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This is a brief summary of an operations brainstorm that took place during April 2022. It represents the views of operations staff at 8-12 different EA-aligned organizations (approximately). We split up into groups and brainstormed problems, and then chose the top problems to brainstorm some tentative solutions. 

The aim of the brainstorming session was to highlight things that needed improvement, rather than to evaluate how good EA operations roles are relative to the other non-profit or for-profit roles. It’s possible that EA organizations are not uniquely bad or good  - but that doesn’t mean that these issues are not worth addressing. The outside world (especially the non-profit space) is pretty inefficient, and I think it’s worth trying to improve things.  

Limitations of this data: Meta / community building (and longtermist, to a lesser degree) organizations were overrepresented in this sample, and the tallies are estimates. We didn’t systematically ask people to vote for each and every sub-item, but we think the overall priorities raised were reasonable. 

General Brainstorming

Four major themes came up in the original brainstorming session: bad knowledge management, unrealistic expectations, bad delegation, and lack of respect for operations. The group then re-formed new groups to brainstorm solutions for each of these key pain points.

Below, we go into a breakdown of each large issue into specific points raised during the general brainstorming session. Some points were raised multiple times and are indicated by the “(x n)” to indicate how many times the point was raised. 

Knowledge management

Problems

Organizations don’t have good systems for knowledge management. Ops staff don’t have enough time to coordinate and develop better systems. There is a general lack of structure, clarity and knowledge. 

  • Issues with processes and systems (x 4)
  • No time on larger problems
    • Lack of time to explore & coordinate
    • Lack of time to make things easier ([you’re always] putting out fires)
  • [Lack of] organizational structure
  1. Line management
  2. Capacity to cover absences [see Unrealistic Expectations]
  3. Covering / keeping the show running
  4. Responsibilities
  5. Working across time zones
  6. Training / upskilling
  7. Management training [see improper delegation]
  • Lack of Clarity + Knowledge
    • Legal
    • Compliance
    • HR
    • Hiring
    • Wellbeing (including burnout)
  • Lack of skill transfer
  • Lack of continuity / High turn-over of junior ops specialists

Potential Solutions

  • Lowering the bar - e.g. you don’t need a PhD to work in ops. Pick people with less option value.
  • Ask people to be nice and share with others
  • Best practice guides shared universally. [Make them] available to people before hiring so they can understand the job better before applying, so [there’s] less turn-over.
    • Database? (Better ops Slack?)
  • Making time to create Knowledge Management Systems - so less fire-fighting.
  • People higher in the organization [should have] better oversight of processes/knowledge.

Unrealistic expectations

Problems

Employers have unrealistic expectations for ops professionals. Ops people are expected to do too much in too little time and always be on call. 

  • Lack of capacity / too much to do (x2)
    • [Lack of] capacity to cover absences [from above]
  • Ops people [are expected to be] “always on call”
  • Timelines for projects [are subject to the] planning fallacy, [and there are] last minute changes
  • Ops team [are] responsible for all new ideas that people come [up] with - could others do it?
  • Unrealistic expectations about
    • coordination capacity
    • skillset
    • organizational memory

Solutions

  1. Bandwidth (?)
    1. Increase capacity
    2. Have continuity
    3. [give ops staff the] ability to push back on too-big asks
  2. Recognition
    1. Create transparency
    2. Create intra-team comms & strategy
    3. Make the “invisible” work visible
    4. Make the manager aware of the actual size of a task
  3. Clarity
    1. Don’t idealize the really tedious; be upfront about the nature of work
    2. Manage expectations (both ways)
    3. Humanize employees
  4. ??? [emotional support]
    1. Hug it out
    2. Make more sense
    3. Emotional support horse
    4. Have a good cry

Suboptimal delegation of tasks to ops staff

Problems

Employers don’t use their ops staff well. Ops staff are assigned tasks that could be more easily done by other staff, or by non-EA contractors. Ops staff have to do tedious, low-skill tasks for which they are overqualified.  
 

