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December 24, 2016

The Power of Sprints: 2 Weeks to Build Your Systems

All around you are organizations with heroic leaders who know that somewhere, their shit is broken, they don’t know how to fix it, where to start, how to find the time, or how to make it all work fast enough.

Their goals require way more hours than committed, way more frustration than expected, and way less fulfillment than intended

Therein lies the issue. When you don’t know how, you solve problems with people instead of systems.

Have you ever had this conversation in your head when someone asks you: “How’s business?”

You say “Great!” but what you really want to say is:

“I don’t really know. If you saw the masking tape covering the fact that I don’t have any processes documented, no training, everything seems to be custom and when it’s not custom, it’s definitely not written down.

The sales process is the happiest time because from there, it’s a series of thinking we knew what the client / customer wanted but then not delivering on it, likely not on time but we’ll reverse engineer a reason why we’re late which either directly blames the client or passive-aggressively imply it’s their fault.

My team is meh. I’ve got a couple rockstars who if they left, I would be screwed and they’ve definitely got options. And then I’ve got a couple people who I thought were great, but I fell in love too quickly and now I’m out of love, and I just don’t know how to get them to be better.

I don’t know where to start and I know that whatever I do will be a ton of work and I’m not even sure if it’ll solve any of my problems.

Do I need to start with a mission statement or core values? That’s what everyone says but I have fires to put out and I want to build something that’s going to make a big difference in building the business. I get that a mission statement and core values are part of that, but no actually, I don’t get how that’s going to solve these problems. That seems like a luxury I can’t afford yet. How about this for values: let’s do what we said we’d do, profitably.”

If this resonates, then I’m sharing my experience precisely for you.

My Story and Why You Need To Read This

I recently founded a company called Flow Live Chat (Flow, for short). But for nine years before that, I built one of the nation’s hottest wealth management firms called LotusGroup Advisors and after having a piece of the business acquired, I transitioned out of the day-to-day operations. That was the eighth company I started and the fourth I’d be exiting.

A bittersweet moment but one that many entrepreneurs dream of: building a sustainable business that generates income and getting bought out.

The transition was supposed to last till the end of April, then moved up to the end of March, and I had 3 weeks in front of me with almost no work left to do.

I decided to go skunk.

Last year, my family and I went to Roatan for vacation and I read one book. It blew me away with inspiration to think big, to think BOLD. Peter Diamandis told a story that made me think, next time I get a chance, I’m going to do that.

The story goes something like this:

In 1943, a small posse of Lockheed’s brightest engineers and mechanics were recruited by Clarence “Kelly” Johnson to come up with a counter-punch to Germany’s jet fighters that appeared over Europe. The team was given absolute design freedom and were completely isolated from the rest of the company. And it was all done in secret in a rented circus tent where they lived and worked for 143 days.

The group delivered the US’s first military jet seven days ahead of schedule in an impossibly short time frame. They called themselves Skunk Works and repeated this process with success.

Since then, Steve Jobs used this to develop the Macintosh computer, separate from Apple’s normal R&D department, GoogleX uses this to take moonshots of 10x improvements, and numerous other businesses “go skunk”to drive innovation.

I had all the elements I needed to go skunk:

    • Isolation — some transition workload at LotusGroup popped up, but for the most part, I was alone and free to take risks without others judging


    • Design thinking — I’ve been a teacher and practitioner so I’m very comfortable with the iterative process and being persistent


    • Values alignment — I care deeply about the cause of getting low-income students into college with scholarships


    • 10x Goals — I needed to shoot for something big to drive massive results

Dan Pink’s book “Drive” said that when people perform complex tasks, money isn’t the motivator. So what is?

    • Autonomy — leave me the fuck alone and let me work


    • Mastery — I want to be the best so let me prove I can do it


    • Purpose — I want this to mean something other than making money

Going skunk made me driven during this 2 week sprint.

The Process

I met with the Executive Director of Minds Matter of Denver where I’m Board Chairman and struck a deal. I’ll donate 2 weeks of my full-time to build the systems we need to scale and in exchange, I want to have two check points with you: one in the beginning to set the requirements and one in the end where you get to approve before anything goes live. Everything in between those points, I get to be left alone.

Deal? Deal.

Step 1: Setting Requirements

You need 1 hour to meet and write down all the areas of the organization (Domains), the existing systems and methods (Current), and what you believe you needed to move towards (Future).

Nothing fancy — actual whiteboard from the meeting

Step 2: Systems Setup

Decide which systems you’re going to use to solve certain issues. Fortunately, there aren’t a shortage of options. Unfortunately, there is a shortage of someone telling you what they chose and why, and how they made it work. That’s why I’m writing this article, so you can take what you want from my experience.

