The Rise of Department Operations Roles, and How to Tackle Inefficiency

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 et al. My first instinct when I hear an “operations” title is “inefficiency.” Not that the operations person is inefficient, but that there is inefficiency at the company. It is okay to be inefficient at things at your company. At various times, it will make sense to be inefficient in tons of areas of the company. The danger is in accepting inefficiency for the long term. 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. 

The Intercom Biz Ops team was the first to just come out and say it. This can create a remarkable 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 have 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. What is interesting about this trend is that this job security issue shouldn’t be a conflict of interest. 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 very 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 helping the company be more successful.

#1 Software
Any problem or inefficiency we can solve with software is superior to other forms because it automates away the inefficiency in the future once it is built. 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 is no software we can buy that helps. This is okay, even normal. Companies tend to under-invest in leveraging engineering to build solutions that help their companies become more efficient, largely because so many companies are engineering-constrained. But just like engineers have started to work more on business problems like growth or marketing, they will eventually start to work more on internal tooling that enables their and other teams.

#2 Process
My next goal would be to solve the problem or inefficiency with process. Process innovation is a remarkable thing. By understanding the issue and proposing a way of operating to solve the problem, the pain point can frequently be mitigated or disappear. Now, this is not as automatic as software because it requires people doing things to follow the process and usually more training than software. But processes can become hard-to-break habits, especially once employees see the benefits of them inside an organization. This is more of where departmental operations roles tend to thrive today. By understanding the strategy of the business and the day-to-day operations, operations 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 this happens without dedicated operations people, the more efficient an organization is.

#3 People
My next best option after process is to solve a problem with a person. Hiring is expensive, so it should be considered 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 today can’t fit into one of those roles, you can do it. But you should have a career plan for those roles to evolve into a more well-defined role. 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 actually look at one of the other solutions below.

#4 Advisors or Consultants
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 full-time anyway.

#5 Agencies and Firms
Lastly, 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. 

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 is many times 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 very common, though its definition is ambiguous because it tends to be a grab bag of executive inefficiency. Usually, the COO manages what the CEO is inefficient at. That can be management in general, or parts of the company the CEO is less capable of adding value to. The COO role can also be a roll up of certain executive functions when the CEO has too many direct reports as well. 

This is all fine and even optimal. But every operations role you add you should also add to a list of inefficiencies you hope your company can solve one day, and always be thinking towards software or processes that make these current roles unnecessary so those people can take on even more important roles over time.

Currently listening to Good Times by Moire.

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