The Problem of One-Offs (And Why They’re Hurting You and Your Company)

If you’re like most entrepreneurial leaders, freedom is one of your core values. It’s part of the reason why you created your own business. You don’t want someone else calling the shots and telling you what to do. You want to be in control. You want freedom. I get that. It’s why I’ve always been in charge. As I frequently tell my wife, “I’m constitutionally unemployable.” Note: feel free to steal that line.

So, what do most entrepreneurial leaders do when they build a company? Exactly! They structure it the way they like to live—with freedom. They don’t want lots of rules or structure, policies or procedures—they want the freedom to do what they want to do when they want to do it. I get that.

The problem, however, with that kind of company is that everything becomes a one-off (meaning it’s situational). Client A gets X price. Client B gets Y price for the same project. Sally gets X severance. Joe gets Y severance. You meet Angela at a networking event and she gets hired on the spot. Ahmed has to go through five interviews with five different people. Malik asks for a week’s vacation next week and gets a “Yes!” Jamal asks for a week’s vacation next week and gets a “No!”

You get the idea. Everything is a one-off. And when everything is a one-off, it creates more conflict and problems, not less. Customers get ticked off when they discover that someone else paid less for the same project. Former employees talk with lawyers when they realize that they got screwed. Current employees get ticked off that the perceived “boss’s pet” got a better vacation deal than they did. And so on.

Plus, on top of all that, you’ve made yourself the bottleneck. When everything is a one-off, the employees you hired (to create leverage for yourself) don’t know what the right answer is so who do they have to ask? Exactly. You! So, instead of creating freedom through leverage, you’ve created more work for yourself because everyone has to check with you before making a decision.

Any way you look at it, one-offs are bad for business. You might like the freedom to choose whichever option you want to choose, but running a business that way is fundamentally flawed. Building a business isn’t about you and your preferences (unless you want to keep it small and be the bottleneck). If you want to experience more freedom, as well as leverage the time, talents, expertise, intellectual property and networks of other people, you have to let go of your desire for one-offs, and learn to create more systems, structures, policies and procedures so that everyone knows the right thing to do (or the right answer to give) without having to ask you.

So, how can you do that? Well, here are a few ideas to get you started.

I. Embrace “Policies and Procedures” as Freedom and Fairness

As a lifelong entrepreneur, when I started my former church back in 1989, I wanted to create a church that fit me—which meant lots of freedom and minimal rules. I liked the idea of one-offs. I liked having the freedom to choose different responses based on the situation at hand. And that worked for the first hundred people. We were small and I could handle the decision load. I wasn’t thinking about the downsides like not creating leverage or unfairness, etc. I was just happy I had freedom. I was leading my church the way I wanted it to be led.

However, as we grew to 200 people, then 300, then 400 and so on up to 2,000 people, that all changed. Instead of creating freedom for myself, I had created a prison. I was working 70+ hour work weeks and could never catch up. Plus I was getting flack from some because I was perceived as unfair by those who got a different response from me than someone else got. I know this may be shocking, but people can be petty … even in church (“Sally got to give her announcement last Sunday and I didn’t, that’s not fair”).

Eventually I realized that the problem was me. What I thought was freedom, was actually nothing more than selfishness (I wanted what I wanted, not necessarily what was best for the “business”). The only way for me to move forward was to get over me and start embracing the thing that I hated (policy and procedure) as a means to freedom and fairness.

And it succeeded. The more policies and procedures we created, the more I was free to do what I needed to do since everyone didn’t have to check in with me about what they could or couldn’t do. My staff and lay leaders felt more empowered to do what they needed to do which created massive leverage. And no one could legitimately claim we weren’t fair because we were run by policies, not by one-offs. In other words, everyone won and the result … faster growth and happier people.

So, if you want to get more time back, create more leverage, avoid charges of unfairness and/or generate more growth, make sure you embrace policies and procedures as freedom and fairness, not a noose to hang yourself with.

II. Create Your Policies In Real Time

One of the hindrances to creating policies and procedures for most entrepreneurial leaders I know is that it feels like such an overwhelming task. If you were to write out a list of things to “McDonaldize” in your business, you’d probably discover hundreds of systems and procedures that need to be created. Knowing that is enough to kill off any initiative to create some policies and procedures … why even start!

