Turn Distractions Into Opportunities

Turn Distractions Into Opportunities
Photo by NordWood Themes / Unsplash

You’ve got big goals. Big things you plan to build. Milestones to break through.

You’ve even laid out a specific outline to ship those things. You’ve attached dates to your to-dos. It’s time to get shit done! This is your time to move the ball forward in your business.

But then…

A client sends you an email. They’re unhappy about something. You’ve got to fix it.

A bug cropped in your software, causing a backlog of unresolved issues.

An employee or contractor didn’t deliver and now you’re stuck picking up the pieces.

Distractions happen

Whether you’re solo or you run a team, there’s really no end to the distractions that pop up in your business. In fact, as your business grows, sometimes it seems like your job becomes only about the distractions, since it’s those unforeseen issues that end up getting escalated to you.

The most frustrating thing about distractions isn’t the distraction itself. It’s the things you’re forced to push off until later, and maybe even forget about doing, because your time, focus, and energy were consumed by the “urgent” distraction.

You know you need to be working on your business, not in your business. But damn, that seems near impossible when you’re consumed with issue after unforeseen issue. Your to-do list is ripped to shreds. Your 90-day plan, a distant memory. Your business, stuck in the same place it was a year ago.

Opportunities in Disguise

What if those distractions are actually opportunities in disguise?

What if it’s those distractions themselves that actually enable you to work on your business?

As annoying as distractions can be—and believe me, they drive me crazy sometimes—you have to change your mindset about them, if you’re ever going to make progress in your business.

Your mindset shift has to change from this:

“Damn, this distraction sucks, but I gotta suck it up and do it. I’ll get back to what I really want to do later (maybe).”

To this:

“OK, this distraction sucks, and it came out of nowhere. But how I can leverage it? What can I learn from it? How can I deal with the immediate issue, but also make a lasting impact on my business at the same time?”

Below, I’ll tell you about a real-world situation where I used this mindset.

Project Management at Scale

Recently, in Audience Ops, one of our project managers informed me that she’s taking a week-long vacation, and she plans to take some well-deserved time to “disconnect” from work while traveling. Luckily, she kindly gave me a few weeks notice about her upcoming travel plans.

Still, I had plenty of other big-picture things I had planned on working on this month. At the time this happened, we only had two project managers on the team. The other one was too preoccupied with her PM-duties to cover for our vacationing PM. So that means I’m left taking on the management duties for the week she’s gone.

So that’s what I did.

Compounding Distractions (and Opportunities)

At first, I didn’t expect this distraction to throw me too far off course. As I requested, the manager gave me a rundown of all of our her clients the day before she left, informing me of the things I’ll need to take care of and when while she’s gone. I planned on spending a couple extra hours taking care of those tasks, while staying focused on my building-the-business tasks.

But soon enough, I realized I was in for more much more than I expected.

I’ve been delegating the management work since very early on in my business. It’s been a long time since I actually carried out those duties myself. I quickly noticed that there were several parts of our process that weren’t being done or done differently by different managers. I found multiple process documents that were outdated and no longer accurate. I noticed places where our clients as well as our team were confused by what should happen next.

Even after two years of refining our systems and processes, they clearly needed a spring cleaning. I needed to get them back in order so we can reduce sloppiness, keep the team focused and clients happy.

On top of that, this week we happened to sign up double the amount of new clients than we normally do. That gave me that familiar feeling, where I simultaneously hear my inner voice say:  “Woo Hoo!  Oh shit…”

It became immediately clear that we’re going to need to bring on a 3rd project manager in the very near future. Unlike writers, editors, and assistants, who we’ve hired and trained numerous times, and who’s roles are pretty straightforward and easy to self-train by following our processes, training a new project manager is an entirely different beast.

Even though we have all of our routine processes documented (in painstaking detail), the PM role has added layers of complexity. It requires finesse, smart decision making, on-the-fly prioritizing, and tracking. Aside from having access to our step-by-step processes, project managers really need some guidance on best practices, tips, and scenario-based training.

As soon as the idea of bringing on a new project manager popped up, I immediately realized how much of a burden it will be to properly train and onboard them.

