My Working Analogy for Operations - The Heartbeat
The fundamental cycle that keeps every business unit running
Happy Sunday, friends!
This past week was incredibly exciting over at Ness. We shared news about our Seed raise, launched a new landing page, and talked publicly for the first time about our mission and vision for the company.
We’re tackling a tough problem, but I believe we have the team and approach to get it right. As always, I’ll make a plug - we’re hiring!
Today’s newsletter is all about Operations and proposes the analogy I use for thinking about the skills involved in being an “operator.” As always, I’d love to hear what you think!
So, what is ”Operations” anyway?
I’ve heard all sorts of analogies about Operations as a discipline and what it means to be an operator within an organization.
Operations is like a music studio representing the walls, soundboard, audio panels, etc that let “musicians” (AKA other member of the team) come in and “jam”.
The connective tissue of the organization. A base layer of sorts that works across the organization to make sure everyone is rowing in the same direction.
One of my recent favorites doesn’t provide an analogy per se but rather an acronym for what operations is responsible for - E2T. That is, make the organization more effective and efficient plus transform it for the future.
The span of analogies, acronyms, and definitions for Operations highlights both a pro and a con. Operations is the generalists dream because the skill set is so varied. The breadth and scope of the role also means that an Operations role can vary wildly from company to company keeping definitions loose and making hiring and career planning tricky.
Last week, someone shared a question in the Opsy.Work Slack group that spoke to the heart of this tradeoff. They were building a career roadmap for their company, specifically for T-shaped marketers - those with deep expertise in marketing but a wide breadth of general operations capabilities.
What skills should go along the top of the T? In short, how do you break down operations into a tactical set of skills?
Operations as the heartbeat
I’m going to propose yet another analogy - Operations as the heartbeat of the organization. Building on that for a moment:
Fundamentally, Operations is about moving from strategy and goal setting through execution and learning back to strategy again (aka a single heartbeat).
Operations should be able to speed up and slow down as necessary while keeping everyone aligned (aka heart rate).
When functioning properly, Operations allows every other function across the org to operate more effectively (aka heart as a central organ).
We can use the “beat” analogy to define the top of the T. Operations, as a discipline, is about driving the heartbeat within business units or at a macro-level across the company to maintain forward momentum. Effective operators either specialize in specific elements of the beat or have broad experience across the whole thing.
Defining the Strategy - Essentially, how do you take in information about competitors, the market, etc and translate it to a functioning business model? This requires skills like:
Having a fundamental understanding of core business concepts and your industry (including things like Blue Ocean Strategy, Playing to Win, Porter’s Five Forces, etc.)
Embodying systems-oriented thinking
Thinking five moves ahead and proactively addressing potential issues
Modeling out various scenarios and evaluating pros and cons
Making Decisions - Inevitably, you’ll come across key decisions that need to be made. This element describes how well you can get multiple stakeholders to the table, evaluate pros, cons, and tradeoffs, and come to a shared decision. This requires skills like:
Articulating your ideas in a clear, concise manner
Dropping attachment to your own ideas. Instead, having a real desire to select the best idea, not the best idea you came up with.
Structuring a compelling point of view (or, how do you build a “case”?)
Setting Goals - Now that we have a strategy and a set of decisions, we need to translate both into a tangible set of next actions. When done correctly, these goals allow teams to execute quickly and keep everyone rowing in the same direction. This step is where you’ll hear about:
Using OKRs, Key Initiatives, MBO, or any of the many goal-setting frameworks out there to get everyone aligned
Delegating ownership of various pieces of the strategy across the company
Continuing to drive for clarity regarding outcomes, next steps, blockers, etc.
Communication - With the strategy, set of decisions, and clear goals in mind, the next step is constant communication to keep everyone on the same page. This communication step is where you’ll work on:
Handling status updates across goals at various levels (Again, how can we keep everyone in lockstep?)
Ensuring everyone up and down the org chart understands the most important ways they can contribute
Creating ways for issues to bubble up quickly
Quickly handling inevitable bumps in the road when something doesn’t go as planned
Execution - This is the boots-on-the-ground, day-to-day work that actually gets things done. When I think of “operations”, this is often what I think about. Jumping into “execution mode” and making things happen. Specifically, this involves:
Delegating and leading effectively so your team can execute without being micro-managed
Building effective work habits on a personal level
Diffusing decision-making across the org so teammates feel empowered to make decisions in the day-to-day without slowing down the org
Evaluation - At regular intervals, taking a moment to step back and evaluate progress. This could be in the form of daily reports or monthly/quarterly business reviews. You need some way to step back and answer the question, “Is this working?” Skills involved include:
Using skills like SQL and/or tools like Looker, Tableau, or Google Sheets to generate reporting
Identifying patterns in data and pulling out meaningful signals from a sea of numbers
Taking those meaningful signals back to the core strategy and proposing what (if anything) needs to change as a result
Where to go from here?
I like this analogy for two reasons:
At the business level, it gives you a lens to understand how and where you’re struggling. Are you having trouble making decisions? Are you struggling in execution? By narrowing down exactly what’s blocking your company from quick “heartbeats,” you can create a better action plan.
On the individual level, this helps to inform your growth plan. Operations leaders (think Director of Operations, COO, etc) can drive an effective heartbeat across multiple disciplines within the company - finance, product, etc. Identify where you lack experience and dive in. If you’re prepping for your first Ops role, you could even write interview questions geared towards each item in this list in preparation!