To overcome that feeling of overwhelm, create them one at a time. And the best way to do that is to create them in real-time. In other words, the next time an issue comes up or someone asks you a question about how to do something or if they can do something or the next time a customer or prospect complains about something or an employee gets frustrated with something, use that as an opportunity to create your next policy.

Note: for policies to be real, they need to be written down! A lot of entrepreneurial leaders will say, “We have a policy” when what they really mean is “I have an idea in my head that I usually use.”

Using the illustration above about two employees asking for a week’s vacation just one week before they want to leave, that would be a great time to create a policy. Someone might say, “Historically, this is how we’ve handled this.” But at a policy level you (and your top team) need to ask, “Is this the best policy?” Maybe when you only had three employees that worked. But now that you have 10 (or 20 or 50), that’s probably not a great policy any longer.

That said, my point isn’t what the policy should be, my point is that’s a great time to create a policy—two people asking for the same week one week away is a great time to create a policy; and one that fits the leadership style of most entrepreneurs (though, obviously, creating a policy long before anyone requests vacation time is even better).

So, my recommendation is, don’t even think about trying to create hundreds of policies and procedures. Start with the one (or ones) in front of you.

Note: If you’re really ambitious, you could also start with the biggest issue or problem for your business or the biggest issue that people keep asking you about.

III. Design Your Policies With a Fair Amount of Freedom

Another one of the reasons why so many of us, as entrepreneurial leaders, don’t like to create policies and procedures is because we have a mental block that says, “Policies remove freedom.” However, that doesn’t have to be true.

You may have worked for a company or an organization where there was no freedom when it came to their policies and procedures. Every single step, every single word, every single idea was put into a policy or procedure. However, that does not mean that’s how every organization uses their policies and procedures.

For example, Company X may have a policy and procedure where every step is described in detail, along with scripts that they expect to be followed verbatim (meaning, word-for-word). Company Y many have a policy and procedure for the exact same task with general ideas and the primary topics to cover (note: they might even have sample scripts but they don’t expect someone to repeat them verbatim).

A classic example of this would be the Ritz Carlton policy of empowering their staff to fix a customer problem for up to $2,000, without having to get managerial approval. That’s a lot of freedom. However, it also creates leverage (the manager isn’t dinged for every $50 or $350 problem), it increases speed (no waiting for the manager to be free to see the problem and solve it), it’s fair (every employee has the same power so that no one can say, “Mary gets up to $600, George gets up to $2,000 and Juanita only gets up to $100”), and it’s empowering (every employee knows that they’re trusted to make the right decision).

So as an entrepreneurial leader, let go of the notion of policies as nooses that constrain choices and instead create policies that empower your people to know what they can and can’t do without having to check in with you.

IV. Make Sure Everyone Knows That All Policies Are Changeable

Finally, the last issue that so many of us have with policies and procedures is that we tend to think that once we create a policy, it’s there in perpetuity (meaning, forever). And that’s just not true. No one, when creating a policy, can consider all of the possible outcomes or situations that might arise. Plus, systems theory reminds us that every system that’s created has unforeseen consequences (i.e. “today’s solutions create tomorrow’s problems”).

Note: just because policies are changeable doesn’t mean that someone can disregard a policy (that would be a one-off and defeat the principle of having policies and procedures in the first place). Instead, what this means is that when a problem arises, there should be a discussion, “Do we need to adjust this policy or not?” If a logical argument can be made that the policy should be altered, and your top team agrees to it (or whomever’s decision it is), then that policy should be changed (i.e. individuals can’t change policy on the their own, teams change policy after a discussion and a decision has been made to change the policy).

Mandating that all policies are changeable creates the freedom you want because you’re no longer stuck with any policy forever. Plus, optimization would suggest to you and to me that virtually every policy and/or procedure could be improved.

In other words,, don’t think of policies and procedures as lasting documents. They’re simply temporary documents for a period of time suggesting the normal course of action or decision regarding a specific issue—which means that they’re always open for debate and discussion—which is very good news!

So, if you want to get more time back, create more leverage, avoid charges of unfairness and/or generate more growth for your business, make sure you …

1. Embrace “policies and procedures” as freedom and fairness
2. Create your policies in real-time
3. Design your policies with a fair amount of freedom
4. Make sure everyone knows that all policies are changeable

If you do those four things, I think you’ll find that the day of one-offs is a day you’re happy to be beyond.

To your accelerated success!

P.S. If you have any other ideas about moving beyond one-offs, add them to the comments section below (or if you’re reading this by RSS or email, click here >>)