No “One-size-fits-all” approach: BizOps Operating Models

By Mehdi El Hajoui and Brian Keller, Co-Heads of Business Strategy, Dropbox

If you talk to people working in Business Operations roles at different tech companies, you’ll likely hear very different explanations about how their team is structured. The natural conclusion is that there is no “one size fits all” approach to BizOps. We agree, and would like to propose a framework to help executives decide how to best position BizOps within their organizations.

A framework for thinking about BizOps operating models

While there are myriad ways to organize a BizOps team, two critical decisions determine how the team will operate:

  • Scope: Should BizOps have a focused scope, zooming in on one set of topics and issues, or should it have a broad scope, operating across any and all aspects of the business? This answers the question “What should BizOps do?”

  • Organizational alignment: Should BizOps be a stand-alone (centralized) team or aligned (distributed) to specific parts of the organization (e.g., a functional team, a business unit)? This answers the question “How should BizOps be set up?”

This yields three distinct operating models that we see in practice, which we describe below along with some of their associated trade-offs.

Operating model 1: Stand-alone, broad

BizOps teams with this operating model are autonomous entities — usually reporting directly into an executive function — and tackle a range of issues across the organization. Their members are opportunistically deployed on critical initiatives and work cross-functionally to drive enterprise-level impact. In many ways, these BizOps teams serve internal strategy functions. Some of the associated benefits include flexibility and neutrality. The main tradeoff is a relative lack of subject matter expertise, which may translate into longer project ramp-up time.

The latest iteration of BizOps at Dropbox (which is called Business Strategy, or BizStrat) follows this model. The bulk of the team’s time and energy are spent working closely with executive leadership to set the company strategy and drive key business initiatives. BizStrat also helps the company run efficiently (e.g., by helping manage the OKR process) and develops unique insights on Dropbox’s markets, competitors and business trends in order to inform key decisions.

Operating model 2: Aligned, broad

In the second operating model, BizOps is deliberately aligned against a specific area of the business (i.e., either a function or a business unit) and works on all key issues faced by its leaders. How the alignment occurs can vary — some teams embed individual contributors in teams, while others fully embed the entire team. This allows team members to develop a more in-depth context, but it also creates a bias against company-wide or cross-functional initiatives.

LinkedIn and NerdWallet are two examples of this operating model. At LinkedIn, BizOps is embedded in other organizations in a matrix structure around business units and functions. Team members partner with a specific business unit and have a focus on a functional topic like Product, Marketing, and Operations. Collectively, the BizOps team has a broad coverage across a range of functions. While NerdWallet is currently revisiting its organizational structure, BizOps was historically aligned against either verticals (e.g., Product, Marketing, Sales…) or horizontals (Credit Cards, Banking, etc.), but had a broad mandate in the area of the business it operated.

Operating model 3: Aligned, focused

Our third operating model is characterized by focus: BizOps teams that fit this mold are not only embedded in a business or function, but their role is also clearly delineated. While this allows for a very targeted impact, it comes at the cost of lesser flexibility and a more limited perimeter of intervention

Facebook has embraced this approach. There are no centralized BizOps teams; instead, small teams of BizOps professionals are recruited directly by and operate within the Finance teams of key Business Units (Platform operations, Small & Medium Business, Emerging Business, New Revenue initiatives, Instagram, Oculus VR). Because they are ultimately accountable to the CFO, these teams are often tasked with a distinct set of topics like financial reporting, performance forecasting / benchmarking, and statistical modeling.

Theoretical model 4: Stand-alone, focused

The one quadrant without a specific example combines a stand-alone team, but with a focused scope. We haven’t seen any sizable BizOps teams that take this approach, but it could exist if the company had a need for a specific “center of excellence.” For example, a central BizOps team that worked with different teams in the company, always on projects related to pricing and go-to-market.

There are other things to keep in mind, though

While we believe this framework should help executives think more strategically about what BizOps should do and how it should be set up, we also acknowledge its limitations. In going about choosing a BizOps operating model, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • The choices often aren’t binary but rather lie on an axis. For instance, a BizOps team’s mandate may work with more than one function or business unit, but not extend to the entire organization.

  • Companies (especially larger ones) may combine several operating models. For instance, Google has both a central BizOps team and a number of teams that are embedded within specific business units.

  • Operating models evolve as companies grow. This is the key learning in Dan Yoo’s How BizOps Adapts to You and Your Company: “Flexibility is one of the prime virtues of BizOps. Companies can adjust their team’s function based on their size, phase of development and inclination”. Most BizOps teams will shift operating models at least a few times as the company scales.

  • Several other decisions need to made, for example around team size, strategy vs. implementation focus, etc.

