Do guidelines drive or drown small businesses?

How do you create guidelines that drive your business, rather than drown it? Here we look at the benefits of guidelines and how you can improve yours.

Guidelines placard

(Hat tip to jcm_DC for the photo)

Flexible working is becoming the norm – 95 percent of medium-sized businesses already have flexible work policies in place. With a more mobile workforce, it can feel tempting to draw up more extensive guidelines so everyone’s clear about what to do in every eventuality. But too much process and protocol can kill productivity. So how do you develop guidelines that work for you?

Think small

The more massive an object, the more energy is required to change its direction. It’s as true in the business world as it is in the physical world […] Instead of an aircraft carrier, you steer a cigarette boat. Revel in that fact.

37signals hits the nail on the head. Small businesses’ best advantage is the flexibility and quick turnaround afforded by their small size and lack of bureaucracy. Any changes in market demands can quickly be adapted to, rather than having to filter through various departments and be discussed in countless meetings.

This trait goes hand in hand with clear, concise company guidelines.

A company handbook or guide shouldn’t read like a contract ­– no one will read it and you’ll fail to kindle an effective company culture. Guidelines should simply guide your employees, not constrain them.

At Articulate Marketing (Turbine’s sister company), we all work remotely but there’s no lengthy, dry tome of regulations, rules and policies. We have a pithy employee handbook on Turbine, a writer’s guide and a tone of voice document. And it seems to work rather well. We keep in regular contact and trust each other to get the work done.

That’s not to say that you should completely ignore process and policy – a little bit of process can make routine chores more efficient – but keep it short, sweet and relevant.

Keep guidelines human

It’s also important to keep guidelines relatable and personable. A jumble of legalese and techno-babble, no matter how concise, will get you nowhere.

At Microsoft’s recent ‘Reimagining and the Enterprise’ event in London, Pat Healy from the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) discussed the shift in vision of the company’s engineering and shared services division. He explained that the new vision started out as a paragraph-long mission statement framed in the usual corporate double-speak and, predictably, it was completely ineffective. No one knew what it meant, let alone how to act on it.

But the statement was eventually whittled down into one sentence that described, in relatable terms, where the department wanted to go: ‘Trainware – making real the vision of writing code on the train to work.’ It’s human, gets to the point and it worked.

‘Use good judgement’

These three words make up HubSpot’s default company policy. You can’t get much more concise than that. It might seem simplistic, but at its heart is a powerful point: your recruitment process is integral to having effective and snappy guidelines.

If you hire people you trust and who ‘fit’ with the way you work then you won’t have to give them a hefty set of instructions and policies; you can trust them to use their common sense and get the job done well and on time.

‘Great people want direction on where they’re going – not directions on how to get there,’ as HubSpot’s excellent Culture Code explains.

Guidelines – the verdict

Do guidelines drown or drive your business? Depends on how well they’re written.

Some process is a must – it avoids the same questions being asked twice and gives your employees clear direction. But keep guidelines brief, human and relevant.

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