  • Getting people to do things they’re overqualified for (x 3)
  • Ops staff assigned tasks that aren’t appropriate (x 2) / Employers don't know what ops means
  • Tedious [jobs such as:] 
    • Having to “translate” emails to busier people
    • Refilling coffee/drinks [is] sisyphean

Solutions

  • [Managers should have] knowledge [about] the task/responsibility.
  • Understand your team’s capacity + skills → even having a team (something/one to delegate to).
  • Clarity in messaging + communication.
  • The “need to know” e.g. can it be outsourced?
  • Motivate to get good/best results (standards) → [give people] context on why [the task is] important 
    • Mission buy-in.
    • Inclusivity ([ops staff will] feel it’s mission-critical or valued).
  • Interim accountability + management.
  • Stakeholder/management support → No need to worry whether you can access the budget
    • Autonomy to take decisions to delegate.
  • Ops culture establishing (respect/reasoning for resources) from the get-go.

Lack of prestige or respect for operations

Problem

Employers don’t respect or appreciate operations work, leading to ops workers not always being (or feeling) included in the organization.

  • Lack of appreciation or respect (x 3)
  • Unclear levels of organization/inclusion - e.g. can contractors join the ops slack?
  • Not being invited to retreats
  • Recognition only comes when things go wrong
  • Employers think ops people have zero interest or subject matter expertise. 
  • People have very specific preferences and want the ops people to take care of it so they can be more productive; [there’s an] inherent assumption that the ops person’s time is less valuable.
  • Poor management leads to low self-esteem for ops people.

Solutions

  • Make ops people more connected to the organization.
    • Make sure they’re invited to retreats, dinners, and decision-making meetings.
  • Show more precise theory of change or path to impact for ops.
    • Better tracking of hours saved/multiplier effect.
  • Arguments for why ops people aren’t easily replaceable or outsourceable. 
    • Ops Day of Appreciation to show how indispensable you are.
  • Ops people should have the power to say no, since people don’t respect their time.
  • Open Phil mentorship program with someone from a different team.
  • Managements that build self-esteem.
  • Make other skills [that ops staff have] explicit for the rest of the team.

Exclusion from decision-making processes 

Relatedly, many mentioned that they were not sufficiently informed about or involved in their organization’s strategic decisions.

  • Limited influence in decision-making x 2 
  • Lack of sufficient overview on org’s strategy/ Working in a silo with limited interaction with colleagues (x2) 

Less frequently mentioned pain points

  • Poor job security for contractors (who always feel like they’re on work trial) and poor work benefits
  • Bad leadership styles, with one person/group specifying a manager who is too “on my case”
  • Lack of “training for 10 years from now”
  • Hiring is time consuming; it’s difficult to find candidates (x2) especially with “geographical restrictions (West coast, Oxford, etc.)”. Sometimes bad hiring decisions are made. 
  • Miscellaneous
    • Lack of creative outlets
    • Most tasks are hard to do off-screen
    • Existential anxiety
    • Bad events / community building’
    • (Sometimes) Dead-end: What’s above? Why is that good?
    • Ops less efficient

Appendix: the full general brainstorms to generate action items

Pain Points Group #1

  • Lack of capacity / too much to do
  • Timelines for projects planning fallacy on ops / last minute changes
  • Lack of appreciation
  • Lack of employment, only contracts
    • Contractor always feel like they’re on work trial
    • Poor work benefits
  • Lack of continuity / High turn-over of junior ops specialized
  • Getting people to do things they’re overqualified for
  • Reinventing the wheel on processes/systems
  • Organization/inclusion - unclear levels (can contractors join the ops slack?)
    • Not being invited to retreats
    • Not being included in strategic decisions that are ops-relevant.
  • Lack of delegation of tasks which don't require EA context to non EAs. (E.g. EA time could be used in better than low-brow tasks).
  • Ops team responsible for all new ideas that people come with - could others do it?
  • Non-rational delegation to ops people (E.g. it would be quicker/better to do this yourself than delegate to an [ops person?], accounting for value & time discrepancy)
  • Ops people “always on call” at walks, etc. - Should be call

