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Documentation: the soul of a business

Without documentation, a business isn’t doomed to fail. It is doomed to fail to thrive.

Introduction: a cyberpunk, a guru, and a dentist

This is a weird post. It’s my effort to explain a concept that I initially dismissed as hooey, and slowly, over the course of 15+ years of working primarily in start-up environments, came to embrace.

It all started with a dentist.

Dr. Teeth & the Electric Mayhem

The shit-show that was my first-ever job at a digital agency taught me a lot — mostly through what I call “minefield learning,” which means just trying until something blows up. After two years of begging and arguing and losing business, the owner finally brought in a high-level back-office consultant. The consultant would help us develop procedures for on-boarding new clients and maintaining accounts and generally delighting our customers.

(Which we sorely needed! The owner was great at landing new business. However, all his experience had been at Ye Olde School Mad Men-type agencies where the billboard was considered cutting-edge and your only KPI was your expense account. He knew absolutely nothing about digital marketing, which led to a LOT of overpromising, which led to consistent underdelivering, which led (at least in my case) to incipient alcoholism and an ulcer.)

The consultant also happened to be the owner’s dentist. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Dr. Teeth interviewed me and asked me about processes and procedures I followed. Because I was kind of an anarchist and kind of dumb and definitely young, I had none.

So Dr. Teeth told me something that stuck with me ever since: “Documentation is the soul of a business.”

I smirked and blithely ignored him. Not long after, well before Dr. Teeth was able to start documenting our ad hoc seat-of-our-pants fire-suppression-style of work, I took a new job as #2 at an ecommerce startup.

The self-replicating franchise

I’ve been a science fiction nerd my whole life. One of my top-ten all time faves is Neal Stephenson’s legendary Snow Crash. Here’s a relevant excerpt:

The franchise and the virus work on the same principle: what thrives in one place will thrive in another. You just have to find a sufficiently virulent business plan, condense it into a three-ring binder ― its DNA ― xerox it, and embed it in the fertile lining of a well-traveled highway, … when a businessman from New Jersey goes to Dubuque, he knows he can walk into a McDonald’s and no one will stare at him. He can order without having to look at the menu, and the food will always taste the same. McDonald’s is Home, condensed into a three-ringed binder and xeroxed. “No surprises” is the motto of the franchise ghetto, its Good Housekeeping seal…

Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash (emphasis mine)

The whole book’s well worth a read.

Doesn’t this really capture it, though? This idea that a business can be condensed into a single three-ring binder and replicated across the globe’s strip malls and air conditioned nightmares?

The Bus Test

Simon Sinek came to town and gave a speech to a local EO chapter. The dude’s brilliant, and I took pages and pages of notes — here’s the relevant bit for this discussion:

I always ask, Can this start-up pass the bus test? That’s when the owner gets run over by a bus. Does the business die, too?

The difference between businesses that pass the bus test and those that fail?

  • Culture — an established business culture (see the TED talk — better than the book! Also lots of great stuff about how different ways of communicating connect with different parts of our brains.)
  • Documentation — how we do the things we do

Small businesses get by with maintaining culture and procedures (if they exist at all) hand-to-hand. (Imagine a Neandertal mom teaching her daughter to weave.) Without records, each generation or round of new hires has to be mentored and hand-reared into the company culture and procedures. That places incredible limits on growth!

Scale is a fantasy. You can’t grow any faster than you can teach your new hires, one or two at a time.

Consistency doesn’t exist and execution is sloppy, because individuals facing the same challenges solve them different ways. Improvements run the risk of being lost because there’s no organized, central depository of accumulated learnings and experiences.

Imagine — if our Neandertal’s daughter invents a newer faster way of weaving that could totally revolutionize Ice Age textiles, a single lucky smilodon could all too easily wipe out this entire branch of garment manufacture. (Would they still call them sweat shops in the Ice Age?)

What is a culture, if not an archive of shared beliefs, goals, and purposes?

I drink the kool-aid

I still didn’t believe Dr. Teeth — the soul of a business, indeed!

On the other hand, the start-up was growing too fast for me to educate new-hires like I wanted to. So I started my own stab at documentation: instead of telling someone to do a thing, I wrote up the procedure and gave them that document instead. For procedures I wasn’t intimately familiar with (there were a few!), I asked the key person to write up the process they followed.

Nobody wanted to do this. Moving from a seat-of-your-pants git-er-done environment to one of procedures and thoughtfulness? Well, that frightened a lot of people. They worried I was using this exercise as an opportunity to find fault with their work, to get them to document their own mistakes and missteps as a method of catching them out and firing them.

I couldn’t figure out what was going on for several weeks before one of my Bothan spies told me what was up. Ugh. So I called everyone together and gave a talk. Here’s the brief version:

  • Every time I figure something out, I’m super excited! Then I forget how I did it. So when the problem comes up again, I have to solve it from scratch.
  • I’m sure someone in this room knows a better way to do the same thing — but since I don’t know, I’m stuck with only my own ideas.
  • Please help me get smarter by recording the awesome stuff you know.
  • Then we’ll help everyone get smarter by sharing all that awesome stuff.

When I made it about me, and my own shortcomings, about how awesome each of them were at their jobs (so much better than me!) and how I needed their help to catch up — when I appealed to their vanity and professional accomplishments, I got buy-in.

So what happened?

OMG life got SO much easier!

New hires had procedures to fall back on. Existing staff had access to, well, basically, to the company’s entire institutional memory.

And that’s when it really clicked for me.

Learning is experiential. When a business is small, and scale is a lot less important than just getting the job done, we work on a lot of different tasks. We learn broadly. We develop mental databases of what to try when X happens, and who to ask when you see Y error.

As businesses grow, those early staff get pushed up, away from the hands-on, toward leadership and management tasks. Staff come to them — “X happened! What do I do?” and “I see Y error, how do I fix it?” and we senior staff dispense crumbs of wisdom like dime-store Yodas and bask in the gee-whiz-you’re-so-smart praise.

My professional staff who most strongly resisted the push toward formal procedures and documentation were those who felt most threatened by losing that praise. The narcissistic types, and those whose psychological job security rested on being the only one who knew how to fix X.

It took a while, a whole lot of cajoling and browbeating, but I finally showed them the liberation of externalizing all that institutional memory. It’s like this: when you’re the only person who can fix X, that’s what you do. When you’re NOT the only person who can fix X, you can do ANYTHING.

Documentation really is, well, not the “soul” of a business, Dr. Teeth was wrong about that. Documentation is the DNA of a business. (Thanks, Mr. Stephenson, for the superior metaphor.) Without it, businesses can’t scale. Valuable insights are lost dashing from one fire to the next.

Without documentation, a business isn’t doomed to fail. It is doomed to fail to thrive.

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