No Matter the Operating Model, BizOps Is Likely to Add Value to the Organization

At the end of the day, different companies will opt for different operating models when setting up a BizOps function. Because no “one-size-fits-all” approach exists, executives will need to decide what is most important to them and structure a team accordingly. Whatever their choice, we believe that the decision to charter a BizOps team is likely add value to their organization.

Growing a BizOps Team: A Practical Guide

By Olga Narvskaya, Head of Operations at Segment

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Olga Narvskaya runs Operations at Segment, which includes Business Operations, Sales Operations and Strategy and Business Technology. She started her career at BCG and was one of the early hires on Dropbox’s BizOps team. Olga has managed teams of 1 to 100 — the 100-person team not being BizOps ;) .

 

Context

When I started at Segment in February 2017, a very small BizOps team was already in place and had done highly impactful work, garnering a glowing reputation. There was demand for more BizOps work, with a cross-company mandate: channel strategy, new pricing, supercharging our self-service business, figuring out COGS, etc. There was even allocated headcount and a pipeline of candidates to interview! The heavy lifting had been done for me, and I could focus on bringing people in and helping existing and new BizOps folks grow to achieve the company’s goals.

This write-up covers specific approaches we use in recruiting for the BizOps team at Segment. Feel free to apply them as you’re setting up a BizOps team of your own or figuring out how to make it more effective!

Recruiting BizOps

Understand role requirements

Tech companies like Google have popularized the term “BizOps” in recent years; a LinkedIn search for “business operations” returns 15.5 million people. BizOps can be a lot of different things in different companies, from internal consulting (“advise, not do”) to project-based, high-impact cross-functional work with lots of implementation baked in, as well as highly operational work (e.g., performing non-ENG functions like HR). What’s the purview of BizOps in your company — now and in the future? What will BizOps folks need to do, and at what level of execution? Importantly, what will BizOps not do?

The answer at Segment, based on input from leadership and the team (and my own assessment of business needs) was that we’d do three classes of work in the foreseeable future: 1) company-level, high-impact projects (e.g., channel strategy) with a strong emphasis on implementation; 2) helping other teams achieve their goals (e.g., update Business Tier pricing for Sales); 3) process (e.g., OKR setting, light Project Management Office for revenue-driving projects).

Write the job req

Once you’ve figured out what BizOps needs to do, writing the job req becomes rather straightforward. I like to follow the “Overview (company + role),” “What you’ll do,” “You’re a great fit if you” structure for my job reqs. I try hard to keep the description short, give concrete examples of the work to be done, and clearly spell out the requirements we’ll use to determine if our role is a great match for candidates’ strengths.

Candidates seem to internalize this kind of job description: Multiple interviewees have told me they appreciated the statement in the job req about BizOps at Segment not being an “internal consulting” team.

Identify must-have and nice-to-have competencies and qualities, and nail down the recruiting process

In addition to a public-facing job req, I find it helpful to create an internal doc that clearly lays out what this person will do, what skills and qualities they should possess, and which of these are must-haves vs. nice-to-haves. The doc also explains the recruiting process (a.k.a. “who will test for what”). Laying out the recruiting criteria and process clearly has the bonus of reducing unconscious bias.

I use this type of doc to kick off recruiting for every role in a 30-minute meeting with the whole interview panel. It may be a good idea to develop the must-have/nice-to-have list of parameters, and decide who will test for what, with the interview panel (instead of determining it in advance). This creates stronger buy-in for the process.

I’m a big fan of simulation interviews that ask the candidate to solve problems representative of those they’d need to solve on the job. For Segment BizOps, we run the following interview loop:

  • Recruiter screen: Test for excitement about Segment, having most of the must-have skills/qualities, things making sense on the resume.  Ask about timeline and comp expectations.
  • Hiring manager screen: Test for excitement about product, scrappiness, overall caliber.
  • Hiring manager case study (real-time consulting-like case): Test for top-down structured thinking, precision with details, root cause analysis, application of meaningful frameworks to the problem at hand.
  • Take-home challenge (“tell us your thoughts/recommendations given this dataset”): Test for quantitative analysis chops, drive for insight and business implications, presentation clarity.
  • Onsite case study (real-time work + presentation): Test for ability to get stuff done in an organization, stakeholder management, thinking on one’s feet.
  • Onsite interview with a cross-functional stakeholder: Test for ability to drive complex, multi-stakeholder projects and build productive relationships.
  • Onsite interview with bar raiser/ core interviewer (standard for all roles at Segment): Test for match with Segment’s values.

 

BizOps: Why Speed Matters

By Shiyan Koh, Head of Business Operations and Corporate Development at Nerdwallet

My friend calls me up and says, “So I’m interviewing for a business operations role at a startup … can we talk about what that role entails?”

Well, I say, it really depends on what that business needs. Tell me more: What industry, what stage, what’s the background of the founders and the existing team?

