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Overcoming fast changing priorities by empowering your team.

It is no secret that managing manpower is one of the biggest challenges facing start-up businesses in Singapore.

So many resources are spent to find your Mr. or Mrs. Right: application forms, shortlisting, evaluations, interview with HR, department head and GM, meetings, approvals. Even after all these steps are checked off the list there’s still a notice period that the person must serve, and you’re just left to wait for them to finally get to work.

In startups and small companies this is burdensome process is enhanced: one person usually takes on multiple functions, and you have no choice but to take over yourself until the newly appointed member arrives to switch you out. All this does is defocus you from your main functions for an excessive amount of time.

And finally the day is here: your employee’s first day! Welcome training, company value briefing, function training - and you start it all. You sit down with them and establish the SOP, tweak it a bit here, a bit there, perfect - or at least you think so.

After some time it seems like your ideal employee operating under an ideal SOP isn’t fairing too well. They cannot handle seem to the weight of the job on their own - results prove below expectation and countless reasons emerge as apparent justifications for the ongoing lack of productivity. Worse still, the team begins to feel pressure as investors become impatient with unsatisfying results.

This story is all too common in startups and small businesses, and usually the issues lying at its core are misdiagnosed. Even more rare is for businesses to see that there truly is only one reason, and not many, to their employees’ non-productivity: lack of employee engagement.


The SOP concept is outdated.

Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) are processes by which a company ensures its set targets are met in a consistent manner. But setting up the goal and explaining how to reach it may not always play out as predicted, and that is where SOP displays its shortfalls in keeping employees engaged.

The Standard Decision Making Procedure (SDMP) revisits this approach by replacing the how of reaching a goal with the why of achieving it. This gives employees the choice of path in reaching the set goal while staying true to the purpose behind it.

The difference seen here draws influence from the dichotomy between causal and effectual reasoning, prevalent in managerial and entrepreneurial thinking respectively. While the former focuses on achieving a given goal through a specific set of means, the latter makes use of given means to reach for different and unpredictable ends.

Much the same, SOPs set rigid boundaries that may limit independent action and problem solving from the get go, leaving employees stuck when issues arise beyond the established protocol while attempting to reach their goal. SDMP focuses on providing employees the necessary logic to tackle problems, equipping them with a pool of tools necessary to make their own problem-solving decisions.

Nonetheless, we must be careful not to mistake the outcome of effectual reasoning and its product SDMP as any random goal that comes about from the chosen mean. We should instead consider the outcome as a mix of the two approaches to reasoning: a unique achievement within the greater, pre-established task at hand.

What results is a hybrid approach between causal and effectual thinking that allows employees the freedom to creatively construct their results while staying true to the particular purpose in achieving them. This does not mean that your employees shouldn’t know dry procedures - you just need to change their perception and attitude towards them by providing a sense of independence, flexibility, and trust in their enactment.

Put briefly, using SOPs remains a relevant approach in maintaining employee focus and productivity, their clarity comes at the expense of engagement.


Enacting the shift from SOP to SDMP

We can break down the process of changing approach to employee engagement from SOP to SMDP into multiple steps:

  1. Give the tools, not SOP, that your managers and employees can apply to a range of situations and issues independently.
  1. Increase employee situational awareness to ensure reactivity and effectiveness in solving issues.
  1. Build a problem-free information flow between you and your employees to ensure good team communication.
  1. Increase the quality of power and responsibility of your employees by entrusting their rational judgment with tasks and duties.


And in the End

Have you ever travelled with a PRO-friend? The one who knows all the places to eat, drink and the cheapest ways to get there? Sometimes you just follow them, go left, right, left again and there you are: that amazing place they’d told you about with a breathtaking view that you could only have dreamt of.

You’re excited to spread the word about this hidden gem by showing it to your friends. You wander around for hours glued to Google maps trying to find it, but you just can’t find the way. You must be close but somehow you miss it, and to say that you were there just last week! Frustrated, you give up and make your way back home.

To draw metaphorical meaning from our various characters, consider your hypothetical PRO friend as your manager, the way to reach that amazing place they as your SOP, and you, the lost tourist trying to retrace your PRO friend’s steps, as the new company employee.

How did you manage to get lost trying to show that place to your friends? Simple, because you mindlessly relied on your friend for guidance and never understood the way to the place yourself.

One could argue that the tourist could have found the way by asking the friend for step-by-step directions. But what happens if the road is closed off for maintenance, or if the tourist happens to begin from a different starting point than last time? The path changes, just as an employee’s SOP would, in trying to reach the same end goal.

Similarly, provide too little information and your SOP will be of little use to the employee; provide too much and it becomes an instruction manual that leaves them unmotivated and irritated by the amount of details to learn.

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