How Process Helped Us Enable Rapid Growth and Deliver on Our Purpose
February 18, 2020
When I started with Connected two and half years ago, we were a small company on the verge of a hyper growth phase. We had under 100 employees, and the team was working out of a 10,000 sqr. foot space that could barely accomodate us all. As our projects and teams grew in size, I watched the company change completely. Not once, not twice, but over and over again, consistently and ceaselessly.
The reality of rapidly scaling companies is that they are never static, and by proxy, neither are their needs. As the Business Operations Manager, my biggest area of focus is on the needs of Connected’s internal operations. A 100-person company has needs far different from a 130- or even 180-person company.
When I speak of a company’s needs, I am referring to the structures it must have in place in order to function more efficiently. The processes, policies, and tools that must be implemented to keep up with the cracks that tend to show as a team scales. The key to being adaptable, and strategic in the context of business operations is to be forward looking, to attempt to predict the unpredictable, and if you cannot, to be strategically reactive to changing contexts.
The joke I make internally at Connected is that “I love rules”, because about 50% of my job requires either creating, enforcing, or adapting internal policies and processes to better fit where we are at as an organization. In a company made up almost entirely of practitioners who are focused on building better products, it can be difficult to explain exactly what I do, and why it is important. But the truth is that operations teams are important simply because they allow everyone else to perform effectively.
Creating structure from the ground up
Creating structure within an organization as it goes from 100 people to 200 is important for a whole host of reasons; it allows everyone to level up, it allows systems to begin running themselves, and frees up time for more long-term, strategic thinking. When I come to work every day, my metric for success is completely different from that of Connected practitioners. In a company that is doing amazing things, and building the Product Thinking category through the relentless pursuit of excellence in product development, my goal is to facilitate Connected’s growth from the inside, so we are both fiscally and operationally efficient. I do this because I know that when I am doing my job well, it empowers and supports our practitioners in their relentless pursuit of impactful products.
As we’ve scaled over the last five years, there are a few key ways we have created efficiencies that facilitated this growth within Connected. They have predominantly manifested themselves through added policy, process, and the implementation of SaaS tools. The nature of operations is that when it’s done well, everyone else’s job becomes easier, and their employee experience is better. That being said, our goals are not the same, and sometimes, they are at odds with each other. Practitioners want efficiency, they want ease of process, or short turnaround times. But sometimes, what is right for the organization at scale is not optimal for the individual.
The reason individuals like startups is because they are like the wild west. There is little to no policy or process, and thus almost every member of the team can determine their own way of doing things. Because of this, it can be easy for employees of a rapidly growing company to perceive policy and process as added friction to this more informal way of working. But in reality, the reason companies can grow and scale at the speed they do, is because there is a team of people behind it, laying down a runway for everyone else to come to work and focus on the goals of their role.
Given all this, why should a company implement policy? Why invest in tools? And why explain these changes to the rest of the company? There can be many reasons for this, but there are three that I believe are the most important, and the most transferable to any rapidly growing organization.
1. Policy creates efficiency for teams
One of the most important qualities an operations team in a rapidly growing company can have is skepticism. What I mean by this is: Having the mentality that nothing is set in stone is critical. At each step of Connected’s growth, the Ops team has questioned every aspect of how we are running our internal operations. As I said before, what makes sense for a company of 100 people may make absolutely no sense for a company of 150, and it is important to be able to challenge internal process and policy (even when you created it yourself), and to overhaul when necessary.
The main argument for this dynamic approach is that it keeps efficiency at the fore. At a small size, it is easier to informally share information around standard operational requirements such as budgets, booking travel, or expense reimbursement. But as a company scales, that information has to be documented and upheld by way of policy.
This seems like a simple example, but as a company’s team size, and reporting structure grows and becomes more granular, having a documented source of truth for internal processes provides added legitimacy, efficiency, and consistency to everyone. My advice for growing companies: Start implementing official policy and process as early as you can.
One issue I have seen the operations team faced with as Connected has grown is the “grandfathered” processes that early members of the company still follow. When an organization is small and has one way of operating internally, individuals like to hold onto these old ways of doing things as their own personal “exception.” The issue with this is it derails efficiency, and creates incontinuity in efforts to standardize operations. For this reason, in order to effectively make change to policy and process as a company scales, it is extremely important to create process proactively, not reactively.
