You might be wearing your business chaos or multi-tasking skills as a badge of honor, but there’s definitely a better way to thrive. I got to talk to Brandon Uttley of Go for Launch podcast about how to eliminate chaos that can impact your business.
We spend time discussing the paradox of how creating more structure frees people up to be more creative, disciplined, and effective. We also bust those multi-tasking myths, the bane of many small business owners. And, you’ll hear my secrets to setting boundaries with your clients, another tactic to eliminate chaos.
Please find the full video transcript below
Introduction: This is the Go For Launch podcast.
Brandon: I’m excited today to have Susan Fennema as my guest. Susan is the Chaos Eradicating Officer, CEO of Beyond The Chaos. It’s a consultancy that helps small business owners to simplify their operations and manage their projects, so they can get their businesses and their lives back, which is great on both counts. With more than 30 years of operations and project management experience in professional service industries, Susan is on a mission to improve American society exponentially. When she’s not working on multi-course dinners, she enjoys Texas A&M football games and Blackhawks hockey. So we can ask her about that as well. She lives and works from her home in McKinney, Texas, with her husband, dog, and cat. Susan, welcome to the Go For Launch podcast.
Susan: Hello there, Brandon, and thank you so much for having me.
Brandon: Absolutely. Well, I always start by asking people, where are you in the world today? Are you in Texas?
Susan: We are in Texas and we’re in McKinney, which is northeast of Dallas.
Brandon: Excellent. Great place, lots of big football country and-
Susan: Oh, yeah. We have-
Brandon: Bad snowstorms apparently this year, so we won’t talk about that.
Susan: That too. That too. But we do have the battle of which high school has the biggest stadium these days.
Brandon: Ooh, okay. Wow. Yeah. When-
Susan: Fun times.
Brandon: When you’re talking high school football, that is serious business.
Susan: Friday night lights is real, ya’ll.
Brandon: It is. Exactly right. Well, thank you so much. Well, we’re going to start by identifying two subjects that are near and dear to your heart, Susan. The first is chaos. And the second is structure. So there’s sort of counterbalancing. I’d love you to start by talking first about what you mean by chaos, and then also how can structure serve as a remedy?
Susan: Sure. I’m a small business owner too, so even though I know how to remedy it, now and then, I get in this mode too, right? Your client is mad at you because you didn’t deliver your stuff on time. Your team is frustrated because they don’t know what to work on next. The phone is not ringing or maybe it is. Either way, it’s stressful.
Your email box is completely overflowing, and you literally are just sitting there going, “I don’t even know what is my next priority to take care of. I don’t even know what to do. It is complete and total overwhelm.” That is essentially chaos. Many small business owners operate in this world, enough so that I created a business for it. It is absolutely controllable.
Brandon: Well, that’s good to know because a lot of people seem to thrive on that, which we’re going to talk about; not the structure part, they thrive on the chaos or at least they think they can or should or whatever, wear it as a badge of honor. But why, Susan? Why is structure important? How can people start to implement that if their life or their business is, as you suggested, sort of out of control?
Susan: Yeah. Chaos will start to dissipate if you put some structure around everything, so you need some processes. The reason the small business owner has to do everything is that he or she cannot get everything out of their head. It’s all in your head. You’re not following a process that’s been written and shared with your team.
When you’re small, that’s probably okay. You’re talking to a couple of people a day, no big deal. But as you start to scale, it gets out of control real fast and you just can’t talk to that many people. Many people find that they can’t grow beyond three, four people because that’s just how many you can talk to each day. So putting that structure around your business is really what’s going to set you free from it.
Susan: I know it sounds counterintuitive, but it will.
Brandon: That’s right. And by the way, I don’t think sticky notes are structure either because I’m thinking of one guy that I knew that was a very successful business owner, and his organizational structure was 100 different sticky notes all over his monitor and desk and all this. It used to just freak me out.
Susan: That is so funny you bring that up. I used to manage a bunch of project managers in an ad agency, and one of the things they were responsible for was routing the materials through the agency, through all the different players to get sign-off. Sticky notes were forbidden in this. I just flat out said, “If I catch you’re using the sticky notes on it, I’m going to fire you. Just don’t.”
