Getting Your Startup Operations Started
A *real life* story of planning and process at a startup
Operations at a fast growing startup can be like walking into a messy closet. Lots of potential but in need of some organization. You’re not sure where to start and it can be overwhelming to a Type A closet neat freak (not that I would be one of those… ;) )
If your early stage startup feels like a messy closet right now, is that bad?
No! It’s completely normal.
In fact, I would say, it’s a great sign that you’re focused on the right things (customers and growth) early on. If you add detailed planning structure too early, you’ll kill creativity, speed, and focus.
At some point though, the paradigm flips and without more clarity and structure, creativity, speed, and focus will fall off.
Whether you’re an ops leader with a “messy closet” or a CEO ready to scale, here is a *real life* story of incremental improvements over time to create operational excellence.
Our first quarterly planning session at Rigor:
Presentation from each department
One page quarterly planning template
Variety of presentation formats, goal types
Informal coordination and review
8 quarters later:
Annual planning process including budgeting
Quarterly planning process aligned with annual planning
Company vision and goals defined and communicated
Department projects and metrics aligned to company goals
SMART goal format with dates, numbers, specific targets
One page quarterly planning template by department, approved by CEO
Cross-departmental coordination and visibility on priorities and goal setting
Coordinated presentations approved by CEO, shared at company offsite
Uniform, branded powerpoint presentations
Follow up feedback survey
Departmental metrics consistency with goals and actuals
Mid-quarter leadership review of goal progress
Performance reviews align with company goals and values
Company core values defined and used in hiring, performance, planning, decision making
Did we implement all of these changes in a single quarter?
It would have been incredibly time intensive with little adoption and minimal long term value.
Instead, we picked 1-3 things to add or focus on each quarter.
First, it was consistency with metrics and setting SMART goals.
Next quarter, we added a leadership review and alignment process.
Then, it was viewer-friendly presentations instead of one page templates.
After one quarter of presentations, we started doing dry runs and using beautiful, branded templates.
By then, we had also redefined our company Core Values and incorporated those into planning, presentations, and performance.
How did we decide the “next thing” to add each quarter?
Gather team feedback after each quarterly planning cycle
Discuss with CEO
Assess what didn’t go smoothly
Analyze priorities and return-on-effort
Based on those inputs, we’d make a plan for what to improve next quarter. We’d also drop things that didn’t work and streamline areas that didn’t need hands-on management anymore.
Improvement Over Time
Like the famous British cycling team, we focused on consistent improvements over time which resulted in big gains in the long run.
No single item was transformational but the operations snowball grew steadily.
Within a year, Rigor had developed strong operational muscle.
Habits like using SMART goals started to happen automatically.
Team members would remind each other about it and train new hires on it.
We could focus on new habits like incorporating quarterly targets into daily and weekly cadences or project planning best practices. As familiarity with the process, expectations, and feedback loop grew, each subsequent improvement was easier to layer on.
This kind of operational rigor (see what I did there?) is always a team effort. It starts at the top with the CEO and depends on each team member adding their ideas, executing daily, and caring about improvement.
By building organically, incorporating feedback, and improving over time, a startup’s “messy closet” can become a highly-adopted, employee-driven system of operational excellence.
It doesn’t happen overnight but, like most things at a startup, it will happen faster than you think!