The hope is that in introducing structure early, eventually these systems begin to operate on their own, they will become innate to how business is done, and will effectively “run themselves.” In my experience, this makes iterating on and changing these policies easier over time, and allows the team to react to growth effectively.
2. Tools enable strategic thinking
If you’ve ever worked in a small startup, you know the importance of the all-mighty spreadsheet. In my experience, when companies are small and resources are scarce, any and every piece of data that needs to be tracked, calculated, or analyzed ends up in an isolated spreadsheet, and most of these spreadsheets in a company’s internal drive do not provide enough context needed to make informed decisions.
As a company scales though, it is difficult and time consuming for an already overloaded team to take that data and rework it into something digestible that can lend itself to the type of informed decision making that is necessary for scalable, long-term growth. It’s a cliche, but knowledge is power. Without easy-to-read, -evaluate, and -interpret data, an operations team’s efficiency is just as fragmented as its knowledge.
An important and powerful way operations teams help facilitate company growth and expansion is through the finding, testing, and deploying SaaS tools aimed at solving everyday business needs. Let me be clear, I do not think there is value in implementing tools for every aspect of a company’s internal operations. But as a business scales, and the team size and time needed to complete mundane tasks grows, the ability to automate creates invaluable efficiencies in the operations process.
While tools can be expensive, investing in the right type of tools are essential in rapidly growing companies. Having mostly manual, cost-effective systems may be the right choice when you have a team size of 50 people, but as you grow, the more you can automate the better. Tools also free up your operations team to do more strategic, project-based work rather than day-to-day tactical work; this part is key to creating sustainable long-term business operations as your company scales.
In essence, while a subscription-based tool may seem like a high annual cost, the productivity gains more than offset the cost. This is important, especially in the context of my first point, because operations teams with time to be proactive, rather than reactive, can scale operations much more effectively.
3. Informed evolution facilitates effective change management
It is pretty universally known that nobody likes change. With that in mind, one of the central functions of the operations team in a rapidly growing company is the ability to evaluate, deploy, and educate the broader company on changes to internal operations and processes that will be fundamentally better for everyone. In other words, change management skills are central to an effective operations team.
If I’ve learned anything about change management through my time with Connected, it’s that storytelling is important. It’s not enough to just inform others of a new policy, process, system, or tool. In order to achieve the highest possible adoption rate, you have to proactively frame these changes by providing answers to common questions such as why we are changing? What was wrong with the old way? What outcome will this achieve? and Why should I care about that outcome? It is the duty of the operations team to create buy-in from the larger company by educating on the who, what, where, when, or why of change so it is easier to swallow.
As I stated earlier, as an operations manager, my goals appear very different from the rest of the company’s on the surface. But in reality, my motivations for optimizing business operations boils down to a central intention for efficiencies that deliver impact to our internal team, and in turn our clients. Because there is little incentive for others to take time out of their days to care about operational efficiency, providing context based change management is important for informed evolution company wide. Just changing a policy is not enough, it is the duty of the operations team to explain why, and to be patient if it takes the larger company a minute to catch up.
It has been said to me many times over the years that operations is the backbone of any company, and this has rang true throughout my career. Rapidly scaling organizations must look to their operations team as the core executors in changes that enable you to go from scrappy startup to real company.
The Connected that exists today is far different from the Connected Lab that I joined almost three years ago. We have changed and done away with a lot of the old processes that no longer served us, largely because accelerated growth exposes holes in a company’s operations very quickly. This change can be difficult, and at times scary. But if operations is the backbone of the company, then I see it as our job to be just that; flexible to a point, serving as the facilitator to movement and progress, while sending out signals that communicate our organizational limits.
To that end, as we approach the 200-person mark and Connected’s needs inevitably metamorphosize again; we’ll adapt and iterate, add and subtract, but we will always be moving forward with the goal of creating a company that allows our people to do what they do best every day: Build Better Products.
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Endless, boundless, limitless; words to describe Chris Russo’s creativity. As our Content Marketing Manager, he proves every single day that the pen is mightier than the sword. He has inspired so many Thoughtworkers to share their voice and perspectives through our content, that we even created a secret-not-so-secret society for everyone he’s collaborated with known as the 4P (you’ll have to join the team to find out what it stands for!). Besides being a very avid reader, Chris enjoys spending time with his two boys and partner going on hikes, exploring new towns, and cooking up a storm in their kitchen trying new culinary styles.
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