Pain points Group #2

  • Adoption of new systems
  • Extensive responsibilities 
    • (Sometimes) Dead-end: What’s above? Why is that good?
    • Lack of sufficient overview on org’s strategy
    • Lack of skill transfer
  • No time on larger problems
    • Lack of time to explore & coordinate
    • Lack of time to make things easier ([you’re always] putting out fires)
  • Tedious
    • Having to “translate” emails to busier people
    • Time wasted on “below pay grade” tasks
    • Refilling coffee/drinks sisyphean
    • [someone has just drawn a picture of Sisyphus pushing his rock up a hill] 
  • Recognition only comes when things go wrong
    • Researchers don’t respect ops/non-technical [staff]
    • Zero appreciation or recognition
  • Working in a silo
    • Limited influence in decision-making
    • Lack of creative outlets
    • Limited interaction with colleagues
    • Most tasks are hard to do off-screen
  • Attention needed difficult to 80/20
  • Existential anxiety

Pain Points Group #3

  • Bad events / community building
  • Ops less efficient
  • Employers don't know what ops means
  • Leadership styles are hard
    • Delegation
    • Management quality
  • Unrealistic expectations about
    • coordination capacity
    • skillset
    • organizational memory
  • Non-EAs can do this work
  • Siloing → lack of team-to-team communication <> team communications
  • Manager too “on my case”
  • (lack of) training for 10 years from now

Pain Points Group #4

  1. Hiring
    1. Time consuming
      1. Geographical restrictions (West coast, Oxford, etc.)
    2. Bad hiring decisions
    3. Finding/reaching candidates
  2. Lack of Project Management Skills
    1. Using the same systems in the same way
    2. Knowing what system to use
      1. Complex or simple
      2. Relative to the task/project
    3. Setting it up “right”
  3. Setting organizational structure
    1. Line management
    2. Capacity to cover absences
    3. Covering / keeping the show running
    4. Responsibilities
    5. Working across time zones
    6. Training / upskilling
    7. Management training
  4. Lack of Clarity + Knowledge
    1. Legal
    2. Compliance
    3. HR
    4. Hiring
    5. Wellbeing
      1. Burnout
  5. Change management within the organizations
    1. Onboarding (capacity/time)
    2. Software

 

Thanks to Amber for help cleaning up and organizing these notes! 

Comments24
Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 1:56 AM

I don’t work in ops or within an EA org, but my observation from the outside is that the way EA does ops is very weird. Note these are my impressions from the outside so may not be reflective of the truth:

  • The term “Operations” is not used in the same way outside EA. In EA, it normally seems to mean “everything back office that the CEO doesn’t care about as long as it’s done. Outside of EA, it normally means the main function of the organisation (the COO normally has the highest number of people reporting to them after the CEO)
  • EA takes highly talented people and gives them menial roles because value-alignment is more important than experience and cost-effectiveness
  • People in EA have a lower tolerance for admin, possibly because they elevate themselves to a high level of importance. I‘ve worked with very senior and very busy company executives in the normal world and they reply to my emails. Yet in EA, it feels like once you have 2 years of experience in EA, you are too important to read your own emails and need somebody with 1 year of experience to do it for you
  • EA has so many small organizations and there seems to be so much reinventing the wheel, yet when it comes to specialists there are none
  • Managers within EA don’t seem to realise that some things they call operations are actually management responsibilities, and that to be a manager you need to be willing to less or maybe none of the day job, e.g. the CEO of a large research organisation should probably not do research anymore

I agree with several of your points here, especially the reinventing the wheel one, but I think the first and last miss something. But, I'll caveat this by saying I work in operations for a large (by EA standards) organization that might have more "normal" operations due to its size.

