running a paperless office is just about doable. I should know, I’ve been trying for long enough. Here’s my experiences and some handy tips to help you make your business paperless, too.

I hate filling out forms. I may have an allergy to paperwork. So much so, I often go to extraordinary lengths to avoid paperwork myself.

I rarely work hard. I work smart instead. You may find me toiling over something for a while, only to discover that over time, I’ve made a saving in some way. So I’m always on the look-out for novel ways of doing boring things faster and more efficiently. Going paperless falls slap bang into this area, but it’s not been easy.

Why go paperless?

But that’s not the only reason I wish to go paperless; email is much quicker and simpler alternative to sending a letter. And then there’s the green argument, which is entirely justified, too. Even though I’ve been working towards going paperless for years, the reality is much different to the imagined.

While I very rarely send a letter to anyone these days, I still get lots of written correspondence, especially from government agencies, like Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs, as well as Customs & Excise. Then there’s the junk mail, which is annoying to say the least.

3 reasons to go paperless in the office

To a greater and lesser extent, I have to make concessions, sacrifices and some extra effort to keep the paperwork to a minimum. And here’s three reasons why you should try running a paperless office:

  1. In your own small way, you’ll be helping the environment. So if you’re a big company and you manage to make the transition to electronic communications and document management, you’ll be making an even greater impact.
  2. Save valuable storage space. I have clients who dedicate entire rooms to filing cabinets and storage boxes. Imagine being able to recover all that space and use it for something more worthwhile.
  3. Going paperless also means going electronic, which means things should be much easier to store and find. I emphasize the word “should” because unless you have a good idea of how you want to store your company data, you’re just as likely to lose a file on your computer as you are a letter on your desk! So unless you have the right processes in place, you won’t feel the full force of the savings a paperless office can offer.

What kind of things can you do electronically?

There’s no point going paperless if you’re not aware of the very things where going paperless will have the greatest impact on your business. So here’s a few places where going electronic will pay dividends over time.

So here’s some ideas, with suggestions for alternative ways of doing things, depending on what the idea is and what it involves.

Internet banking

My internet banking offers a wealth of options for managing my business finances. I can view my account, see next day payments, settle invoices, transfer money between my various accounts, as well as view all of my previous bank statements and much more besides.

I’m in the process of adding my accountants to my internet banking account so they can handle all of my finances, keeping my involvement to a minimum. There are also other savings to be had here, such as less time spent traveling to and from their offices, as well is the calls between the two of us as we try to track down that one lost bank statement.

Submitting your VAT and filing your company accounts

You can now file your VAT on-line. I’ve now authorized my accountants so now I don’t even have to sign anything. And once they get access to my internet banking, I doubt I’ll have any involvement at all.

It’s been possible to file company accounts to Companies House for some years. Slowly but surely, the various government agencies are getting their act together and moving onto the internet.

Manage your projects and time sheets

I wrote my own software some time ago to help me manage my projects and to keep track of my work time. But in the end, I ran out of time to add the kind of features that I needed. In the end, it was cheaper to buy a 3rd party application than spend my time updating my own.

So I bought Daylite and Billings. I’m a Mac, not a PC. So unless you own a Mac, Daylite and Billings are no good for you. However, there are tons of alternatives out there.

Daylite is CRM (Customer Relationship Management) package with some solid project management tools thrown in. I use Daylite to manage all of my client projects, emails and events, and more. Billings in a time tracking and invoicing tool.

They’re both from the same company, which means they work quite closely together, so I can shunt tasks or entire projects into Billings from Daylite.

Here are alternatives to Daylite and Billings for PCs, and here’s some earlier thoughts of mine on project management.

Make notes of meetings and telephone conversations

When I make calls, I often make notes of what was discussed, especially if it’s a lengthy call to (or from) a client. Daylite is great here because it has a calendar built right in. So all I do is double-click on the approximate time in the day cell of the calendar and up pops an event window. All I need to do is add in what was said, by whom, when and for how long for. I bypass paper all together.

Send and receive emails with PDFs, not letters or faxes

So once I’ve completed a project and the client is happy, I send an email containing a copy of the invoice as a PDF file. Billings gives me the option to print the invoice, or save it as a PDF. As a backup, I save all of the PDFs to a special folder, so I have copies available.

This is applicable to anything, really. If you use a Mac, you can “print” any document as a PDF from the print window, which is a huge bonus. Again, make sure you have a good storage policy in place so you know precisely where your documents are.