Brandon: Oh, wow.
Susan: They fall off, they’re not permanent, it is not a good office supply.
Brandon: Yeah, it can be good for brainstorming sessions-
Susan: Yeah, something like that.
Brandon: Or the little things like, “Pick up milk on the way home,” or whatever, but not for-
Susan: Something temporary.
Susan: Something temporary.
Brandon: Or for you personally. But yeah, this guy, he was a friend and every time I went in his office, would just cringe and go, “Man, you need a better system.”
Susan: That would stress me out.
Brandon: Worked for him. But yeah, totally freaked me out. But speaking of, as we mentioned earlier, some people seem to just thrive on chaos and this idea that they can multitask constantly. What do you say to those multitasking type “A’s” of the world?
Susan: Well, I am a type-A multi-tasker. I’m not going to lie, but you have to stop and I have to stop. And I do. I will catch myself. If you are doing more than one at a time, you’re not paying attention to the other thing. So if you’re in a meeting, there are only so many times that you can say, “Oh, wait. I didn’t hear your question,” before they’re onto you that you weren’t paying attention because you were in your QuickBooks messing around.
Susan: Or the total fear, you’re sharing your screen, people start talking and you’re like, “I wonder what’s on sale at Amazon.”
Susan: And all of a sudden, you’re showing your shopping history.
Brandon: Yeah, all your open tabs. They’re like, “Ooh, what’s that?”
Susan: So there’s a lot of belief that you can do a bunch of things at once, but you can’t. You really just need to tackle one thing at a time, move through them. Hey, I do that even if I’m taking an online class. I have a hard time paying attention to an online class and I’ll find myself start to meander and start to figure out something else to do. Before I know it, I haven’t learned one thing. I have to do it over. So just tone that down. Separate things. If you need to knock out a whole bunch of little tasks, then plan a certain time in your day to knock out a bunch of little tasks.
Brandon: Right. What are some other common mental blocks or other issues that you find prevent people from escaping the chaos and being stuck in it and thinking that, “This is just kind of the badge of honor I wear as a business owner or entrepreneur,” or whatever?
Susan: Well, you’re right. Some wear it as a badge of honor. I worked for somebody that I was trying to get him to be more task-oriented, work off your list. That will help you stop being overwhelmed. He had things on a list that were from two years ago. I’d be like, “You’re never going to do them. Just get rid of it.” He couldn’t do it because he felt like if he didn’t have way too much to do that, that he was going to fail, that there was a lack of business or work or something to do.
That is a challenge for many CEOs. As you stop working on your trade and you start systemizing your business, and it starts to run without you, just what we kind of want it to do, at least that’s what we say we want it to do, that you have to start figuring out what are you going to do? What do you do with your life now? What are all those things that you’ve been missing out on that you haven’t been doing?
Brandon: Yeah. Well, and it’s tough, like you said, as you transition from being the doer to the owner, the thinker or the strategist or whatever because the doing part of it is the busy-ness that makes people feel like they’re getting stuff done, checking the boxes all day long. It can be difficult to move from that, and like you said, dipping back into that laundry list of stuff that’s never been done and actually getting critical about it and reprioritizing, I think David Allen, one of the gurus that wrote, “Getting Things Done,” caused that psychic trash. Yeah, he’s like the godfather of all this stuff.
But it can indeed help when people start to systematize and move that stuff out of the to-do column and maybe put it in the someday maybe as David Allen calls it. But even then, that can just become just this giant Pandora’s box of crap. So you do have to get pretty rigorous with yourself about reprioritizing regularly. I imagine you help people do that all the time.
Susan: Absolutely. That’s one of the things that is very important is knowing what is next on your list and doing it in the right priority. Hey, I love to check off boxes. It’s my favorite thing. So sometimes, if I need to actually sit down and strategize, it’s hard for me. I’m much more tactical because I get a reward from being tactical of that dopamine when you check the box. But the other side of that is that you’re not doing anything that important necessarily when you’re there.
The strategy, it’s where that lives. So I adapt tools like I am going to have a strategy session, but what are the things I can check off that I’m going to think about or investigate or whatever?
