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Behind the Curtain: Why and How We’re Changing Up Operations at PF
Here at Productive Flourishing, 2021 has been a year of change (not that 2020 wasn’t… I’ve been calling this year 2020 the Sequel: Now It’s Personal, which sounds much more epic when you imagine the voiceover by Don LaFontaine).
We’ve talked about a few of those changes already on the blog, from developing the planning app prototype, to bringing on Cory as CMO, to updating and improving PFA (which itself was a pivot from our plan to host live events... before COVID hit).
All those business changes have created or necessitated a number of structural changes inside the business of PF. All of us on the team have had to “bob and weave” to respond to the changing market, changing priorities, and our changing roles and responsibilities.
Lots of changes.
Org Changes Mean Operations Changes
One of the changes that affected me personally is the reconfiguration of our Ops Team.
Most of you know that Charlie’s background is in operations and logistics, so operations is a zone of genius for him. And yet, we’ve been discovering that the more time Charlie spends in operations, as one-third of our operations “triad” (each of our internal business units is a trio of people — more on this below), the less time he has to spend on his most high-value, “joy” work: writing (both for the blog, and for the new book, Workways), coaching/consulting/teaching, and leading PF with Angela.
So over the past month, Charlie and I have been working to reconfigure operations at PF, to “get the commander out of the Tactical Operations Center,” as Charlie would put it — again referencing his military experience and the principles underneath military workways that have broader application when translated.
This has involved three primary adjustments to how we’re working together as an Ops Team:
I’ll dig into each of these in the next sections.
The Importance of Communication
This is the big one. Everything else we’re doing fails if good communication fails. And good communication both ways: “top-down” and “bottom-up”. We’re a pretty non-hierarchical organization, but the concepts still fit.
By top-down, I refer to leadership communication to the team: conveying the business vision, purpose, and goals; the “why” we’re doing what we’re doing, and the additional context and guidance the team needs to make decisions about how to prioritize the work and do it.
Bottom-up communication is the team’s responsibility: it’s things like status reports (sitreps), metrics, how the work’s getting done, and so on. It’s also asking questions for clarification. And it’s letting the leader know when things are working well, or not.
The best communications (both directions):
Have the right amount of context for the recipient
Anticipate what the recipient is going to need and ask about
Are as concise as they need to be to get the job done (so they don’t take up too much of the sender’s time to create, or the recipient’s time to absorb)
Are frequent enough to avoid what we at PF call “the firehose” — better a trickle every day, or a stream once a week than a blast once a month
These communications can happen via meetings (like daily standups or weekly strategy calls), or via digital, asynchronous methods. We do a mix:
During this Ops transition, Charlie and I are doing daily “Coffee Syncs” by phone (while he’s on his daily coffee walk), which vary in length, focus, and who does most of the talking.
For the whole team, we have a #goodmorning channel in Slack we use to check in at the beginning of each workday and let the rest of the team know what our big rocks are for the day.
We also just started an “Ops Update” — an internal “newsletter” of sorts that informs the team about operations initiatives that are in progress or upcoming. (We’ll try this for a month and make adjustments as we go. #experiment)
There are others, but you get the idea. One thing we continue to learn: there’s no such thing as too much communication. When undergoing changes that create uncertainty and ambiguity for everyone, extra communication is necessary to make sure the team is well-informed, well taken care of, and focused on the same priorities.
Necessary Team Adjustments
One of the other things these changes have required is some shuffling of roles and responsibilities among the team. Some of this began last August when we brought Osheyana on board as our customer support person, which allowed Jess to move more into her marketing specialist role. We’ve juggled responsibilities for project management, marketing, content, PFA, services, and other business functions and revenue streams based on what was hot at the time, and where more support was needed.
As I mentioned above, our core “subteam” structure is a triad: three people for each “department” or function in the business. A few examples:
the Academy triad is Angela, Oshey, and me
the Marketing triad is Cory, Jess, and Jo
the Services triad is Charlie, Shannon, and me
For our small team, we’ve found that three is the right number of people to generate good ideas, identify challenges, and have the bandwidth to execute on projects. These triads can and do add additional teammates for some projects. We also intentionally have some overlap between triads because it helps information sharing across the team.
The same is true of the Ops team. With Charlie stepping back, we needed a new third member of our triad. Oshey has shown a proclivity for systems, processes, and information support that made the choice an easy one, and so she’s joined Jo and me to round out the new Ops team going forward. That change was only possible because Shannon graciously took on customer support to free up some of Oshey’s time.
One lesson here: you don’t always need to hire from outside to fill a new role. Our original thought was that we might need to hire for the Ops Specialist role that Oshey now holds. But with some teamwork, we were able to juggle roles and fill the need without having to look outside PF. This won’t always be true, and there will be specific roles that will require new people to fill them. And sometimes we’ll need to hire just to increase the capacity of the team overall. But where possible, we look for ways to shift people more toward their GATES and joy work, while still meeting the needs of the company.
Dialing in Our Systems
We use a lot of tools here at PF to make our work easier. Whether it’s Slack for team communication, Confluence for our knowledge base, or Active Campaign for our email marketing, we are constantly looking at our tools, the work they do for us, and how we can use them better. And sometimes this means shifting to a new tool when a current one proves insufficient.
But when I talk about systems, I’m also referring to the people systems in the business — our workways, to use Charlie’s term. This includes everything from our meeting culture, to how we share information, to how we manage projects, to how we take care of each other. All those workways are important to the company we’re building together every day.
One workway we’re spending a lot of time on right now is project management (PM). Over the past year, we’ve formalized a more centralized PM “office” within Operations, then deconstructed that into a distributed model as we shifted PM responsibility to our revenue stream teams (those triads again, these focused on a particular revenue play, like The Academy or Services).
As with most changes we humans undertake, we tend to swing the pendulum far in one direction, only to realize the limitations of that extreme position. So we course correct and swing the pendulum far to the other side. Only when we see this position’s equivalent limitations do we realize a more balanced approach is what’s needed (or at least a more centralized swing between those two extremes).
Our recent correction in project management considers the best of centralized PM:
companywide line of sight of priorities, projects, and people
a standard structure applicable across projects
appropriate process and system support from the Ops team
Along with the best of decentralized PM:
ownership of revenue stream projects by the teams with the closest line of sight on those needs
the ability to move quickly in pursuit of opportunities without getting bogged down
freeing up Ops team time to focus on broader, cross-company needs
We’ll continue to make refinements as we go, tightening the swing of the pendulum toward that balanced approach that works best for our team and the business.
The People Side of Change
One final aspect of change is something we’ve all experienced these last 18 months: its effects on people. Even those of us who are relatively comfortable with change, ambiguity, or uncertainty have felt the strain of all the changes, personal and professional, we’ve experienced these past months.
Angela’s written about change fatigue, and even as our world is shifting again toward “more open” and “more normal,” we all need to recognize that this, too, is a change, and one that’ll affect our ability to process other changes we experience.
So here at PF, we’re trying to be especially aware of the pile-up of change on the team, to encourage them to take care of themselves (Use your PTO, team! Schedule your recovery blocks and don’t skip them! Let us know how we can support you! among other things), and to find a balance between the changes we know need to happen in the business and the stability we also know is critical for the people in the business to feel safe and sure-footed and with the physical energy and emotional stamina to continue to show up every day, be their best, and do their best work.
In your own organization, team, or business, what’s a change you’ve made that’s been particularly fruitful? Or particularly challenging? Leave a comment and let us know!