Deliver us: The Great Office Un-clutter 2015

From the Archives

Originally published February 10, 2015

A relationship told me this past week that he and his wife, who doubles as his business bookkeeper, have gotten super-organized since our meeting to close out their 2014 financial records. Another colleague has sold her old laptop (which wasn’t old to begin with), purchased a new one, and solicited help in organizing her digital photos better. And still another coaching relationship is working diligently to clean up her employer’s back-office operations, as the company hires new staff and prepares for financial growth in the new year. I even started making good on my 2015 goals to clean up my business office, reorganize my computer files, and develop some checklists and procedures for my business operations. There is a common thread among these tales: we have all begun sighing relief that comes from getting rid of the clutter and making room for great, new things to happen in the near and far future. Here’s how you can, too.

You know the feeling from sometime, somewhere in your life, right? Whether at home, at work, or at play, you’ve experienced the rejuvenating joys of cleaning out the unnecessary to make room for the desirable. While these anecdotes are geared for the home office or business office, the principles can be adapted to fit any area of life – gym locker, school locker, writing desk, car, kitchen, bedroom, and so on. At Martin Picturesque, I’ve become known for being able to provide four key organizational services: clean up, catch up, turnaround, and sustainability.

Clean up
My process begins with getting things tidy. At home it means picking things up off the floor, ensuring that there’s a place for everything, and putting everything in its place. At work and in business, it means taking a look at what’s not working, what’s causing lags or inefficiency, what’s missing from an otherwise sound process. I like to help clients visualize what their ideal operation or procedure is. What’s the desired outcome? What’s the result toward which you’re always working? With that ideal in mind, you can begin to weed out the things that stand in the way of your progress toward that goal.

Example: At two area nonprofits, when I was brought into the finance teams, while learning the ropes of the organizations and teams, I also had one-on-one conversations with management about their visions for the companies. I then turned my attention to what many probably consider small things, like illegible forms, antiquated procedures, faulty processes, and policies that didn’t change or grow with the organization. By focusing on these immediately manageable fixes that moved us toward our big picture goals, efficiency and effectiveness increased together and allowed me to lay more groundwork for the growth to come.

Catch up
Do you know the adage about not being able to see the forest for the trees? If not, perhaps you remember an earlier blog post I wrote about it. In any event, this step follows the cleanup process to help you get an idea of just how much work has to be done to get where you wish to go. Once you’ve cleared your mind or your desk or whatever you cleaned up in step one, you can start tackling the backlog of things that piled up while you weren’t looking (or that predates) and while you were just trying to get started by cleaning up historical information or space. No matter how well you try to balance cleaning up and keeping pace at the same time, my experience says that it’s inevitable that something slips through the cracks, and your only hope is to attempt catching up after you’ve done enough foundational cleaning up.

Example: Let’s take a look at those same nonprofit finance teams as before. In both cases, there was historical information that I could start fixing only after cleanup showed me – by contrast – how poorly things had been handled in the past. Once my desk was clean and I had a system for managing the flow of paperwork through my office, I could dig into the historical data on the computer and the piles of paperwork left for me to figure out. Catching up occurs naturally after a cleansing refresh, a healthy restart. For these nonprofits, one-man shows were the norm, and while I knew this couldn’t continue, given senior management’s vision for short- and long-term growth, I did what I could with the resources available to get paperwork filed properly (in my revamped filing system) and computer information corrected to the new methods I instituted upon taking on the role.

This is the fun part, believe it or not, for the analytically savvy. Doesn’t it sound as if cleaning up and catching up are the turnaround process? You might think so. Let’s discuss what turning something around really does for a department or team or company… or your kitchen. During this step of the process, you actually connect the work you just did in the first two steps to the goals and outcomes you established – and hopefully to which you’ve committed – before the whole reorganization process. That’s the most glib definition of this very important step. An example might help illuminate this point.