So I plan my strategy session a little bit to give me that great feeling of being able to check things off the list there too. You can trick your brain a little bit, but the other is making sure that you are setting priorities. Anything to do with money, you need to do that first. That’s invoicing, that’s selling, that’s all those things. Getting your team moving, that’s another one.
If your team’s sitting idle while you’re doing all the work, your first job needs to be pushing that work off to them. Even if you feel like you have too much to do, well, let them do something while you’re doing your things too. So there are some ways to prioritize those things for sure.
Brandon: You learn these things early on in life. One of my first jobs, I hate to admit, was at Burger King. I had this manager, Susan, that one of his favorite sayings was, “If you got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean.”
Susan: That’s such a kitchen phrase, isn’t it?
Brandon: Never forgot it because I would use that later with people that were doing websites or whatever. I’m like, “Man, if you got time to sit there, you got time to do something more productive with your time.” So that’s what bosses do, right? They look for people to be more productive.
On the other hand, though, I wanted to ask you about this because I’ve had painful experiences in the past with colleagues and even business partners who didn’t respect boundaries. And these were the type A++ personalities that would claim they’re working 24/7. They would text people all day and night, just way over the top. What advice do you have for dealing with people like that who are overly aggressive or they just don’t seem to care when dealing with other people professionally?
Susan: So in the small business world, that would usually be your client that’s doing that to you. So if you want to run the parallel in a workplace, you can do that as the employee is the business owner in this case. But essentially, you have to set your own boundaries. So you know the number one way to make that stop happening? Stop answering it. Your phone doesn’t need to ring 24/7.
There just aren’t that many work emergencies. We’re not doing brain surgery. If you’re a software developer and you service people’s servers, sure. Those have to be up, but you can set up all sorts of notifications that will alert you differently from your client having your personal number and calling you at home. If you can get out of that, that’d be great.
I have an app that I have a phone. It rings on my cell phone, but it’s a separate number and I just don’t pay attention to it at night. The other, all of our emails have an ability to schedule these days. You can schedule an outgoing email. So if you’re working on an email, if you want to work at night, you get to do you. That’s the beauty of small business.
You get to work when you want to work but keep those boundaries with your client. Send that email. Go ahead and write it, but schedule it to go out the next day at 8:03 or whatever time you’re starting work. That starts to set their boundaries. So you can reply to them, but just don’t send it.
Brandon: Yes. Well, those are two amazing words that you just used, “boundaries,” and, “expectations.” I find that this is something too, that I find myself not doing all the time and I always kick myself when I don’t. For example, if I get a new client, I really need to present them and review a set of expectations, shared guidelines right upfront so that they do know the simple things that you sort of take for granted like, “Hey, if you need to get in touch with me, my preferred method of communication is an email between these hours and these days.
If something’s on fire and you need to get ahold of me, here’s my back phone number,” like you suggested, Susan. That’s a great idea. Maybe not give them your cell phone, but give them another back number, whatever you want to use so that when you see that come through, you realize, “Oh, that’s the client. I probably need to deal with this quickly or whatever.”
But make sure that they know so that if they start emailing you or calling you at 3:00 in the morning and they don’t hear back from you right away, you can say, “Well, I told you. I actually sleep,” or, “I’m not available on Saturdays or Sundays. I’ve got stuff with the kids,” or whatever you have that outside of work that takes precedence as well at certain times.
But as you suggested, it depends. If you’re a brain surgeon, of course. If you’re running web servers that have to be up and running and they go down, and I’ve been in that spot too where the website goes down, it’s Sunday night at 12:00 midnight. Yeah, you got to jump on it. That’s the nature of the beast, and you should have backup systems in place for that anyway.
Susan: For sure. One of the things that you can do when you’re selling to that client is if you want to offer a higher service like that where you’re available to them 24/7, then offer it and give them the price for that. What price is it worth it to you to have your kid’s soccer game interrupted? I hope most of you would say there is no price for that, not doing it. But if you feel like you have to do that in a certain case to serve your client, then put it in the proposal as a higher option. Then if they don’t pick that, they’re also well aware they didn’t choose it. So you’ve set those options up so that they’re clear on their expectations of what they’re getting. That is a great way to communicate that before you even start.
