Copywriter, technical writer, translator (FR>EN, ES>EN, IT>EN), journalist

Designing business processes

Do you regularly repeat certain lengthy processes in your business? For instance, do you take the same steps to deliver a certain service to a customer? If you do, you probably know what steps to take when. You might, however, forget a step or two when the process stretches out over days and weeks.

To plan my project work, I create tasks and appointments in my calendar. I often found myself creating the same sets of tasks for specific types of projects. That made me wonder how I could set them up as templates so I could “apply” them to projects quickly without having to recreate them for each project. Besides reducing time needed for administrative and planning work, doing this gives me the chance to regularly review my processes so I can refine them.

Thankfully, I’ve been applying templates for several years, though it took me a while to get here.

What I use for project management

I use Daylite, a Mac-only application for customer relationship management and project management. Daylite comes from Toronto-area developer Marketcircle.

What I tried to use, and why

Before I switched to Daylite, I used Microsoft Entourage‘s Project Centre. If the Entourage database didn’t get corrupted so easily, I’d still be using it and would not have had to look for another solution (which ended up being Daylite).

Microsoft Entourage is what Microsoft Outlook should be:

  • software with all the features people actually need
  • hooks up to Microsoft Exchange
  • none of the features nobody uses (“recall email” anybody?)

I used Project Centre to build “dashboards” for each project I did. Those dashboards were focused views for each individual project. They contained:

  • an email folder
  • a task list
  • a contact list
  • calendar appointments
  • a view of a project file folder

Microsoft Entourage is now gone, replaced by Microsoft Outlook for Mac. Even though I probably won’t leave Daylite, I still hope Microsoft brings Project Center to Outlook. The Entourage design would make Outlook easier and more robust for everybody who uses it.

Introduction to activity sets

I also won’t go back to Project Center as it was because Daylite is much more capable than Entourage ever was. For starters, the Daylite database has not gone corrupt in the six years I’ve been using Daylite.

It also lets me create activity sets for my projects and opportunities. Activity sets are fantastic. (FYI: projects and opportunities are dashboards onto project work and on potential customers, respectively. They offer the same overall look and feel. I can easily convert opportunities to projects when I win customers. And they’re easy to understand thanks to Marketcircle’s tutorial videos and manuals.)

My periodical assignments activity set

When I create a periodical project, I assign this activity set to the project so that the steps get set up as tasks on the appropriate days. Here’s what my “Periodical assignments” activity set looks like.

Activity_set_periodical_Daylite

I used to create activity sets manually using Entourage, so when I saw this feature in Daylite, my eyes popped. (I don’t remember Entourage offering activity sets.)

Here’s a quick video Marketcircle produced to explain activity sets. (You’ll see they come in handy for just about any process, not just projects.)

Adding activities

The “+” in the top right corner lets me add activities (i.e. tasks and appointments) to the set. I only use tasks since I rarely know what time appointments will happen when I set up a new project. I can later link new appointments to existing projects or opportunities.

Start or end days

The day on which I set up a project is the “start day.” You can set up activity sets either

  • working forward from a start day
  • working backwards from a deadline

I can move tasks to other days by dragging and dropping them on my calendar. That’s what I always do, since the dates are never all where I need them to be – though they’re close.

Steps in my periodical project activity set

This is the process as it exists today. (Suggestions welcome in the comments below.)

call for interviews for @@ article…

This is the date when I send out initial media requests. There’s email, other sources, and I’m increasingly using LinkedIn to reach out as well. For my trade magazine technology column, for instance, I have an email list of contacts as well as a LinkedIn group where I post upcoming column topics.

If you’re like most people, your eyes get stuck on the “@@” wildcard. I can’t code project or opportunity names into tasks since I don’t know what they will be, and I want this template to apply for the many projects I create in the future that follow the same steps. Daylite conveniently replaces the “@@” with the name of the project/opportunity when I assign the activity set to the project/opportunity.

social media note: starting research on @@ for an article

A quick broadcast on my article topic can elicit other potential interview sources. I broadcast to Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Google+ via Hootsuite.

mind map for @@ article

By this point, I have set up and performed actual interviews. They aren’t in the activity set since I don’t know ahead of time who I’ll interview or when we can schedule the interviews.

Here’s where I start to arrange the hodgepodge of ideas and quotes I’ve gathered. I use Freeplane, an offshoot of Freemind, to do this. I like dragging and dropping ideas in a mind map since ideas rarely come to me in publishable order.

begin draft of @@ article

I copy the top node in the Freeplane mind map and paste it into a text editor. I increasingly use TextEdit, a basic text editor, instead of Microsoft Word, when I write the first draft.

The Freeplane nodes get pasted in the order I’ve arranged them in the map, so all I need to do is write from point to point in the text document. I write quickly, not stopping for doubts. If I have any, I make comments in the draft and come back to them later. All I want to do at this stage is complete a first draft

revise and finalize draft for @@ article

This step can take a few days. I don’t need a reminder for this, since once I’m in the middle of a project, it stays on my mind until it’s done.

submit and invoice for @@ article

(self-explanatory)

social media: “just submitted article on @@” and “now researching” note

I let the world know that the article is in the publication’s hands. If I’m working on something else, I mention it here too.

check for @@ invoice payment

Invoices rarely take this long to arrive, but if they do, I see a reminder to send a friendly reminder email.

ask for PDF of @@ article from editor

I can usually get a copy of the published article off the Internet, but if I need to, I can ask the editor for a copy.

post @@ article on my website and Twitter, LinkedIn about it

Once first publication rights have expired, I let the world see what I’ve had published. I post the article on my website (with a link back to the publication’s site) and broadcast the link to that article using social media.

What do you use to design business processes?

This is my current system, and it works well for me. That said, I’m not married to Daylite. I’d love to hear about – even see demos of – other systems that offer this type of labor-saving feature, and others that speed up work. Tell me about your favourite business process design tools in the comments below.

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