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You can organize your office. We can help.








What is organized?

Consider two desks. One has papers scattered about in three approximate areas. It has six pens and pencils in a coffee cup, a roll of scotch tape, a paper punch, a jam jar full of paper clips, half a dozen floppy disks, and a cup of cold coffee. The other has a single neat stack of papers, a single pen and a sharp pencil in a tray, and one piece of paper in a little easel. Which desk is more organized?

You may think it's the second one, but in fact there's no way of knowing which desk is more organized! Sure, the second desk is neater, but the neatly squared stack of paper may hide all sorts of mistakes, dropped projects, overdue payments, and confused correspondence. The three scatterred piles on the messy desk could actually be the active work, divided into incoming mail, payables, and a single current project. In other words, the three messy stacks could effectively be functioning as well-designed files, while the neat stack could be the worst sort of organizational jumble!

Organized isn't the same thing as neat. Many organized people are neat, and to some extent neatness helps, but being organized doesn't mean having an office suitable for Martha Stewart's magazine. It means getting the job done effectively without wasting effort or introducing confusion.

Being organized starts with knowing where to put things and where to find them, but it doesn't stop there. For businesses, being organized is about making effective use of resources, which for most businesses these days is about using staff time effectively. Also, it's about using information and knowledge effectively. Both in getting the job done and in learning more to get the job done even better, being organized in business amounts to KNOWING WHAT TO DO NEXT. Time spent figuring out what to do next is time not spent doing anything productive. To the extent that it's possible, you should figure things out much less often than you do them.

Notice that our biggest, most successful enterprises are called "organizations". To an organizing consultant, this isn't a coincidence.

How should your business get organized?

It depends on what you do and how you do it. It depends on who works with you and who buys from you. There isn't a single answer. Each business is a system that needs to be designed. Usually after a business improves its organizing skills, desks may be a little bit neater, but the work that gets done will be substantially more effective.

Often, customers get in touch with us when they are falling behind. While sometimes this is because of an unexpected misfortune (a fire, a loss of an important staff member, and so on) it is very often because growth and increasing opportunity have caused existing systems and habits, formerly perfectly adequate, to become out of scale.

Unfortunately, when people start to become overwhelmed, while they do find themselves working harder than ever, they actually reach a point where they become much less effective than when their work load was more modest. Sometimes this causes an abrupt decline in the overall business performance, even if there isn't a single huge error. There are certainly plenty of examples when of businesses that became too successful and collapsed abruptly.

So what should you do if you become overwhelmed?

There's a limited amount of advice we can give in an essay, since every business is unique, and the best approach varies from place to place and even at the same enterprise over time. Still, there are some points that are universal.

Our biggest piece of advice, of course, is to get organized *before* you get overwhelmed. If you are growing rapidly, try to spot and solve the scale problems before they get too big. For instance, if you need a second person on the order line, put the phone in and do the hiring *before* the first person becomes too overwhelmed to train the second! Or worse yet, quits in disgust, leaving you with no one to take the orders!

If it's too late for you to avoid being overwhelmed, the first thing that you have to understand is that becoming organized takes time. We like to say it's not spending time, but investing time. The steps you take when you get organized are made once, and save you many steps in the future.

Still, if you are already overwhelmed, it's very difficult to carve out time. But that's exactly what you have to do, and while it's late, it's more important than ever! So the first thing to do is to step back, even to let a few opportunities slide, while you set up for the next phase of your business.

The next thing to do is to minimize the amount of immediate effort you put into old problems. We urge people to work on incoming tasks first before addressing older problems, however embarrassing those might sometimes be. If you keep creating more backlog you will never catch up! On the other hand if you find ways to make today's tasks go smoothly, you can find time to patch up those old problems. You may need to call in outside help on addressing the backlog. This is an area where Ducks-in-a-Row can help, but this isn't our main specialty.

Where we can be most helpful is in the next phase of getting organized, which is to think through the problems that you are having or can foresee, and to set things up to avoid them. Here it's very hard to generalize, especially in the business world, since every business situation is different. We have identified some ideas that are broadly useful, and this may give you some idea of the types of thinking that might help.

Organizing is a skill. This means that it can be learned, but it also means that it isn't book learning. Skills are learned through practice and concentration. Learning a skill requires practice, patience, and persistence. Avoid negative emotions as much as possible. Don't get frustrated with yourself or angry at your staff. Keep trying and keep learning.

If you can, design the job around the personnel. You may think that you have chosen the wrong person for the job, but often you can recast the problem by saying that you have chosen the wrong job for the person. It's not just obviously handicapped people that can be effective with minor accommodation. Sometimes a small reallocation of responsibilities can make everything move more smoothly. Don't be a slave to job descriptions. People are unique.

Divide jobs into small tasks. Assign, schedule, and as unobtrusively as possible track the tasks. Have a completed task initiate another task. If this is done right, paying attention to the details will be enough and a lot of unnecessary extra attention to each project will be avoided.

A place for everything and everything in its place. A time for everything too! Think about time allocation spatially. Think of your work schedule for a week as a set of shelves and tasks as items to be put away. Make sure there's enough room for what actually needs to get done. Be realistic. Especially carve out quiet times and staff meeting times for management. Many entrepreneurs make the mistake of being constantly interrupted by their staff. Others make the mistake of being unavailable altogether. Making regular scheduled time for availability and for solitude are both necessary in most businesses.

Do it, then review it. Even if you call Ducks-in-a-Row in, your new system won't be perfect on the first pass. Don't sweep mistakes under a rug. A mistake can be an opportunity to learn. Do whatever is feasible to avoid blaming the person who "made the mistake". Most people mean well. Try to find ways to make it easier for them to remember what needs to be done. If situations come up that you haven't previously considered, don't just patch them up. Examine your procedures and see if there is a practical way of handling it in future.

Are we spectacularly organized at Ducks-in-a-Row?

Nope. We make mistakes. As our business is on a rapid growth trajectory these days we are constantly learning new things and making mistakes on the way. So why should someone come to us? Well, for one thing, we like to say that "water wasn't discovered by a fish". Just as the natural hitter isn't the best batting coach ('just swing at it and hit it real hard' isn't very helpful advice) the naturally organized person isn't the best organizing coach.

What separates us from the pack is that we find the question of how people, including ourselves, get organized extremely (even surprisingly!) interesting. We make an extra effort to learn from our own mistakes as well as our successes, and to learn from those whom we help work through their own organizing issues. So we are genuinely happy to help you get organized, not just as an opportunity to advance our business, but as an opportunity to learn and grow along with our customers.


We can help you think about arranging the flow of tasks at your business. Get in touch with Ducks-in-a-Row ® Efficiency Consultants (TM) and we will be pleased help you get your ducks in a row.

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