Brandon: Yeah. And either way, it’s more challenging these days I find, Susan, because of social media, for example. We’re all guilty at times, we get annoyed because you filled out somebody’s form on their website and it’s been an hour and you haven’t heard back from him. Then you’re like, “I’m going on Twitter and talk about how awful these people are because I’m trying to give them my business and they’re not even responding.” Right? So those things can be handled, even in that situation. You can have an autoresponder set up that says, “Hey, if you don’t hear back from us right away, it’s because we’re working with other clients. We’ll get back to you within 24 hours,” whatever it is. Right? So again, goes back to expectations.
Susan: If you have a service that is that important, then think about getting a VA from overseas, a virtual assistant, who can address those people immediately and that’s his or her whole job is that’s all they do. They address it and set it up for you to handle, get them on your calendar for the next day or the next week, or whatever you have set up. That then starts to also let you be free. That’s kind of what we’re talking about here is, how can you set yourself free? If you don’t write the structure that you expect down, then how is a VA going to actually even be able to fulfill your expectations?
If you don’t have it in writing, “Those emails need to be responded to within 30 minutes of receipt. We need to schedule a 30-minute call with that client next week. Here is a link to my availability. Put it on the calendar. I will call them on their phone. Get their number.” Okay, there’s a system right there. You’ve just created one and now, somebody can meet your expectations.
Brandon: That’s right. Well, you also mentioned project management earlier. What are the basics for small business owners to better manage projects with their team and their customers?
Susan: So the first thing is, if you’re doing it in email, stop it. Email is not the right tool. It is not a project management tool. You do need a tool, whether that be Asana, Basecamp, Teamwork is my favorite one. You have to have something that is the source of truth for your projects. Your emails can go through these softwares, so that you don’t have to get them.
Turn off your notifications. Don’t get the emails in your inbox. Go into the tool and look at what has come in. But you can also email through that with your client so that the Q&A is on the task you’re working on. The beauty of a project management system is it lets you assign a person a due date and even build a schedule if there’s more than one task, and that helps you stay in scope, it helps you stay in a budget, and it helps you stay on time.
Brandon: Right. I think personally, there’s no excuse these days, 2021 when we’re recording this and putting this out there, for somebody not to use a project management system. There are plenty of them available, back to the granddaddy of Basecamp or whatever. But like you said, there’s Asana, Trello. I use ClickUp. You like Teamwork.
There’s so many of them, but one of the problems I’ve found, Susan, and maybe you can address this as well, is the Luddites, the technophobes, whatever you want to call them, or the people that are just risk-averse, change-averse that say, “Don’t try to shove another tool down my throat. I just like my email inbox. And by golly, that’s all I want to use.” How do you deal with those people?
Susan: Well, Brandon, you mentioned it’s 2021, right?
Susan: When I graduated from college in 1980-
Brandon: Back in my day.
Susan: A long time ago, right?
Brandon: Yeah, I’m ‘87.
Susan: And get off my lawn.
Brandon: Yeah. We didn’t have this stuff. We didn’t even have computers.
Susan: We didn’t, but a Mac came out at that point.
Susan: And if you are older than me, you have also been in the business world for, it’s 40 years, people. It’s 40 years. If you have not started to be able to learn technology, either growing up with it and using it properly or becoming adjusted to it, you are going to work yourself out of a job. You just have to be able to use software. Open your mind, be willing to change. That’s actually one of our values is that we believe technology is also the right technology used the right way will also help set you free.
Our clients, if they are technophobes like you’re talking about, they’re probably not a good fit for us. If they want to write it on paper, they’re probably going to struggle and they’re going to struggle growing as well because what? They’re going to walk it down the hallway in their office, and how many people even have offices anymore?
Brandon: Yeah. A couple of things I tell people, and you may corroborate this as well, but if they’re trying to choose between three, four different things, which is common because their IT person likes this, somebody else says, “No, I like that,” well, then they all have free trials. So if you’ve burned through a free trial, get somebody else in your circle to do a free trial for seven to 14 days. Maybe compare and contrast two or three and then pick that finalist and just go all in. Right?
