How to How to (A standard operating procedure primer)

By Lindsay Martin-Bilbrey, CMP on May, 29 2019

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Lindsay Martin-Bilbrey, CMP

Lindsay is the CEO of Nifty Method Marketing & Events. A lively event professional armed with a very diverse background in the events industry and specializes in topics such as inbound and event marketing, attendee engagement, and so much more.

I had a former boss, who would laugh and say that I should name my first book, All My Circuses, All My Monkeys. Many days, I tend to agree with him. What event professionals do for a living can look like a heck of a lot of fun, what with the travel, food, and usually amazing hotels, but in reality, it’s a lot of strategy and tactics wrapped up with lots of cats.

I say this with much love and respect to those cats, because I firmly believe that passionate people create passionate things. However, the reality of it is that to execute a flawless event that has a lot of personalities attached to it, it takes a lot of patience, at times a masochistic attitude that embraces the flying monkeys, and a good set of guidelines to help you know when to color outside the lines and when to keep the peace. This is why we're big believers in the how to standard operating procedure (SOP) document. 

In addition, our agency works with brands and associations who are concentrating on creating experiential events that surprise and push the limits in their pursuit of transforming attendees into participants. This means that the events and marketing programs we create for our clients have a lot of emotion and culture imbued in them. Each must represent what’s new and forward thinking in that particular brand’s industry, while also not disturbing too heavily the sacred zombie cows that pasture in the brand’s culture. 

This post will explore:

  1. What is an SOP

  2. Why is an SOP important?

  3. Why don't more organizations or departments have SOPs?
  4. How to write a SOP in 10 easy steps

Whats an SOP_

So what is a SOP?

A standard operating procedure (SOP) is the important documentation that tells you the who, what, when, where, and how you to do the thing. They should be straightforward enough that any person with a reasonable knowledge of the thing can pick it up and do it as close as possible to your level of perfection, even if they've never done it before.

SOPs don't typically give you the flair or human touch. Rather, they provide the essentials and must-haves. For example, an annual event SOP would contain the summary of the event, the goal of the event, the step by step tactics of how to execute that event, and any related checklists and/or noted persons or roles needed to make the SOP actually work. 

So why use a SOP?

The prudent event planner is now nodding her or his head and saying to her/himself, "But of course! Why wouldn't we have something like this?! With changes happening literally every day in our industry, the SOP is critical to our continued success. What if someone leaves, or gets promoted, or something terrible happens and we don't have access to that person anymore?"

But do you really have the SOPs you need? Or want? Or should have?

Most of you don't. Only 32% of event profs recently polled shared that they have SOPs or something similar, typically affectionally called the bus book (we prefer the "win the lottery" book). 

SOPs don't typically give you the flair or human touch. Rather, they provide the essentials and must-haves.

Imagine this: your conference committee has completely turned over, and you have a team of brand new people helping guide your events strategy for your upcoming annual meeting. You're fairly new to the role, having transferred in from a different department. There is no win the lottery book and no brain trust. Your c-suite has been involved but only high level. And the upcoming year is the 50 year anniversary. 

Yeah, I have anxiety for you too. 

Succession planning isn’t just for the C-Suite. In a time where layoffs, staff transitions to other organizations, and internal re-organizations are all too common, having written SOP documentation of not only how to do a thing or process, but also the who helps make it happen, why you do (or shouldn't do it), when you do it, and where you do it are crucial in helping make an experience pop. This way, you have more time to help the new conference committee learn the ropes and come up with the big ideas rather than worrying if you have all the steps for how you're supposed to welcome the board to the stage during the opening meeting. 

Whats an SOP_ (2)

So, why don’t more departments or organizations do the due diligence and have the how to SOP documentation needed close at hand?  

Most of the time, it’s a simple time and capacity fact that the staff executing the events and programs are also the staff who need to be doing the documentation. Documentation falls by the wayside because doing the thing is more important that remembering to write down what needs to be done.

It’s never an issue until it’s needed to bring a new person into the group, and by that point in time, you’re likely so desperate for the help, your group is reactive rather than proactive.

