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Implementing a practice management system part 1: What caused us to put in place a new practice management system in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis?

by Jun 10, 2020Automating your processes and systems, Operations, practice management systems, Standardising ways of working

It was a chance remark that started our journey into implementing a new practice management system. The remark? No-one really uses Trello.

Oh.

After a weekend of soul-searching, it dawned on me that we had got to the point in the road where we needed to get serious about managing our workflow and projects. Even though the Accountants Millionaires’ Club isn’t an accountancy practice, there are so many similarities between our experiences and many of our members. So much so it is rather embarrassing that we didn’t actually realise we were making all (and literally all) of the mistakes our members were making.

This article documents our journey and the decision we took to pick our practice management software. There will be further installments as we as a company get to grips with embedding the software and new ways of working into our business.

The need for practice management software

Whilst it was a chance remark which set off our journey, it was going to happen sooner or later. Like many small accountancy firms, Coronavirus, had pushed our systems and teams to the limits. And sadly, it was found wanting. We’d gone from being relatively well-planned with 3 months of marketing and events planned out in advance. Then, the crisis hit and we had to ditch all of our marketing and significantly change our proposition for members. Part of the change was providing for the first time for our members, white labelled content such as email copy and articles. Since the crisis really kicked in the club has provided its members with over 4 new resources every single week. This is significantly more than we were doing in the run up to Christmas.

The information AMC is providing...is amazing.

The information AMC is providing in these unprecedented times along with the support is amazing.

This is the difference in businesses surviving or folding which is ultimately going to affect us.

This has given me time to actually advise clients and potential clients on how to practically action this.

Zee Razaq

Certax St Albans

Over the last 2 months, 12 new members have joined the club. This has pushed the club to the limits as we grapple with the need to really support our current members, onboard our new members, rejig all of our marketing/events/education and desperately try and get some sense of control in a rapidly changing turbulent world. As a result, all the signs were there that we needed to get to grips with our workflow, project management and general practice management. For example:

  • We were not getting the most out of our freelance team members as we didn’t give them clear objectives, priorities and deadlines. In fact much of the briefs we were given them were done when firefighting and often a knee jerk reaction.
  • Stuff was badly slipping through the cracks.
  • As a team the way we were working together was getting inefficient and many of the team were working long hours.
  • Ashley and I were following different systems and working inconsistently with club members.
  • The bits of task management we did when led by Lisa in our team, worked reasonably well. Such as onboarding new club members.
  • Coronavirus had exponentially increased the number of Whatsapp messages we were all getting and making, both personally and professionally. As a result, there was a desire to switch off Whatsapp during our working hours.
  • I was holding far too much in my head which was resulting in poor sleep and also things getting forgotten about for the business and in my home life. My teenage children were despairing of my memory. Or lack of memory for the simple stuff…

The embarrassing thing is, if we had been one of our members this would have been picked up about 12 months ago. Hindsight is a wonderful thing…

The single source of truth

As the leader of your practice you need to be on top of your firm’s workload. This means you have to have a single source of truth of the state of your firm’s workload. We didn’t have this in our business, and as a result we were massively firefighting all the time. Because we didn’t have a clear sight of our backlog of what needed to be done, we couldn’t easily bring in extra resources to help us clear our backlog. And so we jumped into a vicious circle.

Guiding principle: Any practice management system has to give you your single source of truth for what work needs to be done in your practice.

What did we do first before jumping in and choosing our preferred practice management software

Putting in practice management software and getting the whole team to adopt it and one way of working is not a small task. It’s also something that you probably shouldn’t do in the middle of massive turbulence with little time to think or reflect. However, the more I delved into what was going on the more I realised we had no choice but to get to grips with what was going on. Coronavirus or no coronavirus my sanity depended on getting control of our workload once and for all.

The first thing we did was understand the reasons for our ‘as-is’. After all, we are 4 bright and able people in our business. We are not inherently lazy or ill-disciplined. However, when practices start to put in practice management software we often hear things like my team:

  • are stuck in their ways
  • wouldn’t make the change
  • don’t seem to have the discipline to keep the systems updated
  • wouldn’t change as they didn’t when we tried to do this in the past

One of the core principles I took from Dan and Chip Heath’s book ‘Switch: How to change things when change is hard’ is in business it’s never normally people’s character which is at fault, it’s the situation or environment you place them in.