Susan: For sure go all in because of all of these tools… I hear that all the time, “Oh, Asana didn’t work for me.” “Oh, we can’t use Basecamp.” “Oh, Teamwork’s too complicated. They just don’t work.” The fact of the matter is they do. There are plenty of businesses using only those tools to perfectly manage their projects. So what’s important is that you pick one, go all in and then build a system around how to use it. It’s not just that you have the tool. It’s not going to magically make all this stuff happen. You have to actually use it. I always compare it to putting a hammer and a nail next to a picture and just hoping-
Brandon: Hoping they’ll hang each other?
Susan: I’m sure it’ll get hung. Not the same thing. You have to measure it. And where’s it going to go? And how high is it going to be? All of those things, same kind of thing to use this tool. Who does what? Who’s in charge of what? Most of these tools have multiple options. For example, Asana and Teamwork both have Kanban boards or they can do task lists or Gantt charts. There’s a bunch of different options.
So if you’re not being consistent in your business and one person’s using Gantt and one person’s using the Kanban boards, you’re going to even get more confused. So systemize how you’re doing that, build templates around those projects that you are repeating the steps of. And here’s my template tip, you can always remove steps. Trying to remember to add them is hard, so put them all in and delete the ones you don’t need on a smaller project.
Brandon: Yeah. Another piece of advice I have for any of the business owner types that are listening to this is to drink the Kool-Aid a little bit. It doesn’t mean you have to use the tool all day long yourself, but get involved in those initial sessions when it’s being implemented and set up so that you know enough and that you are paying attention. If you set up your expectations and your boundaries and say, “We’re all going to be using Asana. I’m not going to be in here every day necessarily, but if you need me, then you get in touch with me this way.
You message me or whatever, and give me a certain amount of time.” But what happens, I think, Susan, in my experience is that if the business owner and the others around him or her don’t take it seriously and don’t adopt it, then everybody else feels like, “Well, I get a pass because if Susan’s not doing it and Brandon’s not doing it, why should I do it?”
Susan: If you don’t think that your example matters, you’re just totally wrong. Your team will take your lead. If you’re in there working in it and if you’re… My team, every now and then I’m like, “Hey, guys. There are 24 late tasks. I need it cleaned up now.”
Brandon: Yeah, so you know what you’re looking at.
Susan: Right. They know, and that literally takes me 30 seconds to find out. They need to know that they are held accountable for that. You have to hold them accountable. One of the things that sometimes comes up when people start to put structure around their business and around their projects is they start to find that there are people… They are comfortable using the tool because they’re afraid of being held accountable because guess what? They might not be doing their job.
Susan: This kind of stuff sometimes comes to light. It’s not often, but it’s something we always want to make people aware of. You have to be willing to say, “If you can’t do this, you can’t be part of this team because we have to systemize it to grow. You are not going to hold us back.”
Brandon: Right. It’s a tough one. I’m telling a client now who’s the ultimate CEO and he was insistent on getting this new team of several players, including myself, internal at their organization and another external player to adopt a system, which we did and this person’s not using it, and started to complain about the lack of communication. We all said, “We’re communicating just fine in the system that you asked to set up. So you need to learn how to use the system. That’s the bottom line.” So absolutely on.
Susan: That is very important. And also, usually, the owner is the one that has all of those templates and systems in his head. All of that stuff that you can’t let go of because you’re the only one who knows it, you have to work with somebody to actually pull that out of your brain. Then it’s an ongoing process.
I find it all the time, great. We think we have it all. Let’s roll it out. Let’s have the software developer follow the startup process for this new project. All of a sudden, you get these questions. You’re like, “Oh. Well, I didn’t even know that was supposed to be in there because the business owner didn’t tell us when they were trying to brain dump.” But now, you have someplace to go fix it. You go to the template, you edit the template, and the next time, that question’s not there. It’s managed.
Brandon: Right. That is brilliant. Again, if you’re working at Burger King or you’ve got a big ad agency or whatever, more complicated, systems are what allow you to scale, and that’s how every fast food restaurant or whatever can drop a new location in and hire people, and they’re up and running within a matter of days because there are systems in place for that.
Susan: Absolutely. They do it the same way every time, and they greet. Look at something like In-N-Out or Chick-fil-A.
Susan: Even the words they use to greet you are the same.