Only 32% of event profs recently polled shared that they have SOPs or something similar, typically affectionally called the bus book (we prefer the "win the lottery" book).

The good news is, though, that it's never too late to start. Plus, writing standard operating procedures doesn't need to be a task you slog through. It can be a wonderful collaborative and team building activity, especially if you add ice cream or pizza.



10 best practices when

writing standard operating procedures

Whether you're starting at the beginning or you've already been penning SOPs and just need a bit of motivation to speed up your process, these ten best practices are guaranteed to help you to have fun and be thorough when writing SOPs. 

1. Gather a group.

Like a stone hitting water, the ripple effects of event strategy and execution can be a lot of people's business both internally and externally. And lots of people will also have an opinion, even if they have absolutely nothing to do with the execution of the event simply because of their title or role. When mapping or updating SOPs, it's better to gather a larger rather than a smaller group and ask "what do we need documented?" or "what SOPs are we missing?".

I know. It's sounds boring, but it doesn't have to be. Don't shy away from making it fun. These brainstorming sessions get a bad rap because they can like those crisis communications planning brainstorms where you imagine the worst things possible that you'll need to have a plan for. Why go there though?

Instead posit that your large group is literally imaging what you'll need to have written down if Karen or Karen's entire department wins the lottery and they resign en masse. One of the rotations can be a sticky note wall of what that participant would buy first if they won the lottery and quit THEIR job. 

oprah gives away cars

Also an important side note: don't let the large group slow you down. What we mean by this is that it's a "what do we need meeting" rather than a "discuss, solve, and write the SOP meeting." In fact, nothing should be done at that first or review meeting other than to note only what each of the persons gathered wants documented and why (more on that in a minute). Some of the group you've gathered will disagree with you. Politely redirect and ignore them.

Why do we give this advice? The goal of each SOP will likely be highly personal to that specific person or department. It's easier to follow up with them in writing and then in person, if needed, to ensure you are truly understanding their intent and the SOP's ultimate value. 

2. Figure out the purpose of each of the SOPs.

Alright, you've gathered this great big list of things people want you to document. Next, work with your large group in smaller groups or 1:1 to understand what the purpose of each request is.

Why shouldn't you just create SOPs for anything and everything? Just like we harp at you to have a goal for your event or marketing campaign, you must also have purpose for documenting your standard operating procedures so that you can track the value and practicality of the SOP.

what's the purpose of the event SOP you're writing?

For example, Meg from Finance wants you to document the procurement process of the ice sculptures ordered for events. Now, why does she want this? To help simplify the sourcing? To ensure we get a better deal when ordered ice sculptures? To ensure we only use the right kind of ice? The possibilities are endless but unless we know why Suzanne wants this and how it will be valuable to her (and your event), you likely don't need that SOP. 

And yes, the purpose can be as simple as" If ish goes sideways (describe force majeure here) at our next event, what do we do?" or "If event coordinator goes on leave, how do we run the call for conference proposals?" 

Other questions to ask when determining purpose: Is the procedure or process you're documenting new or something you've done for years? Is there an industry standard that the SOP will need to measure up to or against? Is this to help make your department more efficient or is the SOP being created due to a knowledge gap? Knowing where your low hanging fruit is as well as your highest priority SOPs are will help you get started successfully. 

3. Understand who your audience for the SOP is.

Ask yourself if you are documenting standard operating procedures for the industry, for your organization, or for your department or someone else entirely. If the purpose of the SOP is to show and assure your new SVP of Marketing how to run an activation event but that SVP will never actually RUN the activation, the kind of information you display and call out will be different than if the purpose of the SOP is to train the new ad agency you've contracted to actually plan and execute the activation. 

Yes, you likely need two SOPs here but it'll save you time in the long run because both that SVP and event coordinator will have what they need.

4. Determine the flow of the SOP

We have a few SOP templates: one for events, one for webinars, one for marketing campaigns, etc. Why do we have different ones? Each flow is just a bit different in that the structure can be manual-like, pared down like a field guide, or even more pared down like a one page process sheet. 

Don't muddy them all together. Set a standard template for each segment of your department that needs it so you don't end up with a twisted ball of yarn later. 