Basecamp 3

This system is a project management tool which allows us to:

    • Create templates of repeatable processes such as Annual Workplans for each department


    • Manage projects so that we know what needs to be done, when, and by whom. No more asking for status updates, it can all be seen here.


    • Process improvements are made here. Anything that needs to be added, eliminated, automated, or delegated is updated in the current project and template for future years.


    • Communications related to projects can all be done in here. That means no more flooding your inbox.


    • Automatically create calendars based on due dates and automatically feed these into Google calendars on this site.

Purchase a license that allows for unlimited users but note, there is a storage limitation. If you need to store files, it’s best to use Google Drive anyhow and Basecamp allows you to link the Google files. Storage crisis averted.

Google Apps

Moving your organization to Google Apps allows you access to a number of apps you’ll need:

    • Mail — limited to paid users


    • Drive — files and folders are permission based and shared accordingly. All files and folders MUST BE owned by someone within the domain. No more using personal emails to create Google docs.


    • This ensures that anytime someone leaves, information doesn’t leave with them.


    • Calendar — the calendar in Google is driven by the Workplans in Basecamp. Whatever shows due dates in Basecamp, appears on the Google calendar.


    • Contacts — the functionality is limited so don’t use Contacts unless it’s super basic. For example, if you create a group like “Finance”, that list of contacts can’t be shared. You share all contacts (without the group names) or nothing so I’d suggest you use a Google Sheet as a directory that’s shared with everyone.


    • Sites — Use this for your intranet and knowledge management, and all documents are stored in Google Drive.


    • Groups — use this three ways:


    • 1) as an email distribution list such as board@domain.com which goes to all Board members


    • 2) as a collaborative inbox where multiple people can manage the emails in one inbox like grants@domain.com. This cannot be done in Mail.


    • 3) for Questions and Answers that normally take place on email and are lost in history


    • Pro tip: We signed up for the non-profit edition of Google Apps which provides us with all the features that businesses receive, as well as some additional things that are just for non-profits and 10 users are free.


Our organization had already implemented a custom environment in Salesforce nationwide but it was being underutilized. Numerous spreadsheets were being used to track activities like recruiting and donations, both of which could be done within Salesforce. The lesson here, check the systems you have to see if you’re just not using them to their fullest potential. It doesn’t have to be Salesforce (I use ActiveCampaign for Flow, for example).

This system serves as our data management hub with features such as:

    • Customer relationship management


    • Donation management


    • Email marketing integration with MailChimp


    • Contact segmentation


    • Sales pipeline


    • Metrics on our student and mentor population

You can purchase licenses for specific people and due to the sensitive nature of the data, limited it to only those who are responsible for the inputs. Anyone who needs reports can get those emailed by building that task into their Basecamp’s Annual Workplan. You’ll save hundreds doing it this way.


Most CRM systems like Salesforce (I personally use ActiveCampaign) integrate with email marketing systems like MailChimp, Constant Contact, iContact, GetResponse, etc. Constant Contact is expensive and MailChimp is free up to 2,000 subscribers and we fell below that.

The integration from Salesforce allows you to sync Groups between the two systems. For example, in Salesforce we have people tagged as “Board” and that Group is synced into MailChimp.

So if we want to send a different email marketing message to the Board than to Donors, the groups are easy to select and deselect in MailChimp. The sync also goes two ways so if someone signs up for our newsletter online using a MailChimp form, that contact is automatically entered into Salesforce.

Step 3: Data Collection

Holy shit balls, this was a mess.

12 years of over a thousand volunteers who were doing their best; working off their own documents sometimes on their hard drive, sometimes in Google Drive, and sometimes in Dropbox.

I reached out to everyone I could and said, “please share with me everything you have through Google Drive”.

Receiving these files and folders in Google Drive allowed me to see them online without downloading them to my computer.

This began the organic process of creating a unified Google Drive folder system that would be used as the backend for our intranet site on Google Sites.

I went through thousands and thousands of files and folders and very quickly, I could see what was redundant, what was old and not going to be useful going forward, and what was current that we needed to put in a proper place.

Many documents were tracking things on spreadsheets. Others were process documents written up. And others were documents that could be re-purposed as templates. And tons of documents that were just part of everyday work being done.

If you find yourself with docs everywhere, you’re going to need to make a million tiny decisions on what to keep, delete, and where to organize. Just do what makes sense to you and where you know you’re totally out of your league, set it aside as a separate mini-project to get the more knowledgeable people to take care of it.

Step 4: Eliminate, Automate, Delegate

Follow a disciplined process in reviewing every document and read what is actually written in each document.