For example my husband’s work decided that all of their employees needed to sign up to the corporate LinkedIn Learning account. It then got frustrated that the signup rate was really low. Therefore it started the standard corporate action of emailing managers to get their people to sign up. It even started to shame the employees by stating how low signup was and they needed to get on and sign up. My husband turned around to me and said, “I am literally trying to sign up, but when I put my email address in the system it doesn’t recognise it.” Not surprisingly, he then gave up after a few attempts and went back to his day job.

A classic example of what often happens when we want employees to adopt a new system or way of working. The environment or situation we put them in isn’t conducive to early or easy adoption. Think about it, no one likes to work in a chaotic environment where firefighting is the norm. Nor do they like stuff slipping through the cracks and letting down clients or last minute emergencies forming.

Guiding principle: When implementing a new practice management system you need to understand how the environment or situation has led your firm to where it is now.

We’ve seen many firms realise they need a practice management system but not consider their future needs when implementing the new system. For example, many firms love Accountancy Manager because you can just implement it out of the box. However, we’ve seen a few firms butt up against the limitations of Accountancy Manager very quickly because this practice management system forces you to work a certain way. (Which is why it can be quickly implemented) And very often as the firm grows that certain way becomes inefficient.

My team, on that fateful team meeting, all identified if the business was going to get a system which we all used, it had to work for me. Not because of my ego. It was for a far more simpler reason. I, the business owner, was the worst offender when it came to having the discipline and structure to use a practice management system. No-one could ever accuse me of being lazy. The sheer volume of staff I get through every week would overwhelm most people. In the business I am probably thinking about the most stuff, juggling the most stuff and generally trying to make sure all bases are covered at any one time.

This is one of the guiding principles of putting in place a practice management system. It has to work for the key decision makers. After all, they are going to be the ones who will be role modelling how it should be used. If they are not on board with the new practice management system, using it properly and sustainably is nigh on impossible.

Guiding principle: The practice management system has to work with how your key decisions makers work.

Step 1: Audit your current ways of working

The first thing we did was audit the systems we used to manage our workflow, projects and tasks. We did this using a Google Doc so we could easily share all of our thoughts when the inspiration took us. The depressing stats from our audit was between us we had 9 different ways of managing our workload. This audit also identified where we as a business needed to bring back some more control. It wasn’t just keeping control of our workflow which was an issue, it was becoming increasingly apparent that we had an issue with streamlining our internal communications.

One of the strengths of our business is that everyone in the business is empowered to take the initiative. I have a very ‘light’ touch style of management and trust my team to get on and do things. But in the absence of clear direction from me on the non-negotiables about how we work, everyone in the team had started to do things their way. Once again, more evidence that it was the situation and environment that the business had got itself into which was at the root cause of why we were not on top of the workload.

Guiding Principle: Look for where culturally your business has allowed itself to lose control of the workflow.

Our audit was showing us we had more of an issue than we first thought. So we started to look a little deeper into how we were all working. So we looked at where we stored all of our files and key pieces of information. It wasn’t pretty. Between us we used:

  • Our personal and shared google drives
  • Evernote
  • Google calendar
  • Gmail
  • Hard drives on our computers
  • Post it notes

And once again the main offender was me… Not surprisingly we all started to realise exactly how much time we were spending trying to find stuff when we needed it. At this point, I started to realise that the chance remark in our friday team meeting was indicative of a much larger practice efficiency issue. Not too dissimilar to what our members come to us struggling with. If we were going to be able to scale in the future we needed to get to grips with our practice management issues.

Guiding principle: You and your team need to fully understand the ‘why’ for changing your practice management system.

Step 2: Identify where the situation or environment is at fault

Before we as a business could successfully implement our new practice management system we needed to understand more about the hardest nut to crack, i.e. me. If we were going to make a success of our new practice management system, we first needed to understand what environmental or situation factors were going to help or hinder my adoption of a new system.

