Operations assemble!

The Seven Faces of a Startup Ops Superhero

TL;DR

  • Being successful in Ops at a startup requires you to draw on a range of different skills and strengths.
  • Be prepared to spend time firefighting, but also make time to deduce the real problems and solve those.
  • Combine creativity and analytical ability to devise solutions that really work.
  • Become good at convincing people of why they should change and show them how to do it. Enforce compliance on key risk issues.
  • Be a productivity ninja and defeat the time drains of email and unfocused meetings.
  • Don’t do it alone! Draw on the combined strengths of your team to overcome all obstacles.

Most superheroes have a secret identity, the “ordinary” person behind the mask who in their day-to-day life is a journalist (think Superman’s Clark Kent), a school student (Spiderman’s Peter Parker), or a billionaire industrialist (Batman’s Bruce Wayne; some people get all the luck!).

However, in my experience, if you want to be a Startup Ops Superhero, you’ll likely have (at least) seven! Here are the various faces of someone working in Ops at a startup.

1. The Determined Firefighter

When you work in Ops at a startup, things go wrong. A lot. You’re constantly operating at the edge of the possible, sailing as close to the wind as you can to achieve maximum velocity. When you’re building a rocket ship in mid-flight, you had better expect things to not go smoothly, but be equally prepared to fix it quickly. Your crew’s metaphorical lives might be at stake if your heat shield fails. So get used to dousing hundreds of different fires, some small, some bigger and to have the determination to keep pressing ahead, even if the same or other fires spring back to life.

Like being an actual firefighter, this can be a very stressful experience. You’ve got to be able to make difficult decisions under pressure, be able to assess a situation quickly and critically, and demonstrate strong leadership and interpersonal skills to motivate your team. Invest time in developing good emotional resilience through practices like mindfulness so you have a reserve of strength to draw on when the going gets tough. Practice quickly assessing all aspects of a problem and coming to clear judgments about what to do. Be clear in your communications with those around you to make sure everyone knows what they need to do. Be confident and decisive upon taking a course of action and lead others to get it done. Also, if you’re taking your team into a burning building, you’d better be prepared to lead from the front and get stuck in!

Just a normal day at the office in Ops at a startup

However, if you solely spent your time firefighting, your company would never move anywhere. It would just drift as a semi-permanently smoldering ship without anyone sailing it. This means that to be a Startup Ops Superhero, you also need to be…

2. The Curious Detective

To be effective in Ops, you can’t just look to what’s on the surface. You need to be able to dive deep and find the real causes of what’s going on. Even if a seemingly likely suspect or explanation for a problem has presented itself, be like Poirot or Benoit Blanc and question every assumption in depth; the real culprit might evade detection otherwise. And if you’re fixing the wrong thing, you’re going to be going back to firefighting again before you know it.

Some good techniques to use here are the ‘5 Whys’ and the ‘7 So Whats’ to flesh out what the problem is and what the unforeseen consequences of the issue might be. Always ask ‘Why?’ at least five times to make sure you’ve found the root of the problem. And when you’ve done that, also ask ‘So what?’ at least seven times to flush out what consequences of your problem or proposed solution you might not have considered.

Problem Hacking™ is another great way of effectively defining a problem before you start firing off solutions. Use Yonatan Levy’s five-step process to rapidly define the problem so that you can then focus on the best course of action.

Always be like Benoit Blanc…including the ridiculous southern accent.

Once you’ve really spent time defining what your problem is and finding the real causes of what’s going wrong, you need to start coming up with solutions. This brings us on to the next two identities of the Startup Ops Superhero.

3. The Creative Visionary

Creativity is not something that you might ordinarily associate with operations, but coming up with really good solutions to problems that last involves a lot of thinking creatively outside of the box and creating a vision for change. Don’t just be satisfied with doing things in the way they’ve always been done. Think about how things could be better, even if it initially seems fantastical, and inspire people to shift their frame of reference.

Here, use techniques such as Design Thinking to unlock the power of creative thinking in solution generation. Facilitate workshops with sticky notes and Lego, sketch out ideas, and develop prototypes. If you make solving problems fun and engaging and create a safe space for innovative ideas, you’re going to improve the quality of your ideas and buy-in from stakeholders.

Engaging in some creative visioning.

All this freewheeling right-brain thinking works best, however, when it is paired with some strong analytical left-brain thinking. A vision is great, but you don’t get there overnight. Which means you should also be…

4. The Analytical Experimenter
The scientific method is your friend. Be rigorous in your approach. Define hypotheses and run experiments regularly, measuring to see what works and (just as importantly) what doesn’t before you invest time and money in a proposed course of action. Collect and analyse data to validate what really makes an impact. Work iteratively and learn from what you do as you go along, making improvements or changes as necessary.

The principles of Lean Startup and Agile are things to hold on to closely here. Don’t build the Hindenburg, only to find out too late that your grand design of a solution contains a fatal flaw and see it all come crashing down in flames. Build, measure, learn should be your mantra. Become comfortable working with analytical tools (such as Excel, SQL, Python/R, and things like Tableau and Google Analytics) to use data to ground your decision making. Experience and intuition can be helpful, but you should recognise you, like everyone else, has biases and that there will be inherent limits to not basing your decisions on data. As the Silicon Valley saying goes, ‘In God we trust; everyone else, bring data’.

