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Should You Ask or Tell Your Procedures?
Ryan Ogden Headshot

Written by Ryan Ogden

Ryan is the Founder of Momentum and he built it to help small to medium-sized companies systematize their operations to scale their business.

Momentum Team

A common question people ask when documenting your Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) is whether they should ask or tell. When should leadership ask the employees who are performing the procedure (“doers”) if they know it best?

And when should leadership tell the doers how the procedure should be performed? What is the best approach? This article dives into these two options and how to know when to use each approach.

There are benefits to both approaches. Asking creates a culture of self-generated SOPs. This means your business will make itself more and more repeatable. Consistency and quality will improve automatically because the people have a habit of documenting the ways they operate. Imagine a business that creates it’s own autopilot everyday!

On the other hand, there are times when the leaders in a business need to declare how procedures are performed. SOPs should be a key part of quality and performance management. Leaders must have a way to keep control over what gets written into SOPs. There are times when leaders need to “tell” what is in an SOP.

Should you ask or tell? We encourage businesses do both. Telling requires a focused approach to choose which SOPs will be defined, who is the authority, which practices will be declared, etc. Asking creates a self-defining culture that is constantly documenting the ways the business operates.

So, for a given SOP, how do you choose between asking and telling?

Ask these questions:

1. Is the procedure difficult or complex to perform? You can ask an employee to create a procedure if the procedure isn’t complex. For example, if a procedure includes easy, documentable steps (i.e., you log in, pull up a record, download, etc.), you can ask the doers to document the procedure. If a procedure is more complex or difficult, it is a better candidate to have an authority “tell” the proper procedure, and not necessarily only the person doing the work.

2. What is the scope of the procedure? We teach to think in terms of Individual → Team → Customer → Core Business. If the potential impact of the procedure is limited to the individual, then allow that individual to document the procedure (“ask” the doers). However, if the impact is broader, this is a good candidate to have an authority (“tell” the doers).

3. Is there a standard? Are there levels of good? Especially if there is a high standard, the procedure should be “told.” When a leader in the business wants to set a standard of performance or quality, that should be “told.”

4. Are there multiple methods already in practice? Often, businesses have to select or combine existing methods already in practice. Whenever doing this, be sure to cut through politics and personal bias to get to the best approach for the business. Also, look for improvement opportunities beyond what exists and be sure to test the new procedure before fully deploying it.

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