Additionally, by being clear about the structure, it will better enable others who use your SOP templates to follow the flow and create a set of standardized SOPs that can be used together rather than a collection of documents that are tough to follow and understand in context and execution.

determine the flow of your event SOP

5. Determine the scope of the SOP

If you’re documenting only one procedure in the SOP, then you need to understand exactly where the procedure starts and where it finishes. It is important to clearly define the scope in order to reduce overlap with other procedure documents. In other words, don't write more than you need to and write to the extend of what the SOPs purpose.

Remember the SVP and event coordinator? The SVP needs high level information that will likely fit on a one page SOP document whereas the event coordinator needs more complex SOP that it made up of several smaller SOPs outlining critical event processes.  . 

6. Figure out what is most crucial and document that first.

Alright, you've done all the planning for SOPs and now you're ready to start writing them.

Ever heard of Dave Ramsey’s debt snowball method? It works just as well for documentation. For the person(s) putting the strategic documentation plan in place, this might take a little bit more time upfront, but will pay dividends on the back end.

Remember when we talked about learning the purpose of each SOP above? Gather the immediate team members (this includes the volunteers you work with) who are directly responsible for executing the things in the SOP and have them identify the top five things they wish they knew more about for your highest priority projects coming up in the next 3-6 months. Compare that to your list from the big group and cross-compare it with the SOP purpose doc. Compare it to your list of priorities. 

Outline the three most common topics and ask. Those are likely your highest priorities. You can get to work documenting those SOPs right away and build a timeline in that allows you to take on the next top three. You’ll end up with a timeline and plan that will eventually knock out most of your documentation needs and perhaps uncover some you didn’t know about.

7. Do it as you go

I cannot repeat this enough: Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither will your documentation be finished that quickly. Good documentation is tactical, with enough specifics that will help the next person who reads it, take over the job the documentation entails with minimal help if necessary.

Yes, this means some of it will become outdated as soon as it’s written down, but wouldn’t you rather have enough infrastructure in place to rebuild everything if all of your staff win the lottery tomorrow, or worse the plane goes down? Do it day by day and don’t let it overwhelm you.

8. Do it in sprints

Misery shared is misery split. And when you band together as a team to do things (most people hate documentation, it ranks right up there with entering things in spreadsheets), it lessens the pain. Make it a team building activity, with food and a game that challenges one another to see who can get certain parts of the project done the quickest.

SOP document sprints for events

A fun way to do this is a sprint, which is a get-together of people involved in a project to give a focused development on the project. Sprints are typically from one week up to three weeks, and usually done for software development. Your documentation sprints don’t need to be that long, but they do allow you to set aside a specific time for everyone to focus on it. And you’d be surprised as some of the great memories that can come out it.

9. Use pre-planned meetings to transfer knowledge

A by-product of the SOP mapping and sprinting is that more people are learning what it takes to do the things. Which means you're training while documenting!

If you want to try and train deliberately, here's a great concept we love: in the medical world, surgeons train with the concept, see one, do one, teach one. This is also a great way to transfer knowledge for your important SOPs (and no one dies!).

Have the person who wrote the documentation teach it to someone at your next staff meeting. It serves a dual purpose of reinforcing the process created for the thing and also adds depth to the team’s bench because now not just one person, but at least two people know how to do the thing.

10. Use collaborative documentation to keep your SOPs up to date

Collaboration allows you to keep the SOPs moving along as well as timely. I primarily use Google Docs with our staff, committees, vendors, etc. This is a very powerful cloud based system that allows the documentation process to be split up, especially if the SOP is complex and has multiple people who hold the knowledge for specific pieces.

Not a Google or cloud based person? You can also used one of the many other real-time collaborative documenting editing programs out today. The important thing is to work on them together because no one person should hold the key to the castle.

You got this SOP documentation

It’s overwhelming but so worth it when you begin to get your SOP infrastructure in to place. But remember, done is better than perfect.

Seriously. Done is better than perfect. And started is better than nothing.

Start today and before you know it, the next time someone says they have an issue, you’ll know that all you need to worry about are the monkey permits.

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