Operations are usually seen as a relatively loosely-defined field, and it is often populated by people with various titles — COO, VP, General Manager — adding to the uncertainty. But COOs have an essential role to play in company growth. Many companies find that as they expand, they need to set up inward-facing teams that are able to ensure smooth business operations, boosting efficiency and profits, and allowing the CEO to take on an outward-facing approach.

The ideal operations team exists as a department that connects departments.  They constitute a link between marketing and sales, for example, in terms of online lead generation, or between product and account management to keep the developers updated on customer expectations. Although one could list a huge number of examples, in general the challenges an operations department can solve are common to all departments across the organisation. They are responsible for alignment, processes and goal-setting across the company.

1. Facilitating communications and alignment

As businesses grow, they can start to resemble a collection of departments with their own agenda, rather than a holistic, streamlined enterprise. This can result in a situation where similar challenges, bottlenecks or hurdles may exist in multiple departments. Due to a lack of communication, these challenges are not shared, and there is no unified approach to overcoming them, resulting in a loss in productivity. This is where operations comes in.

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Due to their inter-departmental responsibilities, the operations team possesses relevant knowledge on whether solutions already present in other departments could be of use to others. This means that they are able to properly assess if any possible cooperation would make sense. If no solution is already present, then the operations team acts as mediators, figuring out the needs of two or more departments and finding the most efficient way for them to work together. Setting up incentivised initiatives in which teams regularly get together to ‘connect the dots’ between their departments is one way we at Glispa have found that works well to ensure lasting alignment across the company.

2. Scaling processes

Operations often works with single teams, not just across departments. The accelerated growth which a lot of startups experience often results in learning a simple truth the hard way: What once worked for one person, no longer works for a team of ten. While this might seem like an obvious statement to make, it can be surprising how resistant people are to setting up specialised processes, because this involves a significant investment in time and analysis and might result in their own process being changed.

There are a number of important questions that operations needs to address:

  • We might be able to scale this by a factor of ten, but will we need to scale it by a factor of one hundred any time soon?
  • To what extent does this process need to be automated, and who will maintain it?

The operations team must ask these questions with the size and growth phase of the company in mind. If marketing is facing challenges sending newsletters, will something simple like MailChimp be enough or is a more holistic and integrated tool like Hubspot required? Is the Sales team small enough to track the pipeline with Trello or do they need Salesforce or Pipedrive?

An experienced operations team will know the right questions to ask and assist in setting up the team’s processes to help them perform more efficiently. They could even provide an additional level of integration by finding a way to tie together tools such marketing and sales automation to manage contacts, for example.

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By asking these questions, the operations team demonstrates their true value in delivering the right tools. By setting up processes with scale, technology and documentation in mind, operations can ensure that even as a team grows, the process remains efficient and knowledge can easily be transferred among existing and new team members.

3. Assisting leadership and goal-setting

Depending on the size of the company, the operations department has different leadership roles, from executing tasks to advising the CEO on strategy. For smaller, more consumer-facing startups the role might be focused on accelerating growth through social media advertising, for example. In larger, more established companies, operations acts more as a cross-functional layer, where their main responsibility is to facilitate and to help prioritise goals across the organisation, whether this is about setting up goal-management tools and KPIs that reach across the company, or filtering strategy down to different teams, helping them to reach these objectives.

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In a nutshell: balancing strategy with execution

An operations team will take different forms in different companies. Their priority however should always be the same: to ensure smooth, internal operations, while balancing strategy with execution. Whether the team takes on small, unconnected tasks for the benefit of the whole company or larger, strategic decisions which cover multiple functional areas the importance of the team is uncontested in every startup with goals of sustainable growth.

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