Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Why you’re in trouble if you rely on 30-page SOPs

Every organization wants to have its development processes documented into Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for the obvious reasons – faster onboarding, standardization, auditing, etc… The Holy Grail is the potential to hire a bunch of contractors (or outsource), tell them to read a novel worth of documentation, and then they’re fully up to speed a week later. SOPs also imply that the team knows what it is doing and has a plan, which is one indicator of a mature organization. SOPs are also a prerequisite for outsourcing, an appealing option for large organizations.
While documentation has its benefits, you can’t rely solely on large documents to communicate process and onboard new people. Here are at least four common problems, and it will result in a frustrated and confused team:
  1. The doc itself will be wrong (or outdated), such as skipping steps or assuming institutional knowledge. This is especially common if you hire outside consultants (with no institutional knowledge of your systems) to document your process.
  2. It’s easier to bluff a doc – a busy tech writer will hurry the doc, thinking it looks done ("I’ve written 50 pages!"), but the content won’t be correct or specific enough.
  3. Screens will vary (example: the software is upgraded or the OS doesn’t match).
  4. People simply won’t read the docs, they’re skim and miss details.
Several ways to communicate an SOP instead of just 30-page MSWord docs:
  • Favor automation over documentation where possible. The best document is an automated script. A script is usually kept up to date (compared to a doc) because developers need the script to work. It’s also much faster (and less error-prone) for a new guy to kick off the script than to tediously step through 20 pages of instructions.
  • Lower the cost of documenting by leveraging a wiki. Developers are far more likely to update or correct a wiki then a big MSWord doc on SharePoint.
  • Favor simplifying the process so the doc itself is simpler.

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