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How To Make The Move From Firefighting To Strategy?

QUESTIONS

Some of the questions we’ll touch upon:

  • How do you get out of the ‘doing’ mode to work ‘on’ the business rather than ‘in’ it - the overall question but thought this was a nice way to put it.
  • Do you begin with identifying the problems (i.e. does firefighting form the strategy?)
  • How do you ring fence time for strategy (personally and across the business)?
    • Does anyone have success splitting their time between firefighting and strategy?
    • Do you/have you used any frameworks/tools to help/prioritise?
    • How do you get buy in from other stakeholders
  • What do you mean by ‘strategy’ or ‘strategic thinking’?

Questions from attendees via RSVP forms:

Managing up / working with leadership

  • How to work with leadership?

Working with other teams

  • How to get buy-in for your chosen strategy from other teams in the company?
  • This year we had to reduce cost and operate on a lean team while maintaining revenue targets. For 2021 now being asked to build a headcount strategy and take COVID out of the equation. However our finance team do not seem to have an appetite on bringing any onboard that isn’t revenue generating (sales). Has anyone in the group faced this and if yes how have they overcome this?
  • What sacrifices can be made during the fire to concrete medium/longer term strategies and how do you sell this to other stakeholders?

Strategy

  • How to pivot strategy to adapt to uncertainty?
  • How to make firefighting work towards your strategic goals?
  • How to effectively brainstorm?
  • Mental shift between doing things which are there and are immediately adding value, and justifying to yourself that it’s worth spending time on more strategic work. How do you protect time for the latter?

Switching focus

  • How to go from firefighting yourself, to managing the fire from afar
  • How to get out of the weeds?
  • How to trade off between firefighting and strategy?
  • How to prioritise?
  • Pushing back on other functions - when ops is seen as the blocker and the doer, how do you ensure you and the team stay on track instead of being distracted by the noise and requests of other departments without being perceived as the blocker?
  • One reason for firefighting in ops can be that there aren't enough people in the team to do the work. When should one hire the first extra ops person and who should that be?
  • How to avoid the need to firefight in the first place!
  • Once a strategic framework is in place, how do you go about ensuring adherence across the various teams? Where does this responsibility generally fall?
  • How to plan your day/week to avoid getting pulled into day to day fire fighting
  • How do others define a strategy in a team that often functions in more of a reactionary context e.g. awaiting a product release/reacting to a product launch
  • How to make more time for strategic thinking and get out of the day to day?
  • How to convince Execs to make the investment into strategic Ops and avoid the firefighting outcome?
  • How to safeguard strategic time without it constantly getting bumped.

NOTES

Once a “doer” always a doer?

What does the strategy actually mean? Are we doing strategy in the firefighting?

Group 1 - Ausrine, Alex, Ellie, Ellis, Magdalena, Sophie

  • How to keep the strategy / time for strategy put aside
  • Nature is do it / do it quickly / just have it done (nature of ops?)
  • What to do when the team is new / there are no blueprints? Don’t generally stick to the time I put aside for strategy…
  • Postponing strategy for firefighting. Also getting a buyin. Who lives in a company with unlimited tech time? :)

Logistics / tricks

  • Set aside the time in the calendar - so easy
    • ...worked for 2 weeks :)
    • Constantly need to change things because
    • Status update on Slack with brain emoji [deep work]
    • Colour-code it and put it as “out of the office”
  • Breaking the time up into smaller chunks could work - just to get things done, have a roadmap
    • Breaking things up into smaller actions, smaller chunks during the week
  • No meeting day
  • Deprive yourself from Slack and emails completely
  • GTD > Workflowy > first, writing out the framework by hand
  • Physical change of scenery including physical writing-it-down and mapping-it-out
  • Tools: MetroRetro, whiteboards, pen & paper, Miro, etc.

Doing strategy is challenging

  • The task is too big...puts us right into procrastination mode!
  • Some stuff you just don’t like. Do at least one thing you don’t like every day, make it a habit - it will spread out

Cycle

  • Lots of firefighting just after implementation of a new thing...when no more complaints, then capacity comes to thinking about the next project
  • Happened to us vs happen by us
  • Unless I’m pinned to a wall...won’t think about strategy!
  • Things you can overplan vs things you can’t ignore
    • Where it’s obvious there’s ramifications (e.g. GDPR)
    • Vs where there are no consequences

Making a decision - what to do next?

  • Map out all the processes in company and evaluate if they’re gonna work if the company is 2x or 6x. Gives you a moment to think about what the ramifications will be
  • Have a deadline to make a decision. Take the time to think but make a decision in the end.
  • Informing yourself from external sources (e.g. ICO newsletter) to inform on what the next strategy piece
  • Company level roadmap/Trello board -- ICE (impact, confidence and ease) -- it becomes almost a chronology / to do list for strategy, whenever have free time.
  • People strategy vs company strategy

Strategy

  • Company Level Objective: Per’fect and Refine (that’s where all the processes live) -- given visibility to those who have worked on projects not falling under clear business objectives that are more commercial or product related.
  • Overarching goals

Stakeholders buy-in

  • Leadership usually tends to understand. Struggling to get buyin from junior members.
  • Conversation. Get both/all teams in the same room, discuss respective focus, impact to respective teams, what the end goals, what they need from one another. Discuss requirements for each other when you ask for another team’s input.
  • Spend a lot of time understanding each other, each other’s targets, what we’re going to achieve for the customer. Show things in context.