So in the span of just a few days, with one of our project managers gone on vacation, I was faced with compounding distractions. But I turned these into prime opportunities for Audience Ops…

What I did

Here are the two ways Audience Ops as a business actually benefited from me being distracted by covering for our vacationing project manager for a week:

Process Spring Cleaning

The first distraction—outdated processes causing sloppiness on our team—was an opportunity for me to do that much-needed spring cleaning of our systems and process.

While I actually went through the process of managing a handful of our clients and onboarding a few new ones, I made sure that the documentation we had on each task was as strong as it could be. In fact, I spent even more time deleting and removing parts of our processes that added unnecessary complexity.

I simplified our toolset and incorporated our own Ops Calendar software into our process, which eliminated a few painful bottlenecks like monthly reports and social media scheduling. I developed a few new best practices, which I shared with the team on how to document a history for each client and piece of content we develop.

Project Manager Training

In preparation for hiring our 3rd project manager, I also spent most of my week developing a new internal training course for new project managers to go through during their first two weeks of working at Audience Ops.

Rather than giving new PMs a long list of SOPs to glaze over, this training course is much more digestible, video-based, and focused on bigger picture best practices. This course provides an entry-way into our system, a walkthrough of how things work and where things are, and most importantly, guidance on how to learn this position and adapt as time goes on.

Specifically, here’s what I did:

  • I created a Google Presentation document, with about 8 slides
  • I bulleted out the most important aspects of the position, not just “what to do” but also, “how to be awesome at this” (based on the awesome tips and best practices our current PM’s have developed)
  • I recorded and linked to a few brief videos of me sharing some insights and walking through our tools and how we use them specifically. I used my favorite new video capture tool, Viewedit for this.

Here are a few screenshots of what it looks like (so far):

Screen Shot 2017 04 28 at 2.00.37 PM
Screen Shot 2017 04 28 at 2.01.00 PM
Screen Shot 2017 04 28 at 2.01.38 PM

Note: This training guide isn’t meant to replace our documented processes (we keep all of our SOPs documented in Google Docs). Our SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) are much more detailed, and constantly being refined and updated. I wanted to make this training program more “evergreen”, while remaining easy to update as needed. For example, I recorded short, highly focused videos (5 minutes or less), so that if I need to change something later, I’ll probably only need to update one and not re-do everything I recorded.

The Outcome

Thanks to this week of leveraging these distractions, Audience Ops benefits in two key ways:

First, our processes and best practices are up-to-date, especially for the project managers. Now we all do things the same way, using the same best practices and tools.

Second, now we have a ready-to-go training program, which we can use to onboard new project managers whenever we need them. In other words, one week of deep work on creating this training replaces many more weeks of scrambling to manually train new PMs every time they’re needed. Project Management at scale baby!

3 Ways to Leverage Your Distractions

Now let me leave you with a simple, 3-step system you can use to shift your mindset when your (inevitable) distractions arise:

1. Identify & acknowledge the distraction

Don’t do what I used to do, which was to deny the distraction. Don’t kid yourself into thinking that a distraction is small enough to take care of really quickly so you can get right back to your more important task at hand.

Instead, when a distraction comes your way, stop. Step back. See the distraction for what it is. Be honest about how much of your time it will require to deal with it and what will be involved.

Since it does need to be dealt with, you also have to acknowledge that whatever you had planned to today or this week, has to be re-planned. Give yourself permission to push something back a week. Right now, you’ve got a distraction that you need to capitalize on.

2. Deal with it so you don’t have to deal it with again

Now that you’re stuck dealing with the distraction, don’t just make today’s distraction go away. Make sure it never makes it back onto your plate again. Build an engine, not a job.

This probably means documenting a process in one form or another. It might mean figuring out who on your team should be responsible for dealing with this distraction in the future, and giving them instructions for how to handle it. It might mean finding a tool or system to prevent this issue from happening again.

Whatever it is, take extra time to build the handling of this issue into the operating system of your company.

3. Leverage the byproduct(s)

Try and extract something truly valuable from the time you spent dealing with this distraction. What can you make of its byproduct(s)?

It could be an opportunity to automate a part of your business. Or an opportunity to give a client extra value—and build that value in for all clients going forward. Or a new system that can help you scale. Or a teachable case study that you can share with your team, or your audience (Where do you think the idea for this article came from?).

Now go seek out your next distraction.

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