The term “Operations” is not used in the same way outside EA. In EA, it normally seems to mean “everything back office that the CEO doesn’t care about as long as it’s done. Outside of EA, it normally means the main function of the organisation (the COO normally has the highest number of people reporting to them after the CEO)

I don't think this is fully accurate — my impression is that "operations" is used widely outside of EA in the US nonprofit space to refer to 90%+ of what ops staff in EA do. E.g. looking through a random selection of jobs at US nonprofits the operations jobs seem similar to what I'd expect in EA, which is basically working on admin / finance / HR / legal compliance, etc and some intersections with fundraising/comms. At lots of small nonprofits (like EA ones), these jobs are staffed necessarily generalists — you have to do all those functions, but none might be a full-time job on their own, so you find one person to do it all. I've worked at a bunch of US nonprofits outside of EA and all of them had staff with titles like "Operations Director" or "Operations Coordinator" who basically did the same thing as I'd expect those roles to do at EA organizations. I think EA likely just took this titling from the US nonprofit space in general, though EA does have some unusual operations norms (e.g. being unusually high touch).

I think that there is definitely a different use of this term in a lot of for-profit contexts (e.g. business operations) but I've also seen it used the same way there sometimes. And,  COO usually stands for Chief Operating Officer, not Chief Operations Officer, and those are definitely different things.

Managers within EA don’t seem to realise that some things they call operations are actually management responsibilities, and that to be a manager you need to be willing to less or maybe none of the day job, e.g. the CEO of a large research organisation should probably not do research anymore

I agree that operations at EA organizations do lots of things that might often in other contexts be done by managers, and your specific example might be correct, but I also think that sometimes, especially in a nonprofit context, a large amount of admin burden is placed on programmatic staff, and it can be good to design systems to change this. That being said, the examples from the original post (e.g. dealing with emails for someone) sound more like an Executive Assistant's role, or just bad?

I think that lots of nonprofits outside of EA are under weird kinds of pressure (e.g. Charity Navigator rates charities on "administrative expense ratio") to not have particularly high operations costs. And an easy way to do this is to shift those expenses to managers (e.g. managers doing more paperwork). I don't think this is necessarily intentional, but a pretty undesirable effect of having fewer ops staff. I don't think EA organizations are under the same pressure, and that seems generally good.

Thanks for this! You might be right about the non-profit vs. for-profit distinction in 'operations' and your point about the COO being 'Operating' rather than 'Operations' is a good one.

Re avoiding managers doing paperwork, I agree with that way of putting it. However, I think EA needs to recognise that management is an entirely different skill. The best researcher at a research organization should definitely not have to handle lots of paperwork, but I'd argue they probably shouldn't be the manager in the first place! Management is a very different skillset that involves people management, financial planning, etc. that are often skills pushed on operations teams by people who shouldn't be managers.

Yeah, I definitely agree with that - I think a pretty common issue is people entering into people management on the basis of their skills at research, and they don't seem particularly likely to be correlated. I also think organizations sometimes struggle to provide pathways to more senior roles outside of management too, and that seems like an issue when you have ambitious people who want to grow professionally, but no options to except people management.

The term “Operations” is not used in the same way outside EA

I agree that this is weird. In EA operations is something like "everything that supports the core work and allows other people to focus on the core work," while outside of EA operations is the core work of a company. Although I wish that EA hadn't invented it's own definition for operations, at this point I don't see any realistic options for it changing.

Is there a word in the rest-of-the-world that means "everything that supports the core work and allows other people to focus on the core work?"

I have an answer for this now: line functions and staff functions. Line functions do the core work on the organization, while staff function "supports the organization with specialized advisory and support functions."

My vague impression is that this labelling/terminology is fairly common among high-level management types, but that people in general likely wouldn't be familiar with it.

I took a minute to think about what sort of org has a natural distinction between "core work" and "non-core-work".

A non-EA example would be a Uni research lab. There are usually a clear distinction between

  • research (core work)
  • teaching (possibly core work, depending on who you ask)
  • and admin (everting else)

Where the role of admin seems similar to EA ops. 

