Six cups of flour, one cup of oats, one tablespoon each of yeast, sugar and salt. Whisk together. Add three cups of warm water and stir.

If you’re thinking that sounds a lot like a recipe, you’re right. That’s exactly what it is. But it’s also a very specific set of instructions for accomplishing a task. In other words, it’s a system. And I follow this system every time I bake bread.

Here’s why:

  • The results are predictable. My bread always turns out exactly the way we like it.
  • The process is efficient. There’s no wasted time or movement.
  • It’s fast. I’ve done this exactly the same way for years, so I don’t spend time figuring out where the yeast is or whether or not to proof it first. I already know.

Running a Business is Just Like Baking Bread

Consistent, effective and predictable results in business is as easy as following a recipe. The key is to create repeatable systems you (or better yet, your virtual assistant) can use over and over again. Whether you’re writing a blog post or organizing a live event, the systems you have in place–or lack of them–will determine your success.

For years, I was the only one running this business. Everything I did–every project I set up, every task I completed, every invoice I sent–came right out of my head. No one else knew what I did, or how.

Without me, the business would not have existed. Worse than that, I could not step away. I had to be on hand, or nothing got done.

Sound familiar? That’s exactly how a lot of small business owners operate. Some even keep it that way on purpose. But if you want to grow, or even take a vacation, you have to have documented, repeatable systems in place that can allow you to turn over the work to someone else.

You have to create the recipes, then let someone else do the cooking.

Documentation Made Easy

Whether you call it your operations manual, work instructions, or standard operating procedures, there’s nothing magical about documenting your business systems. All you really need is a way to create a list of instructions.

Microsoft Word, Open Office or any other writing tool is a good place to start. Consider creating a standard format for all your documentation, so no step or important information is ever missed.

You need to be able to share your documents with others as well. Any file sharing service will work, but ideally you’ll want to choose one that allows for collaboration as well as easy restrictions, so you can control who has access to your procedures.

Here’s a pro tip that will make creating documentation nearly effortless: Get your VA to do it!

She is already doing the work, and knows exactly what needs to happen, so it makes perfect sense to have her write out the steps she followed. Then it’s a quick job for you to edit the procedure to meet your exact specifications.

What Gets Documented?

The short answer is everything. The long answer is a little more complicated, but you’ll never go wrong by documenting everything about your business. An extreme example comes from Sam Carpenter, of Work The System. In his book he advocates creating a procedure for everything, right down to how you answer the phone.

While that’s a great goal, it’s a level of perfection that most online businesses don’t need to strive for. Instead, follow this rule of thumb:

If a task requires more than 3 steps and will be performed more than once by multiple people, document it.

In other words, if it’s complex enough that it needs instructions, create them. Simple as that.

Policies Matter

Simply creating the documentation is not enough. You have to also develop and enforce your company policies, the first of which is that procedures are made to be followed. No matter who is performing a task, the first step is always to check the documentation. Even if you’re the one performing the task, and you’ve done it 100 times before, take a glance at your checklist first. Believe it or not, it’s even easier to miss a step when you’ve done the same task over and over and over again.

Ever forget to lock your door when you leave the house? That’s how easy it is to miss a step.

It may sound as if all of the documenting and sharing of files will cost you time, rather than saving it. But here’s what you need to remember: reinventing the wheel every day is inefficient. It takes much more time and energy than does spending 5 minutes to document a task.

Not only that, but without clear documentation in place, you run the risk of mistakes. Using the wrong color link in an email or uploading your podcast to the wrong server probably won’t have much effect on your business, but what about other errors? What if your VA sets up your new coaching program with a 50% commission rather than 10%? What if you accidentally use a direct link to a JV offer in your email rather than an affiliate link? What if you forget to set your primary business domain to auto-renew?

What will those mistakes cost?

So while the initial investment might feel cumbersome, the long-term benefits far outweigh the time you’ll spend.

Documenting your procedures is the first step to better–and more efficient–project management. And when you get that right, your business will be smooth sailing.