You can even send and receive electronic faxes. I’ve been using You’re Always Connected for years. You get a number to use for either voicemail or faxes. Now, all of my faxes come through as emails with the fax attached as a PDF. So if the fax is from a client, I just move it to the client folder in my mail client. Simple.

Buy ebooks rather than a printed books

Thinking of buying a book to learn something new? Many publishers are now offering electronic alternatives which you can buy on-line and download right there. In many cases, not only are they cheaper, they often include bonus tools and other extras. If you really, really must, you can make a hard copy — and if you really, really, really must print a copy:

  1. make the type size as small as possible, without it being unreadable;
  2. make the margins as wide as possible, without loosing anything;
  3. if your printer supports it, do a duplex and print both sides, and if not, do it by hand.

Use your iPhone as an ad hoc route planner / alternative to maps

Going to a meeting for the first time? Planning on using Google Maps to plot your route and then print it out? If you have an iPhone, use the Maps app’ and then use it just like a GPS for your car.

You get all of the benefits of Google Maps, such as a turn-by-turn route planning, and it even shows you when you’re in motion, moving along the road.

A better workflow

Sadly, there isn’t one application that will scoop everything up and make all of your paperwork suddenly vanish. You need to commit to a slightly different way of doing things. I’m not going to fool you into thinking this is simple because it isn’t. You need to sit down and workout your workflow and make it more efficient. If you have a team, then it’s a team effort.

As an example, I wrote a web application for a client, which took their system of pen, paper and Excel and transformed it into an app’ called To Book which automates and manages almost all of the hotel room booking process, from initial request to confirmation of reservation. Here’s some ideas for making your company workflow paperless:

  • There’s no getting away from the fact that at some point, you’ll still be using paper. So when you do (be it a print out, or a doodle), use the clean side for making quick notes, and then when you’re done, recycle it.
  • Having the right software is paramount, especially when it comes to notation. You need to be able to launch that app’ fast and make notes quickly, especially when someone calls you on the phone. So make shortcuts to those applications and ensure you can export your notes into something else, like your CRM software.
  • When it comes to software designed to deal with customer data, for example, try to standardize across the business, so everyone is using the same tools for things like notation, calendars, office productivity etc. This way, it’s much easier to synchronize and share your data.

Here’s an article of mine (as a PDF, funnily enough) discussing ways of making your workflow more efficient.

Use web-based office productivity software

Here I’m thinking of Google Docs, but now Microsoft are getting in on the act with Microsoft Docs. You can create and share spreadsheets, presentations and text documents with clients and colleagues wherever and whenever. Also, you can sort and store your documents in colour-coded, named folders, which will help make managing you digital assets that bit easier.

And then there’s Google Wave, too. Wave is a word processor with some added smarts. Several people can type into the same document at the same time, which has some truly amazing side benefits, especially for brainstorming. Also, there’s a visual revision history tool, so you can skip backwards and forwards through the different changes that everyone has made, should you (or anyone else) make a mistake or wish to go off in a different direction.

Here’s some ideas of mine on how to make the most of Google Wave.

Use document management software

Chances are, you’ve got thousands of documents that you can’t just send of to be recycled. Besides, you may still need them. So what do you do? You need a document management system. Essentially, a document management system contains the scanned versions of all your printed materials.

This does depend on the kind of document management software you’d be using, but the process typically involves some kind of OCR, which stands for Optical Character Recognition. Which means? Once scanned, you can search your documents as if they were word processed files. In fact, that’s exactly what they become.

So that room filled with shoulder-high filing cabinets can be squeezed into a modestly sized external hard drive, with room left to spare.

Thoughts from the community

Fujitsu Scansnap scanner, industrial shredder, eFax, Instapaper on iPhone. Paperless office sorted.” — Sally Church of Icarus Consultants.

“I find using Evernote removes the hassle of paper notes. Plus, it also allows you to keep notes sync’d across devices.” — Simon Barker, owner of Zath, the tech & games blog.

“A good place to start going paperless is invoicing — much easier and cheaper to produce and send out PDFs instead of printed forms.” — Brian Heys, freelance software tester.

“Scan your signature, paste it into your documents and email back contracts. Sign up for electronic billing wherever possible. Tick the ‘don’t pass on my details to third parties’ box at all times. Always choose email / text / phone as preferred contact method and not postal mail. Sign up for something like EchoSign so that you can get e-signatures. think before you print, usually you just don’t need to. Cancel newspaper subscriptions, and read news on-line, or get a subscription to Factiva / Lexis Nexis for comprehensive electronic access to the news.” — Emily Cagle, communications consultant.