    1. Eliminate
      Figure out what processes, steps, and people to eliminate. We kept adding things that need to be done without revisiting what’s being done to see if it’s working. I didn’t over-analyze or ever say, we need more information to see the results. I know the business and if you do too, you can make the hard decision of getting rid of something that doesn’t truly serve the organization.


    2. Automate
      Then we need to automate so that we’re not spending time on things that can be done through systems. There are tons of things that are automated based on the systems I implemented. For example, Workplans can be created and re-created through templates with the click of a button in Basecamp. Inputting data correctly into Salesforce automates the tracking dashboards, reports, and MailChimp. Google Sites becomes a knowledge base to point people for answers and training instead of manually doing this one person at a time.
    3. Delegate
      Last, we need to delegate and that doesn’t mean adding more people. We can delegate internally with the freed up capacity from eliminating and automating, or we can delegate externally in areas where other people are specialists and will give us an ROI. This will drive down the number of people needed which equates to scale.

Step 5: Build, Iterate, and Re-Build

There are a couple ways you can approach problem solving: analytical thinking and design thinking. Analysis is great in the previous stages to figure out what you’re working with and what you need to get there. But at this point in the process, analysis is just a waste of time and I only had 2 weeks to put this all together.

Design thinking is a tool, nothing else. The premise is to build prototypes, have users react to it and give you feedback, and tweak based on their feedback.

My first step was to organize everything into Google Drive and to start building our Google Sites. I created pages that matched with the Drive folders (e.g. Finance, HR, Legal, etc.) and just started to write down what someone new to the organization would need to know in order to do that particular job. I created links in the write-up to the Google Docs and within a very short amount of time, I had the first page done. Then I’d work on the sub-pages that mapped to the sub-folders, and so on. In less than a couple days, I had written out the entire site. I wasn’t worried about how great the copy was, all I focused on was generating the most amount of output and content I could within a day.

I then built project templates in Basecamp and started to lay out all the steps that needed to happen in each project. I linked the Google Docs that were needed to complete that project and continued to write, organize, and anything I didn’t know, I created a template that needed to be filled in by the experts. For example, I didn’t know what homework was assigned before a specific class so I created a task for each week that said “Homework: xxx” and that would be filled in later. There were very few of these but the point was to keep moving and not let something hold me back.

I built Dashboards and Reports in Salesforce to give everyone visibility to how we’re doing with sales (grants, sponsors, donations in our world), recruiting of students and volunteers, and whatever else we needed to know. Fortunately, I had a Salesforce expert on staff and she led the build out of these things with my input. I didn’t collaborate with her or ask her for many opinions, I just asked if she could build something and sometimes she could, and other times she would tell me where it was already located, and other times she would tell me a better way.

I listened, decided, and moved on.

Along the way, I re-engineered a number of processes too. Reading what people were doing, it was sometimes obvious to see where the process could be improved and other times, it was a risk to change the process. One example was in our volunteer recruiting process where each time a prospective volunteer reached out, our committee would schedule a one-on-one coffee, then send them an application, and then accept them if they passed all the steps. Major bottleneck.

I reached out to the team running the process and asked if they’d be open to sending a templated email to ask the prospective volunteer to complete an online application first, then send them to a group interview which was pre-planned, and then accept them. They were game so the process got changed and built accordingly into Sites and Salesforce.

Once I had built out all the systems, processes, and steps, I sent an email to a select group of users who I knew could handle change quickly and easily, and had the knowledge to provide feedback across many areas. This was my user testing. I did not ask everyone for feedback on everything and I especially didn’t ask the people who are resistant to change. I would deal with them in the training process but not in the build.

Feedback came in and there wasn’t much that needed to be tweaked. I made the changes and that was it, no more sending it back out for feedback. Normally in a rapid prototyping session, you want to get numerous rounds of feedback to increase the probability of the product working.

Sometimes you have to call it and say, “I want this and it’s damn good.”

Step 6: Rollout

Now that it was built, I realized the magnitude of change management to get people to use all the systems correctly. I had 2 days left in the 2 week sprint, and there was no way I could get all the different constituents together at the same time.

I started by training the head of the organization who I promised would get final say before everything went live. He reviewed it, loved it, and we were live.

End-to-end, I was done in exactly 2 weeks.

Happiness Ensues, The Crowd Goes Wild

On the real, I was aggressive and in my flow state during these 2 weeks. It wasn’t until the rollout that I got tired. I realized I wanted to build and that the training was something I had to do.

This is one of the best contributions you can make to an organization and is a skill set you’ll be blessed to have.

Now get out there and make it happen and shoot me a note on how it goes!


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