A core principle of Dan and Chip Heath’s book ‘Switch: How to change things when change is hard’, is to look for the few bright spots. In other words, looking for the few times when you are getting the required result and to dig deep into what is happening in these situations. Then replicate these situations and it will become much easier to implement your desired change.

It was time for me to do some soul searching. I never used to be ill-disciplined when I was at school or employed in a corporate life. Most people would say that I am incredibly focused and disciplined in what I do. So how have I changed in the last 4-5 years? What can we learn from my past to find the few bright spots?

The first thing I did was look at why the current system using a combination of Trello and ActiveCampaign wasn’t working for me.

It started to become obvious that making a busy person try to keep on top of 4 main task management systems, ActiveCampaign, Trello, Google Tasks and gmail was at the core of the issue. Particularly when I realised how much I was being overwhelmed by email. This email overwhelm meant that I now have a pathological dislike of email. But, at this point we were in danger of getting in the situation where we had identified, as Dan and Chip Heath would say it, ‘True but useless’ information. For example we already knew that:

  • I was overworked
  • I got too much email
  • We were firefighting as a result of COVID-19
  • We were light on resource
  • I’m a last minute pressure kind of girl
  • I get easily overwhelmed with detail and always want someone else to do ‘the detail’

Knowing this wasn’t helping us to work out how to get me to use our new system. So I went back to what I did have the discipline to do every day, and how I managed to implement this. There were some bright spots, which we could learn from. Every day all of our team do a daily operational huddle via Whatsapp.

I’ve been really good at diligently putting my daily update. So, I asked myself, why did that work? There were 5 reasons:

  • I could do it on my phone, iPad or iMac, so could do it wherever I was in the world or home
  • I wanted my team to do it, so knew I needed to role model it myself.
  • It was simple to complete, and I normally did it over breakfast.
  • The daily operational huddles are a core part of the club’s methodology, so I knew our business needed to walk it’s walk and talk it’s talk if it was to be credible to our members.
  • It negated the need to go into my email

Guiding principle: Look for the bright spots, i.e. where you do have control of part of your workflow and why this is working. Then understand why the bright spots are there and replicate these in your new practice management system.

Step 3: Start to build your practice management system’s essential features or uses

From this bright spot some of the system requirements of our new practice management system started to emerge:

  • I had to enjoy using it
  • It had to be simple to use
  • The system needed to reduce the number of emails in my inbox
  • It had to be equally as accessible via my ipad, phone or imac.
  • I needed to have the ability to use it for my personal and work life if it was going to be fully adopted by me

It was also becoming clear that a great way to get full adoption from myself AND the team was to put our daily huddles and team chat onto the new practice management system.

Guiding principle: The practice management system has to be easy to use for the people in your team most likely to not want to use it

When you are leading change in your business you need to make it simple for your team to adopt the new ways of working. This means defining some simple rules to adhere to. From the image shared you can started to see some of those simple rules being defined for our team, such as:

  • Everyone needs to put their daily update onto the new system
  • The team adheres to a simple responsiveness rule for email.

One of the issues I kept coming back to was why was I getting overwhelmed by email? To the point I was telling people don’t email me if you want a quick response. So I literally did a root cause analysis of why the workflow was not under control to shed some light onto my issues with email.

This analysis helped define our requirements for the new practice management system in even more depth.

Guiding principle: Before being attracted to testing out shiny things you need to identify the essential requirements of your practice management system

To recap the guiding principles to implementing a practice management system are:

  • Any practice management system has to give you your single source of truth for what work needs to be done in your practice.

  • When implementing a new practice management system you need to understand how the environment or situation has led your firm to where it is now.

  • The practice management system has to work with how your key decisions makers work.

  • Look for where culturally your business has allowed itself to lose control of the workflow.

  • You and your team need to fully understand the ‘why’ for changing your practice management system.

  • Look for the bright spots, i.e. where you do have control of part of your workflow and why this is working. Then understand why the bright spots are there and replicate these in your new practice management system.

  • The practice management system has to be easy to use for the people in your team most likely to not want to use it

  • Before being attracted to testing out shiny things you need to identify the essential requirements of your practice management system

In part 2 of this series on our journey to sustainably implement a new practice management system for our business, I will take you through the steps to how we chose our system and how we got the team using and engaged with it.