Most organizations do not divide tasks between core and non-core. The ones that do (and are probably most similar to a lot of EA orgs) are professional services ones

I think there isn't a single term (although I'm certainly not an expert, so maybe someone with a PhD in business or a few decades of experience can come and correct me).

Finance, Marketing, Legal, Payroll, Compliance, and so on could all be departments, divisions, or teams within an organization, but I don't know of any term used to cover all of them with the meaning of "supporting the core work." I'm not aware of any label that is used outside of EA analogous to how "operations" is used within in EA.

"administration" ? but that sounds quite unappealing, which is why I think the EA movement has used operations. 

Administration definitely sounds less appealing, but maybe it would be more honest and reduce churn?

while outside of EA operations is the core work of a company

This feels wrong to me in every non-EA company I worked at, fwiw. E.g. Google doesn't even have a COO for the whole org, the COO for Google Consumer Hardware is the closest role I can find on a quick search.

Outside of EA, it normally means the main function of the organisation (the COO normally has the highest number of people reporting to them after the CEO)

I was surprised by this claim, so I checked every (of the 3) non-EA orgs I've worked at. Not only is it not true that "the COO normally has the highest number of people reporting to them after the CEO," literally none of them even have a COO for the whole org. 

To check whether my experiences were representative, I went through this list of the largest companies. It looks like of the 5 largest companies by market cap, 2 of them have COOs (Apple, Amazon). Microsoft doesn't have a designated COO, but they had a Chief Human Resources Officer and a Chief Financial Officer, which in smaller orgs will probably be a COO job[1]. So maybe an appropriate prior is 50%? This is a very quick spotcheck however, would be interested in more representative data.

  1. ^

    Notably, they didn't have a CTO, which surprised me.

Sorry if I wasn’t clear. My claim was not “Every organisation has a COO); it was “If an organisation has a COO, the department they manage is typically front-office rather than back-office and often the largest department”.

For Apple, they do indeed manage front-office operations:  “Jeff Williams is Apple’s chief operating officer reporting to CEO Tim Cook. He oversees Apple’s entire worldwide operations, as well as customer service and support. He leads Apple’s renowned design team and the software and hardware engineering for Apple Watch. Jeff also drives the company’s health initiatives, pioneering new technologies and advancing medical research to empower people to better understand and manage their health and fitness.”

For Amazon, I couldn’t find a COO of the entire company though it looks like they exist for the business units.

I think another bottleneck is the unwillingness to hire outside of EA. It's not so hard to find good ops people who have experience outside of EA, and as long as it's a good personality fit, I've seen that working out well. Also, your typical EA is not a great ops person because they're happier working on the big picture. To find people who are good at implementing, you have to look outside the group since they're not naturally drawn to EA.

Ops people should have the power to say no, since people don’t respect their time.

 

I think a major skill that any ops person needs to succeed and not burn out in the process is to set the right boundaries and have what I'll call great "interview skills". You need to be able to ask the right questions (ideally on the spot) instead of falling into a "reactive mode"

  • How important is it to get this done today/this week from 1 to 5?
  • How important is it to you that I do this task quick vs at a high quality level?
  • What do you think is a reasonable timeline to deliver this?
  • What does success for this look like?
  • How is this a bottleneck for other things you're doing?
  • If there's something from this list of things, which would you be OK dropping for 1-2 weeks?
  • Can we time cap this task?
  • How does this task relate to our OKRs?

And many other questions an ops person might want to ask. You have to ask yourself what you're saying yes to and be able to verbalize the negative ramifications of doing this task on a short-notice.

After gathering that information you can actually start negotiating with the other person and only then commit to a deadline/work package.

Another thing that some people might want to try if they feel comfortable (we do this in our team) is to share a  list of ongoing requests they are prioritizing during the week and so there's more transparency around the workload a person has at any given week. 

Agreed. One of the things I've struggled with is taking the time to interrogate the task rather than diving into it. Power dynamics and desire to please certainly come into play. I suspect that this is common (although I might merely be victim to a typical mind fallacy).