Example: Returning to the nonprofit finance teams for which I did my most notable reorganization, here’s how turnaround occurred. Remember that I had earlier consulted with senior management and gotten both their input and blessing to do whatever it takes to help reach organization-wide goals. To do so, I had to look at the past, not to point fingers or lay blame, but to understand the root causes of the problems we had to combat in order to effect a more desirable future. This is where I had fun because in digging into the past, I learned a lot about the people with whom I worked and about the organization as a whole. It also helped me get very much up to speed in a way that made me invaluable in meetings and at public events where I represented the company. Within a few months on either job, people spoke to me as if I had been with the company since inception, and they didn’t know that I hadn’t been. In a way, I became an authority on the company, a necessary asset in order to point us away from the problems that plagued us and toward the vision we so desperately wanted to manifest. It means more than just coming up with ways that avoid problems of the past; it means thinking way outside the box and focusing only on things that move us toward the goals we established earlier.

(For more reasons that we look at the past for root causes and do not develop solutions based on what happened in the past, read more about self-fulfilling prophesy. I strongly believe that the reasons you wish not to do something drive you to do that very thing. Instead, we use the past only to inform our understanding of what went wrong. We use our vision for and commitment to the future to build systems and dialogues that guide our present actions. Deep stuff. More on that in a future post.)

This is the egos-aside part of a well developed reorganization or restructuring campaign. Why egos-aside? Sustainability means that the new ways of doing things work now, will serve in the future, and will survive you. Gasp. Survive you? Yes, because if you’re worth your salt, you’ll either move up in the company, get pulled into another position in the company, get transferred to another region where your kind of talent is needed, or be yanked by another employer who values not only what you have done, but also what you have the potential to do for them. And when any of those things happen, if the systems you build today crash tomorrow, you will for a moment feel a sense of pride that tells you that you’re indispensable. And then when that story gets around, you’ll become known for building stuff that works as longs as you’re in the driver seat and that crumbles when you leave. In short, you’d have done yourself a great service, and you’ve done nothing to serve the greater good. You have no legacy. The alternative is to build something so great, so strong, so formidable, that when you go, it stands not only your absence, but also the test of time. That, my friends, is your legacy.

Example: I left my posts at those two nonprofits when I no longer had anything to give. I believe that I only get out of anything what I put into it, and if I have no more to give, the job offers no more reward or benefit to me. When I started to appreciate the value of a well timed vacation, it was at first warming to get phone calls and texts with questions from the person left behind to fill in for me. Then that feeling dissipated because it occurred to me that those interruptions defeated two purposes: of building great systems and of taking breaks from those systems. When I learned that very important lesson, I went back to the drawing board to design systems that ran so smoothly, that anyone could pick up behind me or next to me or in front of me without a hitch. Thereafter, when I received no phone calls or texts or emails while away from the office, I felt better about having done a great job to afford me such a vacation.

Now that I’ve left those nonprofits altogether, I like to check in from time to time to see how things are going at those places. It does my ego – and my professional goals – much good to know that many processes, policies, procedures, conversations, structures, and methods I had established are still standing up under new management. Sure, someone undoubtedly came behind me and cleaned up, caught up, and turned around something. When I consider how much of my work is still in play, though, my legacy stands: the work I did there is standing the tests of time. That I created something sustainable that others can follow and yes, modify to their hearts’ content, is a testament to the groundwork I laid when I first came on board. (I sometimes tease that whatever tweaks come after me are possible because I “loosened the lid” for them to occur. My ego deserves a boost now and again, too, you know.)

Please use the comments to share your thoughts and experiences. Tell me how I can give more specific examples of each step in future posts. Do you even wish to see more specific examples of each step in future posts? More important, though, are your ideas and methods you’ve found useful in uncluttering the ever-cluttered (ironically so-called paperless) business world today. And then share this with your friends to get their input, too. Thanks for reading. Hope this helps someone.