“Forget business cards connect using LinkedIn (simply typing in a public URL).” — Joe Edwards, designer and marketer for Hurricane Marketing.

“Make a list of all the crap publications you get and wipe them out [unsubscribe], all of them!” — Jon-Marc Creaney, architect and designer.

Conclusion

Hopefully, we’ve managed to fill your head with no end of new ideas. But if you’re already running a paperless office, we want to hear your ideas!


9 steps to building a better biz tech’ workflow

Technology marches on. The rate of technological progress increases all of the time. How we react to this change varies from the hopeful to the outright hostile. But what if there’s a new technology that could improve your workflow?

To those like me, technological change is both inevitable and usually for the better. For some, the changing face of technology is a barrier.

Are barriers to new technology all in the mind?

So can we say that mindset is a barrier to the uptake of new technology? This was the question put to me recently, where my reply was published as a centre spread in the event organizer publication.

The common perception (and by extension, a common misconception) is that technology is something new. No, technology is as old as the first stone wielded to crack a nut:

“You see, the perception is that technology is new stuff, like computers, energy-efficient light bulbs, high-speed trains, space flight, nanotechnology, genetics, crazily tall buildings and stupidly long bridges.

When in actual fact, technology is glazed drinking mugs, the three field system, mass-produced cloths, glass windows, zip fasteners, the bow & arrow, central heating and the printed word.”

And the events industry is by no means an exception to such mental barriers, as I noted in the featured article:

“It’s not that people resist change for no reason, it’s that the resistance comes as a result of there not being compelling enough reasons to do things differently.”

There’s several ways of looking at this issue:

  • having looked at the technologies available, only to discover few if any are an appropriate fit, or replacement of those currently being used;
  • not having looked at the available technologies in enough detail, to determine their benefits;
  • fear of technology and change itself.

It’s easy to say people are lazy or ignorant, but it’s not nearly that simple. Once you’ve got yourself a workflow, it’s a brave person who risks the productivity of their business to find new and better ways of doing things.

New technology ideas. Same old business problems

This becomes even more of a concern if you’re a business with employees. The potential for short-term disruption might be more expensive than the gained benefits over the same period. This is always a challenge, for any business.

Scale that up for multinationals businesses, like a leading client of mine who’re in the process of moving over to Microsoft SharePoint, and the training costs alone would make you wince, not to mention actual implementation, technical support, or the cost of the software itself.

Having seen how I’d recently re-built my entire workflow around Marketcircle’s Daylite CRM package for the Mac, a client of mine, PR and communications professional Emily Cagle decided to buy an iMac and download a trial version of Daylite. This is fine if there’s only the one of you, as is the case with my client and myself.

There are those brave souls who abandon paper and pens and even the comfy confines of Microsoft Excel. A couple of years ago, I developed a web application for Premier UK, an events management specialist based in the West Midlands. This was a complete departure for them, and an exceptionally brave and bold move, too. Obviously not for everyone.

But if you’re a bigger company, what’s the solution?

Building a better workflow

Whenever I offer advice, I do so from my own point of view; what would I do if I were in their situation? If you’re keen to try out a new technology in your business, it’s essential the process be as real as possible, while minimizing the chances of their being major problems along the way:

  1. make sure that whatever new technologies you choose will link into and integrate with your business in the same or a similar way to the ones they’re replacing;
  2. whether it’s software or hardware, do some research and find out what other people think;
  3. if it’s a software-based solution, see if there’s a trial version available;
  4. identify a low priority / low cost project that doesn’t have a strict deadline;
  5. to make the experience as real as possible, engage with the customer / client and get them on your side, maybe with a financial incentive for them to be a Guinea pig;
  6. make sure you have access to all of the support staff / resources you’re going to need when things go wrong, because there’s a very good chance they will;
  7. document your every action, so you or anyone else can re-trace your steps;
  8. be sure to involve at least one other member of your team, to ensure the knowledge you’re acquiring isn’t all in one place;
  9. compartmentalize each process and measure the amount of time taken, then compare to your present workflow.

Of course, each business is different, so it’s as well that you write down your existing process first, making sure your leap of faith isn’t going to result in the loss of some key aspect of your workflow.

We all want to make more money. Ideally, we want to make more money while making less effort. By building a workflow based around more efficient technologies, you’re heading in the right direction.