It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that having clarity about the task (priority, dependencies, etc.), allows better work to be done. But I think that many employees, especially people with relatively little work experience, struggle with it.

My view: I think many of the issues raised here are closely related to leadership and management are much harder to address. Examples from the brainstorms above include: 

  • Lack of prestige / respect
  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Improper delegation of tasks
  • Exclusion from the decision-making and distance from org strategy

These seem like deeper cultural issues with how certain organisations or members of the community view operations, which is difficult to chang. I’m not really sure what the best way forward there is - I hope that this post could raise awareness about the issue, and hopefully spark conversations at relevant orgs, and make future founders aware of the existing issues in the ecosystem. 

I / Pineapple Operations  have publishing FAQs so that potential candidates have a more realistic picture of working in ops at EA orgs, and why you might consider it. We hope that potential employers and org leaders will also read the FAQ. We will also be publishing a post soon with information for folks who’ve recently joined operations roles at EA orgs. Slightly farther afield,  Elika Somani and I have written a few posts around issues and improvements that could be made to EA events.

Regarding asking EAs to do work for which they are overqualified and that non-EAs could do, I wonder whether financial incentives come into play here.

As a general rule, charitable organizations pay their employees below-market salaries and expect that the psychological value employees get from working for an organization they are aligned with ("warm fuzzies," to save space) covers the difference. Although some might disagree, I think this is a good practice in many roles and up to a certain point -- you often want to select to some extent for the extent to which the job candidate gets warm fuzzies working for your organization vs. is just doing it for the paycheck.

To the extent an organization's general pay strategy is -- say -- 70% of market rate (expecting the other 30% in warm fuzzies), that isn't going to be competitive for people who don't value the warm fuzzies significantly.

Imagine you have three types of jobs in the world -- private-sector, Save the Puppies (StP), and opera. Alice really likes puppies but only mildly likes opera, so she values StP fuzzies but minimally values opera fuzzies. She would be equally happy with a private-sector job, a 30% haircut to receive StP fuzzies, or a 5% haircut to receive opera fuzzies. Bob has similar preferences except that he values opera fuzzies and only mildly values StP fuzzies. Claire places only mild value on all fuzzies.

Suppose StP has a job opening that needs someone with an 80K level of qualifications/experience. Alice is a more qualified candidate (private-sector market rate = 100K) than Bob or Claire (whose rate = 80K). However, she is actually cheaper for StP (will work for 70K) than Bob or Claire (will work for 76K). Thus, there is a natural incentive to hire Alice for work she is overqualified for -- plus demonstrated alignment to StP's mission probably has some value for the organization, especially if it is smaller and finds it inefficient to separate out tasks for which alignment is important.

That is, of course, merely a model. But EA, both by its nature and its recruiting strategy,  generates a population of EAs who are highly qualified/capable, so the Alice/Bob/Claire hypothetical is more likely to happen in EA than in StP. Since liking puppies is generally consistent across ability levels, StP can probably find someone at the 80K level who is aligned with StP and will work for 56K.

Sabs
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If EA has a management skills shortage, which seems to be the takeaway from a lot of posts here, one obvious conclusion is to try to recruit more people with managerial skills, but another might just be that there are just way way too many EA orgs and they could all be rationalized and merged a bit.

Low-conviction observations from my experience in local group organizing: I think there is a false assumption that these problems are solvable. Working in private sector, I have observed that very senior managers spend a lot of their time approving expense reports and other awful tedious things. In EA people tend to see this problem and write a(nother) 60-page best practice document or plan to start a central organization to handle this for all EAs for all time. In general, I think ops should first focus on the big chunks of repeatable work. Idiosyncratic ops should be kept with whatever part of the organization is leading those. I.e. local group ops are better for logistics on weekly meetups than logistics for a one-off conference.

This is great, thanks for posting! Also, "Emotional support horse" haha, love it!

[comment deleted]1y3
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