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Managing sign-off

Trina Wallace

How do you work out when a sign-off process is necessary and when it's just slowing things down? Trina Wallace considers the most efficient way to manage sign-off

Computers and aircraft are very different things. But when management consultant John O’Mahony worked with a large airline company, he was surprised to find that their sign-off procedure for getting new versions of both were practically the same. “An employee had to wait four months before they got a new PC because of the sign-off process,” says O’Mahony, who works for professional services company KPMG’s management consultancy. “It affected his performance and the sign-off was totally not fit for purpose.”

This kind of sign-off of day-to-day decisions businesses need to make, as well as on projects, budgets and ideas, is a part of most managers’ jobs. Done well, it can help an organisation be more focused, strategic, meet its goals and flag up potential problems. But sometimes a lengthy sign-off process can delay decisions, lead to conflict between colleagues and departments, and hamper creativity.
The UK government is currently reviewing over 21,000 regulations that affect sign-off in many businesses around the country, including health and safety procedures, as part of its Red Tape Challenge. Could it be time to review your company’s own sign-off processes?

Tiered process

O’Mahony recommends managers take a hierarchical approach to sign-off, whereby each idea, project, budget or issue is considered individually against a set of criteria. These include risk, impact on the business and sensitivities associated with the project. More senior people would have responsibility for managing different levels of these criteria.

“If it’s clear that the customer experience will be enhanced by a certain project, you should go ahead with it almost immediately. Say with the example of the airline buying a staff member a new PC,” says John. “If it requires further evaluation to find this out, then it should go to the next level of the sign-off process, which might be managed by a different person.

“Having a clearly articulated system in place can help improve staff morale because people can feel less frustrated. They’re not being involved in a bureaucratic process and are better able to meet objectives.”


Getting people on board 

Jo Burns, a practice director at Xceed Group, an IT and business change professional services company, has a different approach. She argues that, overall, businesses need to do more sign-off at a senior level. 

“It’s critical that heads of companies, or their boards, still sign-off every budget that is agreed,” says Burns. “Not enough executive boards have an overview of everything their junior managers are signing off in their organisation which has been a problem in the banking sector. If money goes into one project, it impacts others which might be higher priority.” 

To make this point, Burns uses the example of a marketing department where staff want to do a multimedia campaign, but the IT part of the business need to focus resources on delivering customer-facing services. IT staff could potentially not have the resources to support the new project, and senior management should have the best overview of this, rather than the head of marketing.

Communication is also vital in managing sign-off. Melissa Stewart, an editor at contract publishers Specialist Publications UK, says that managers should keep everyone involved in the project or issue they want sign-off on – from the start. “In our case, that’s everyone from the junior designer to the company director,” she says. “Give people the opportunity to voice their opinions and offer their constructive feedback. You can then be confident that the work you're creating is on brief and delivering the key messages that it needs to.”

This can help give staff the power to make their own decisions and avoids micro-managing. Another way to do this, suggests Burns, is to make staff responsible for budgets. “It’s about managing people with goals,” she says.

Instant decisions 

One way to make top level sign-off transparent is to have regular organisation-wide meetings where decisions get made there and then. This is what happens at consultancy Moorhouse. The company’s 100 staff meet quarterly and have the opportunity to pitch ideas to senior colleagues about projects they want to pursue. These meetings were vital to smoothing sign-off processes when the company was bought by BT in 2008. “Anyone can express a view but after we have debated it and kicked it round, everyone puts up and shuts up,” says Alasdair Ramage from Moorhouse. 

Of course, these meetings couldn’t be called to tackle everything that needs sign-off. The fast pace of social media requires businesses to react quickly and lengthy sign-off procedures can slow things down. This could have an impact on client or public perception of your brand. Stewart at Specialist recommends having protocols in place to deal with issues that might arise through social media. She recommends putting together some signed off responses to questions your followers tend to ask, so that you can respond to them more quickly. “Or if a user has posted something and you don't know the answer, post a note saying that you’re finding out the answer, rather than ignore the query,” she says. “I find that the honest approach is the best.” O’Mahony adds that it’s a good idea to have a time limit for replying to posts on Twitter or Facebook. This protects your organisation but makes sure you are responsive too.

Build in evaluation 

Most importantly, with any sign-off system, it’s crucial to regularly evaluate what constitutes good and bad decisions and identify any sign-off processes that are slowing your business down. “Get people involved in evaluating the sign-off process and use real examples of decisions you make in every day work to do this,” says O’Mahony. 
“Make sure you evaluate as you go because sign-off processes need to evolve as organisations do. What might be relevant in 2013 might not be in 2015.”

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