Beware those who think they’re certain but don’t put up any evidence to prove it.

5. The Empathetic Teacher
We’ve covered problem diagnosis and solution creation, but what happens when people don’t follow or use the great solution you’ve developed? This is where our next two identities of the Startup Ops Superhero come in. Change management is a core part of the skillset of a Startup Ops Superstar. There is widespread research to show that 70% of the time, change initiatives within organisations don’t succeed, even when 9 out of 10 times, the solution being advocated is technically correct or valuable.

Develop knowledge and expertise in change management best practices. Use frameworks such as the McKinsey Influence Model to identify all of the relevant levers for change and make sure you’re not failing to pull any. Read up on behavioural science and psychology, and use behavioural design when designing processes to help avoid behavioural barriers to success. Spend time listening to concerns people have and engage with them empathetically, but be prepared to show them why the new course of action is beneficial and spend time training them to equip them with the tools to succeed.

If all else fails, there’s always hypnosis…

6. The Law Enforcer
So you can lead a horse to water, but sometimes you just need to make it drink. The COO of a leading non-profit organisation once told me that the operations function comprises 50% making it easier for people to do their jobs and 50% managing compliance. This is particularly important if you operate in a regulated industry (such as financial services or healthcare) or in respect of high-risk aspects of the business (such as information security and data protection) where human error or non-compliant behaviour could have very serious repercussions. Make sure you conduct audits of key processes regularly to identify areas of non-conformance and remediate accordingly. If employees need to undertake training in key areas such as information security or for regulatory purposes (such as KYC/AML), have systems to make sure that people are doing it when required and follow up with people who haven’t.

“Geoff, you’ve not done your IT security training yet…”

7. The Productivity Ninja
Last, but by no means least, a Startup Ops Superhero needs to be a master of organisation and getting sh*t done. Every day you’re going to be faced with a barrage of demands on your time, so you need to be ruthless at prioritisation and organising your time to make sure that things don’t slip through the net. Consistent and high-quality execution is key. You also need to be able to see around corners to anticipate up-coming problems and plan accordingly. As the saying goes if you fail to prepare, prepare to fail.

There are plenty of things you can do here. At an organisational level, having everyone aligned around a clear strategy to provide clarity about what it is (and is not) important to spend time on is crucial. Use a system like OKRs or 4DX (or a combination of both!) to set clear goals for action and a process for executing on them. Guard your time jealously — block out periods for deep work in your calendar and try to focus wherever possible on high-leverage activities. Where busywork can be removed or automated, do so. Try and track how you spend your time to give you insights into how you can improve your productivity — an easy way to do this is invest in a Timeular cube. Also, communicate regularly with relevant stakeholders to keep them up to date with what is occurring and to manage their expectations. Keep expectations realistic, and then overdeliver.

In particular, watch out for email and meetings, two of the most common time sinks that distract you from achieving your most important goals. Rather than getting sucked into the constant email whirlwind, avoid the cognitive drain from task switching by batching emails, and setting specific times for dealing with them during the day to protect time for deep work. Consider setting an auto-responder to let people know how you deal with emails and at what times and give them a contact number to reach you on if the matter needs an immediate response. Generally, most things don’t.

With meetings, set clear expectations for calling a meeting and how a meeting is run. Make sure every meeting is planned using PANDAS 🐼, i.e. Purpose, Agenda, Note-taking, Decisions & outcomes to achieve, Assigned actions, and Strict timekeeping. If someone calls for a meeting without a clear purpose or an agenda, politely decline where possible; it is unlikely to be a productive use of time. Make sure that someone is actively facilitating the meeting, to keep the meeting on time and on topic, and to ensure that detailed notes are kept of agreed actions and who is responsible for carrying them out. Also, don’t make one hour the default length of time for a meeting. Triage what can be done in 15 minutes, what needs half an hour or what needs longer. For things that need longer, try 50 minutes rather than one hour; you’ll almost certainly achieve the same amount, if not more, in a shorter time by focusing attendees’ minds.

That feeling when someone sends a meeting invite without an agenda…

Final thoughts: teamwork makes the dream work

If all of that is making your head spin, I don’t blame you; it’s a lot to take in and seems like a daunting challenge for anyone to take on. But remember this: there is no such thing as a well-rounded individual, there are only well-rounded teams. It is definitely worth investing time in developing the different areas I’ve talked about above, but at the end of the day remember that when the biggest challenges arise, superheroes come together in teams. Don’t think that you need to be brilliant at everything; play to your strengths and surround yourself with others who have complementary strengths and empower them to play to theirs. If you can be humble enough to recognise your limitations and can work with others to combine your strengths, you really will be a Startup Ops Superhero.

All together now!

Thanks for reading! 🙏 If you’ve enjoyed this and want to chat about anything startup or Ops related, feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn or by email at christopherjrbond@gmail.com!

Former lawyer turned scale-up ops leader | Finding my zen through yoga 🧘‍♂️ and cycling 🚴 | Recovering perfectionist and blogger about mental wellness.