Business Operations (or BizOps) can mean different things to different organizations, depending on the stage of the business and other factors, buts its mission is always business acceleration.  Why does speed matter? The faster one moves, the faster one gets feedback, and the faster one can improve based on the data coming back. The cumulative impact of all those tiny improvements beats waiting in vain for the perfect plan.

"A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan next week."

- General George Patton

How do you go faster? And what is BizOps’ role in making those things go faster?

First, look at the things that can slow you down.

  • Decision-making — What to do?
  • Operations — How we do it?
  • Hiring / People — Who should do it?

Decision-making - Metrics and Analytical Support

To make good decisions quickly, companies need to understand what metrics they are trying to move as a business, and assess the impact of their decisions on those key metrics.

"At a basic level, metrics are incentives … It’s important to supplement a great product vision with a strong discipline around the metrics" - Ben Horowitz

The role of BizOps is to work with management, to determine the right metrics to orient the business around, and then, when critical decisions arise, provide the analytical support to help make the right call. Is this particular initiative working well? Should we invest more here?

Operations - How are we running our business?

As businesses go through hypergrowth, processes that worked at 50 people can break at 100. Maybe you launched with two partners; now you have 100. Processes that span multiple functions and possibly external partners can require reworking. BizOps is well-positioned to help diagnose issues and design new processes to enable teams to deliver more effectively.

Hiring / People

As a business scales, it takes time to fully build out functions. At times, there may be a need to address mission-critical risks or challenges that may fall between functions, or into the court of a function that has yet to be built. BizOps folks can then step up to play the role in the interim, evaluating strategic decisions, or even fulfilling a functional role while a team is hired. This helps the business continue making progress even while hiring occurs. It also improves the hiring process to have someone doing the job to help identify what the company should be hiring for, and how to evaluate those candidates.

So this all sounds great, but it raises a few questions:

  • When does it make sense to have a BizOps team? Some of this stuff sounds like work an early-stage CEO should be doing.
  • Why not just embed this strategic/analytical roles within the functions themselves? Why have a centralized function?
  • It sounds like I’m describing a business generalist. What sorts of people would be interested in this kind of role, and what backgrounds do I typically hire for?

Again, it all depends on the needs of the business. For many Silicon Valley startups, the founder and CEO may be a generalist who initially handles these duties, but eventually the CEO needs to be able to get leverage and operationalize metrics and systems across the company. Having a flexible team (even of one person) can provide that leverage. When the business is growing by leaps and bounds, fires will erupt as growth break process in unexpected ways. Growth also creates opportunities that must be evaluated and prioritized.

You can imagine a SaaS business that also has a freemium/stripped down product, initially created as lead-gen for the core product. It may be that there’s an entirely different segment for whom the more basic product is a great fit. The current product team doesn’t have time to fully manage it, and no one has bandwidth to evaluate whether the company should put more resources against it. This is a great project for BizOps to manage and evaluate.

Or perhaps you notice an increasing number of transactions from an international market. Should you open an office to attack this opportunity? How should you go about building out a local team? Again, this is a great use case for a BizOps team, which can evaluate the opportunity and staff and lead the building of a local team.

Why have a central team, vs. locally embedded analytical capability?

It goes back to managing incentives. If folks are embedded at a team or functional level, reporting into a team or functional leader, their incentives will be centered on increasing the investment / resources of their team. From a company-level perspective, it’s important to have a neutral third party with sufficient distance and perspective to provide recommendations that are best for the business as a whole.

What is the candidate profile for a great BizOps person? What motivates them? Where does this career path lead?

There’s no single profile for a succesful BizOps person. They can come from professional services (banking, consulting), investing (private equity, venture capital) or other startup experiences. What is common across all successful BizOps folks is that perfect mix of of analytical capability and empathetic execution. It means they can look at data and diagnose what’s going on in the business, but pair that with strong EQ that enables them to navigate multiple stakeholders to get things done.

I was talking to a team of engineering leads once about what the team does, and invited one of the leads to describe a project in which he’d partnered with someone on my team to complete a mission-critical security and data project that was incredibly cross-functional (a 20-person team over four functions).

“It was fantastic working with [Carl], he worked with our consultants, he set up and drove calls with our data provider and helped me think through how best to get the project done,” he told me. Another tech lead asked, “Do you worry that your people will leave if you ask them to set up phone calls?” My response: “I don’t ask them to set up calls, I ask them to do whatever it takes to make the project and business successful.”

The difference here is that a BizOps person must be motivated by business impact, and enabling others to be successful, vs. being a maker for whom the joy is in the mastery of the specific craft.

Experience in BizOps prepares folks for a range of operating roles: I have seen folks on my team move into Product, Marketing, Sales and General Management. The core skills pair a deep understanding of the metrics of a business with the experience of getting initiatives prioritized and executed. In the next decade, I fully expect BizOps-trained professionals to grow into CEOs and COOs.

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