Running an operations function within a startup
It is difficult for startup leaders to deliver major projects without neglecting their business-as-usual responsibilities. An operations team can solve this problem for startups by helping leaders with projects.
For example, a customer service team needs to keep on top of inbound support tickets and calls, which can be a demanding responsibility. Suppose you decide to move to a new help desk software. Someone must choose a new vendor, configure the new system, and roll it out to staff. In many startups, it is challenging for leaders to balance everyday responsibilities (support tickets and calls) with project delivery (new help desk software rollout), so one or more balls will be dropped.
A startup with a robust operations function won’t have this problem. With the consultation of all relevant stakeholders, an operations manager can carry out the vendor selection and system configuration process. They can guide staff through the adoption of the new product. And most importantly, they can empower the customer service team to remain focused on servicing customers.
Conversely, an ineffective operations function can harm a startup. A startup can take the agency away from its teams by recruiting an operations team. Bad operations managers impose strict and ineffective ways of working on individuals who are perfectly capable of designing their own procedures. They disruptively roll out initiatives and fail to meet the needs of the teams they are meant to serve.
So, let’s talk about the best ways to set an operations discipline up for success.
Best practices for operations teams
An excellent operations team amplifies the capabilities of their colleagues. They collaborate with leaders and individuals to solve problems within the business through improvements to how everybody works and collaborates.
Their goals include:
- Teams operate smoothly and effectively, taking cues from Agile best practices. Bottlenecks are mitigated, and teams can scale quickly with minimal disruption to the business.
- There is a culture of continuous improvement, where teams frequently improve and simplify their ways of working to meet the evolving needs of the business.
- Teams actively measure their performance. This data drive strategy and prioritisation.
- Cross-team collaboration and escalations are effective and harmonious.
- Outcomes are prioritised over outputs, and the scope is lean enough to deliver value without unnecessary effort.
- Teams are rallied behind a unified vision, and each member thoroughly understands the impact this vision has on the team, the business, customers and the wider industry.
- Ongoing agile rituals (e.g., sprint planning, refinement, retrospectives) and ad-hoc collaborative workshops are well facilitated.
- Initiatives are adequately scrutinised and considered before they commence, and the appropriate documentation (e.g., an initiative brief) has been completed.
- Upcoming work and progress on work are shared frequently and clearly with the broader organisation, particularly crucial stakeholders.
- Teams use fit-for-purpose, usable, capable, and cost-effective tools.
- Teams understand their capacity and, therefore, their future resourcing requirements in a quantitative way.
- Cybersecurity and the privacy of our customers, team, and partners are prioritised and managed effectively throughout the organisation.
They achieve these goals through two primary responsibilities:
- Coach teams towards operational excellence. Most of the time, the best way to help an organisation grow is to help others to achieve great things rather than to do the work for them.
- Help leaders and members of teams to understand and communicate the problems they want to solve. This is typically done through an initiative brief.
- Evangelise the principle of outcomes over outputs by helping leaders to not only select the right solutions but to explore multiple approaches before committing.
- Foster a deep organisational understanding of SaaS, the SaaS business model, SaaS organisational norms, and the implications of this business model.
- Coach leaders through change management by helping them to understand how their work may affect others and how they should communicate and collaborate.
- Encourage teams to implement minimum-effective dose solutions that can later be improved through continuous improvement.
- Help teams to prioritise their work so that they can focus on the most essential initiatives rather than be swamped by competing priorities.
- Promote the spirit of continuous improvement by encouraging and facilitating post-mortems and retrospectives.
- Encourage outcome-focused strategy planning by facilitating brainstorming and other strategy workshops.
- Encourage collaboration over delegation. Ways of working packed with handovers between teams are inevitably full of bottlenecks. Stakeholders should collaborate towards a solution rather than delegate from silos or “throw over the fence”.
- Promote a culture of adaptability. Many individuals, teams and organisations are resistant to change. To succeed, we must embrace it.
- Guide individuals and teams through complex change. This includes delivering training on new ways of working.
- Lead and directly contribute towards operational initiatives. Some initiatives are cross-department1 or especially complicated2 or important. These initiatives are often directly managed by our operations managers.
- Lead internal projects to improve ways of working.
- Act as the project manager for the initiatives that you own. Participate as a contributor to projects owned by other operations managers.
- Be frugal and pragmatic. Simple solutions are usually better.
- Manage operational risk with a bias towards simplicity, trust and empowerment. Just because something went wrong once doesn’t mean we need a process. The risk of adverse outcomes must be weighed against the costs of excessive process requirements.
- Document and regularly share learnings with the broader business.
- Keep your initiatives well documented and well understood.
- Empower others. You’re here to drive transformation, not to be the sole proprietor of it. Even if you own an initiative, this doesn’t always make you the best person to complete each task.
- Work collaboratively with team leaders, allowing them to retain the autonomy of their areas of ownership.
- Use data and industry benchmarks to inform effective decision-making.
Imagine a startup that wants to move from tracking customer relationships in a knowledge base like Notion towards a CRM. This could impact how the finance team reports on sales results, how the sales team tracks opportunities, how the marketing team segments prospects for campaigns, and how customer service manages support tickets. Therefore, this initiative has many stakeholders, and it is not apparent who should own it primarily. Operations managers are great at bringing together multiple teams to get things like this done. ↩︎
Imagine a startup that wants to move towards a model where third parties can implement their product for new customers rather than their own internal teams. This might allow them to grow more quickly or expand into new markets. If they give this initiative to their already busy professional services team, it will move along very slowly. If an operations manager can own it and call upon the expertise of the professional services team only where necessary (e.g., writing technical documentation), things will move faster. ↩︎
9 April, 2023
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