Susan: And that kind of branding needs to happen through your business. If you are not, as soon as a client starts with you, if you’re not onboarding them the same way as you onboarded maybe the person that referred them to you, well, your brand’s not the same. You’re just randomly doing something. So that person might even be concerned that maybe they didn’t buy the same thing that their friend referred them to.
Brandon: That’s right.
Susan: So just be careful because all of that is part of who you are as a company, that outward look.
Brandon: Yeah. Absolutely. Let me ask you one quick question as we’re starting to wrap up and then we’ll see where people can learn more about you. But you’ve had experience, especially in code I’m sure managing teams virtually, what are some of the pitfalls to avoid and best practices to implement when it comes to virtual management?
Susan: I personally have been virtual for 11 years.
Susan: My business started as a virtual business five years ago. So I was a virtual employee before I was a virtual business owner. Many of our clients are virtual as well. One of the big things that’s important if you’re making that transition is to acknowledge the value that your team member brings to you instead of the hours that they’re punching on a clock and what those hours are. If you need eight hours of work, because you’re a software developer who builds by the hour, that’s fine.
But in this world where we have husbands home in the afternoon when there used to be at work and kids coming and going at all hours and maybe a sick parent, that’s staying with you, you have to adapt personally so that you can still do your job and still take care of all of this. We need a little more leniency from our business owners who are not used to that.
They’re used to, “Did you check in at 8:00? Are you still working every time I walk by your desk?” You don’t have that ability anymore. So a mind shift of, what is the outcome that I expected this person to deliver to me? is really important.
Brandon: Yes, I do think there’ll be a residual effect for maybe forever from COVID because, for a lot of people, I think that band-aid has been ripped off big time as far as that punch the clock type of mentality. I’ve been guilty of it as well in the past because when you hire people, when you’re paying them and especially if you have a physical location like I have had in the past, yeah, you look at the clock and go, “I thought I told everybody we start here at 8:30 and it’s 9:30. Why are you here late?”
And conversely, everybody sort of agrees, “Okay. We’re here from 8:30 to 5:30,” but if they got stuff to do, as you said, they feel guilty. “Oh, I got to take personal time to go run to the dentist or whatever,” companies are going to have to be much more lenient and they’ve already have had to do that for the past year because of COVID. So hopefully, a lot of companies, business owners especially, are learning that lesson and seeing that people can be just as or more productive working virtually.
Susan: And here’s another part about technology, you have to use the technology to work virtually. It’s a communication tool, whether it’s Zoom or Slack. Man, I don’t even know where my business would be if we didn’t have Slack. To be able to talk to all of my team members all over the country instantly is amazing. I even have it in there.
I’m on their channel, so I can talk to them. In my team, it even helps us to build a culture. We’re asking every morning, silly, fun questions in one channel where everybody answers them, things like, “Today, should we keep daylight savings time or not?” A resounding, “No,” when you wake up and you’re like, “Ugh, it’s dark. I want to go back to bed,” those types of things, versus we also have a channel where everybody checks in as soon as they start working. They tell us what is their priority today? What did they do yesterday? And is there anything that they need help with every morning, those three things.
Brandon: Yeah, that’s great.
Susan: And that lets us be able to say, “Oh wait, don’t do that. They didn’t pay us,” or things like that. So you have an idea of what people are doing and when they’re online and getting in for the day.
Brandon: Absolutely. Well, Susan Fennema, we’ve been speaking a lot about great topics here. Where can people learn more about you and your business?
Susan: Well, we have created an e-book, “Three Ways to Control Chaos in Your Small Business.” And if you would like to go and download that for free, you can do that at beyondthechaos.biz/ebook.
Brandon: Okay, great.
Susan: If you just want to talk to us, if you go there, you’ll also get all of our contact information. You can reach out through the site.
Brandon: All right. I’ll also link that over at the show notes page at goforlaunch.io/show129. Well, Susan, thank you so much. This has been a lot of fun, and I really appreciate all your time and insights.
Susan: Thanks, Brandon. It was great to be here talking about how to eliminate chaos. Thanks for having me.
Originally published at Beyond the Chaos: Small Business Project Management and Operations Consulting