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Thinking with an automation mindset

By Bryan Helmig · December 9, 2021
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Automation is a big part of our lives at Zapier. We spend our time building a product centered around automation and using that very automation product we're building in our own work processes.

Over the years, we've learned many different tricks for getting the most out of automation—and they all stem from thinking with an automation mindset. 

What is automation? It's setting up systems that run on their own, to clear space for you to focus on more important work. Automation with Zapier starts from a trigger, which then kicks off one or more actions—all in apps you use to get work done.

So, what is an automation mindset? It's a mindset that keeps automation at the forefront of your daily activities. Instead of automation being an afterthought, you proactively think about how automation can streamline your work processes. For example: 

  • Someone without an automation mindset waits for a problem before considering automation.

  • Someone with an automation mindset is proactively thinking about how automation can help them get more done in a less stressful environment.

Bryan Helmig is one of Zapier's co-founders and its current Chief Technical Officer. This post was adapted from a session given at ZapConnect, Zapier's user conference. Watch the presentation and browse other sessions from the event

How to develop an automation mindset

Developing an automation mindset starts by looking at your work processes and evaluating how automation can streamline operations, accelerate growth, increase reliability, and more. 

There are three main qualities to look for in a task or work process that signifies it should be automated: 

  1. Repetitive: mind-numbing work, such as copy/paste and data entry.

  2. Fragile: work that sees a lot of human error, like typos or forgotten steps. 

  3. Timely: recurring tasks, such as reminders and automatic responses.

An image showing three qualities of automatable tasks: repetitive (mind numbing, copy paste, data entry, juggling tabs), fragile (misclicks, typos, coordinated changes, checklists, forgotten steps), or timely (instant response, time delay is value decay).

Once you notice these qualities in your work, you can think about how to use automation to improve the way you do things. 

You can also look at your work through the apps you use and how you use them. These tasks fit into the repetitive, fragile, and timely framework above—it's just a different way of looking at your work.

  1. Forms as a trigger: best when you want to gather information from customers, leads, or teammates. Automation that starts from forms can do things like store data, send data, or notify people of new responses. 

  2. Sheet-based coordination: spreadsheets and databases can take information in from many places, store it for analysis and reference, and provide a place for team members to distribute work or approve things before sending information back out again. 

  3. Notification actions: use automation to notify a team member (or yourself) through your chat app or task management tool of choice when something is ready for them to do or review. 

Creating habits that unlock automation opportunities

There are six habits that can help you level up your automation—allowing automation to be something that really drives value for your business. 

1. Start small and iterate regularly

Many people make the mistake of trying to automate too much, too soon, when they begin their journey with automation. Automation is a process and skill to be learned with practice. 

I always recommend starting with a simple but super helpful automatic workflow. For example, you could automate a calendar invite when someone schedules a meeting via a form on your website or send a message in a specific slack channel when someone fills out a help ticket. 

Then, once you get comfortable with simple Zaps, you can start to add more steps and even some logic!

Personal pro-tip: Don't forget to name and organize your Zaps into folders. It's really helpful as your Zaps get more complex. 

2. Ask how, not who

David Zisner put it well: instead of asking who will do the work, start to think about how the work will get done. Once you dig into the actual work process, you will notice different steps that can be automated. 

For example, let's say you want to streamline your lead management. First, think about all the steps you have to take: 

  1. Get lead info from your website

  2. Transfer new lead info to your CRM (customer relationship management) tool

  3. Add the new lead to your marketing email list

  4. Assign the new lead to a sales associate

As I mentioned above, start small. You can quickly set up a Zap that sends info from your form directly to your CRM, minimizing your tedious tasks and the chances for copy/pasting errors. 

Eventually, you'll start to discover how you can tie those steps together into a more complex automated workflow. 

Here are a few places you can start, if a form-to-CRM workflow would be useful to you:

Collect new Typeform responses as rows on Google Sheets

Collect new Typeform responses as rows on Google Sheets
  • Typeform logo
  • Google Sheets logo
Typeform + Google Sheets

3. Educate your team and spread the mindset

This next habit is all about educating your team and spreading the automation mindset—because automation is most valuable when everyone is using it.

It's much more beneficial when my team is automating as much as I am. It saves us triple the time and energy. Plus, my team has unique insights into daily tasks and workflows that I don't always see.

By educating your team about automation, you're empowering them to make their work more efficient and, in many cases, more enjoyable. 

Want to share the power of automation at your business? Discover how you can make the case for automation at work.

4. Create an automation cadence

Make automation something you talk about regularly. My favorite way of doing that is adding 'automation strategy' as a recurring discussion item in our team meetings. It's helpful to ask questions like: Where is everybody spending their time? Where are the mistakes happening? What tasks do you dread doing on a daily, weekly, monthly basis?

Personal pro-tip: Be sure to talk about the automation wins you see too! Highlight great examples of automation by team members and encourage them to share their Zaps. 

5. Budget time and money upfront

Next up: take a breath and think about budgeting some time and money upfront for automation. When deciding how much money you want to spend on automation, consider the costs of a human doing the job manually, the costs of human error, and the costs of employee turnover.

You need to set expectations because automation is a process. As an automation newbie, it can feel tricky to set up and often takes up more time than expected. That's ok! It's worth it to take time to correctly set up your own personalized automation workflows.

6. Have winning anecdotes in your back pocket

One of the best things about automation is that you can set it up and then forget about it—because it consistently does the work in the background. However, this can make it hard to justify automation, especially when it magically happens behind the scenes. We've found that often this causes businesses to take automation for granted.

To mitigate this issue, have two examples of why automation is so beneficial ready to share at all times. Have one example that focuses on customer-facing automation and one on back-office automation.

It's critical to communicate the value automation creates so you can continue to scale your business without breaking the bank. 

Real-life examples of businesses using an automation mindset

For example, here is one of our favorite 'winning anecdotes' of how automation is helping businesses succeed. The BlackTies, a magician group based out of Sydney, are a great example of how automating their processes saves valuable time and money. 

At their start, they had one team member doing all their inbound and outbound lead management, transferring information from email to Trello cards, and updating each card to make sure whoever staffed the event had all the information needed. Eventually, they had too many leads coming in, and they couldn't grow in the way they wanted to. 

Automation with Zapier helped them scale, managing five times as many leads as their business grew. The BlackTies' success with automation is fueled by Zaps that help them get leads from their website into their CRM and move information from their CRM into the platform they use to manage performances. 

Explore some other great examples of how businesses are using automation: 

Be proactive instead of reactive

The automation mindset is all about being proactive instead of reactive. Intentionally search for tasks and processes that are repetitive, fragile, and timely. 

Once you find those qualities, automate it by: 

  1. Starting small

  2. Getting feedback from coworkers

  3. Setting a time to reiterate on the automation 

Then, be sure to share the power of automation with your colleagues and coworkers! As we like to say at Zapier, 'don't be the robot, build the robot.' 

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A Zap with the trigger 'When I get a new lead from Facebook,' and the action 'Notify my team in Slack'