At every company, there are well defined roles you would expect to see. In software, they tend to be roles like engineering, product management, design, marketing, legal, finance, etc. But as companies scale, they tend to invest in more specialized roles over time. During that transition, operating in one of these roles can be confusing. One interesting trend emerging at many companies (including Eventbrite) is the creation of departmental operations roles. Oh, you’ve seen them: Marketing Operations, Sales Operations, Design Operations, Product Operations, the list goes on.
My first instinct when I hear an “operations” title is “inefficiency.” It’s not that the operations person is inefficient, but that there is inefficiency at the company. It is okay for some things to be inefficient at your company. At various times, it will make sense to be inefficient in tons of areas. The danger is in accepting inefficiency for the long term. It probably goes without saying but, we should strive to eliminate inefficiency over time at companies, not embrace it. Thus, the goal of departmental operations teams can be somewhat paradoxical. By explicitly attempting to remove inefficiency, they are actually attempting to remove the need for their roles entirely.
My first instinct when I hear an “operations” title is “inefficiency.”
The Intercom Biz Ops team was the first to just come out and say it. This can create a perceived conflict of interest though. “By doing a good job, will I eliminate the need for my job?” As a result of this conflict of interest, we’ve started to see people in these roles try to define them as long-term necessities in organization, which means employees are optimizing for themselves instead of the company.
In reality, this job security issue shouldn’t be a conflict of interest at all. The goal of every job inside an organization should be to eliminate the need for it so you can do more important things. This is a great way to get more responsibility and promotions. There would be no greater pride for me than feeling like I am no longer needed in my current role at Eventbrite, for example.
So, if you want to do a great job in a departmental operations role, how do you do that? Well, the real question is how do we solve inefficiencies at companies? It’s like solving any problem within your company: You use various tools. I have a specific hierarchy I like to follow to solve these problems, and I wish more companies used it instead of defaulting to hiring people and creating roles. If you’re in a department operations role, you can consider this a playbook to help the company be more successful.
How to Help Department Operations Fight Inefficiency
- Software: Any problem or inefficiency we can solve with software is superior to other solutions.
- Process: If you can’t solve the inefficiency with software, try solving it with process.
- Advisors or Consultants: Working with individuals that have specific experience makes it easy to align incentives even if this subject matter expertise isn’t hireable full time.
- Agencies or Firms: They have expertise you can throw at a problem with less risk of being stuck with them full-time.
- People: Hiring is expensive, so you should consider it carefully.
Any problem or inefficiency we can solve with software is superior to other solutions because, in the future, software will automate away the inefficiency. Now, it may be the case that we cannot think of, or do not have the resources to develop, a software solution to the problem (permanently or temporarily) or that there’s no software we can buy that helps. That’s okay, even normal.
Always be thinking towards software or processes that make these roles unnecessary so people can take on even more important work over time.
Companies tend to underinvest in leveraging engineering to build solutions that help their companies become more efficient, largely because so many companies are engineering constrained. But just as engineers have started to work more on business problems like growth or marketing, they’ll eventually start to work more on internal tooling that enables their team (and others inside the organization).
If you can’t solve the inefficiency with software, try solving it with process. Process innovation is a remarkable thing. By understanding the issue and proposing a way of operating to solve the problem, you can frequently mitigate (or completely remove) the pain point. Now, a process-oriented solution isn’t as automatic as software because it requires people to actually follow the process, which usually requires more training than a software-oriented solution.
All of that said, processes can turn into hard-to-break habits, especially once employees see the benefits of them inside an organization. This is where departmental operations roles tend to thrive today. By understanding the strategy of the business and the day-to-day operations, ops team members can spot inefficiencies, test different process solutions and assume responsibility for scaling out ones that work. But these solutions can be led by anyone. The more these solutions emerge without dedicated operations roles, the more efficient the organization.
3. Advisors or Consultants
At this point you think we might turn to hiring someone new, but not so fast. Sometimes the right person isn’t available, or the problem is well time-boxed. In this situation, I prefer to find consultants or advisors. Subject matter expertise exists out there in the world for almost anything. Working with individuals that have specific experience makes it easy to align incentives even if this subject matter expertise isn’t hireable full time. If the issue is temporary, you may not want to hire a full time employee or team anyway.
4. Agencies and Firms
Next, I look at agencies or firms. With these companies, it is hard to prevent misaligned incentives. But they do have expertise and bodies that you can throw at a problem with less risk of being stuck with them full-time. It is many times more efficient to do the step below though to maximize performance in the long run.
Finally, after you’ve exhausted all other options, try solving your problem with a person. Hiring is expensive, so you should consider it carefully. I definitely prefer hiring for concrete roles that have well defined value inside companies (engineer, designer, analyst, etc.). If you need to hire an operations role because the problem is nebulous, temporary or can’t fit into an existing role, you can do it. But — and this is a big BUT — you should have a career plan for that role to evolve into a more permanent, well-defined position. Fortunately, team members that showcase generic problem solving skills are great fits for many other types of roles inside companies, so they rarely have to worry about their next internal career move. Still, it may be more efficient to look at one of the other solutions above first.
Where Operations Wins
I am not against operations roles; I just want companies to understand how to use them well and to scale out of them whenever possible. Early stage companies can absolutely crush with operations. Smart people Swiss Army knifing problems are usually the fastest way to scale in the early stage. Operations roles can also thrive in larger companies if they root out inefficiency with the tools above and don’t succumb to empire building. We can’t yet automate transportation needed for the delivery of the business? Call that the operations team. We can’t automate training for our customers yet? Call that the operations team.
The COO role is common, though its definition is ambiguous because it tends to be a grab bag of executive inefficiency. Usually, the COO manages the CEO’s own inefficiencies (e.g., management in general, or parts of the company to which the CEO is less capable of adding value). The COO role can also be a roll up of certain executive functions when the CEO has too many direct reports as well.
The COO role is common, though its definition is ambiguous because it tends to be a grab bag of executive inefficiency.
This is all fine and even optimal. But every operations role you add to your payroll you should also go on a list of inefficiencies your company can solve one day. Always be thinking towards software or processes that make these roles unnecessary so people can take on even more important work over time.
This article was originally published on Casey Accidental.