Group 2 - Astrid

  • Firefighting is not the best way of working when you need to work on the long run
  • Team size: if there’s more layers to hierarchy, you need more focus and strategy because everyone needs to be on the same page
  • OKRs is a very good way to get buy-in
  • Move away from your desk to brainstorm on strategy to not get distracted - set a deadline for when you’re going to deliver and be accountable to that

Group 3 - Alex

Laura (tips for how to get out of the weeds even you block out meetings), Nicholas (Setting strategy for a whole company level), Yumika (going from doing, i.e. from me doing it vs I don’t take meetings - planning against them + how do you ), Catarina (fire fighting never get out of that phase, need to get into the strategy phase) and Richard (for the team to get out of mindset of doing, how can I facilitate that, planning vs prioritising)

  • When you’re putting out a fire, there is a clear outcome. So you can see if it’s solved or not.
    • Is this being communicated to the wider organisation or tracked. Can you identify what strategy you are setting out then document it so others can see/track what you are doing.
    • Can you create an action plan - benchmark ideas or new strategy vs competitors. Present the value of the strategy to Exec team, state these are the ideas but this is the key one
    • Audience is important, this gives you a place to bounce ideas and validate your assumptions - internal marketing
  • How do you set metrics on Ops related metrics?
    • Depends on what you are aiming to do - can you link this to the issue?
    • Knowing what the problem is and linking that to the project/strategy
    • If you’ve got a clear strategy from above, it should filter down to the lower teams
    • If you’re trying to improve operational efficiency by reducing the cost of tickets, you can link this to the strategy but it can be harder if the company strategy is prioritising growth or a marketing focus
    • Splitting the company into two who have different strategy/focus
      • Having multiple streams means you’ve got a lot to focus on therefore you can’t do it all. Need to focus on less and do it better
      • Think of list of things as a backlog therefore it’s a bank of ideas that we can go back to
  • Planning vs prioritising vs blocking time out
    • https://expertprogrammanagement.com/2017/07/the-eisenhower-matrix/
    • Blocking out time on your public calendar and not responding to messages unless it’s ON FIRE
    • This is the only time that everyone is free - please can you move your meeting - then
    • Setting the right culture to not block out meetings - but you can be flexible if it’s important
    • Get the important items done in the morning as it’s less busy
    • Give your colleagues the autonomy that they can
    • Demonstrate that your value is working on the strategy rather than the fire fighting
    • My time + the rest of the team will be more valuable working on strategy but then people don’t work on strategy, they go back to firefighting and not working on strategy - can use accountability to track to see what has been discussed in previous meetings
    • Use off sites as a place to work on strategy - take the team away to work on the strategy to get them to create it together
    • Set hours of meetings + operate people outside of ops into ops to free up some time
    • Having non-meeting days or schedule them at the right time
    • 20% time - Friday afternoons you can work on anything you want, working on project work, did take the whole company to do this so there is buy in
    • If you have cross-functional teams, you slow down progress by having more people in the meetings. You can document the meeting + clear outcomes
    • Can you bring the Exec into team meetings to give the team a motivational boost
    • Define what is the purpose of the meeting? Sticking to the agenda. Accountability is the key to have a successful meeting
  • How do you get out of the weeds?
    • Keep them interested by asking them to company strategy
    • Make the data team track what they spend their time on all day
    • Give the team and the confidence/authority to stop or reduce the firefighting so they can work on the strategy work or implement operational efficiency - lead by example by blocking out time
    • Sacrifice one or two of your days of work to allow your team to spend dedicated time to working on strategy
  • What tools are you using to create a strategy?
    • Miro to create the roadmap/write down the strategy - Todoist to track what I’m doing and what I need to do
    • Excel vs Googlesheets

Group 4 - Kirsty, Misbhah, Kat, Phoebe, Lydia

  • How step away and tips to focus on strategy
    • Asking a manager or colleague to hold you to account
    • Moving to a different environment (physically)
    • Combat writer's block by using a framework*
    • Working with one colleague or in a small group to brainstorm
      • White board - visibility aspect
      • Can hold each other accountable
      • Ask questions
    • Data - the data will be there to help direct you
  • Framework suggestion from Kat:
  1. Ask yourself if you are working on the biggest problem (do you have the right metrics and resources)
  2. Put a plan in place - ask yourself do you know what you’re doing
  3. Put measures in place

What is strategy?

  • A simple way to think about is it is anything that is not solving an immediate problem (Lydia)
  • It isn’t always easy to develop a 12 month plan/roadmap and often it never works due to business changes
  • Strategic planning can be broken down into shorter term - example looking at a 3/6 month plan
  • Strategy doesn’t need to be set in stone - if something isn’t the right thing to do don’t do it
  • It is something you can do on a regular basis (iterate, base it on new decisions)

Getting out of the weeds?

Delegate

  • Stop taking all the actions from meetings by
  • ensuring the right responsibility are set at the beginning
  • thinking about the development of colleagues
  • prioritise and manage expectations
  • think about how much impact that task can drive, is it worth it

Strategic thinking can be based around:

  • OKRs - quarterly planning
  • Personal development of team members

Leadership and buy-in from colleagues:

  • Being data driven
  • Sharing data in the right measurement units that the person making the decision will understand
    • Translating it into the right currencies
  • Colleague buy-in before presenting it to leadership
    • Present as a group
  • Know who the disruptors are in the decision making
  • Use comparisons from other businesses
    • The founder startup network is strong

Working with other teams:

  • Use them as a sounding board
  • Deliver together
  • Share the 'why'

Planning days/weeks:

  • Quarterly roadmaps
  • Sprints/backlog grooming sessions
  • Commit to time frames eg. two weeks
  • Constantly update
  • Weekly standups
  • Helps to prioritise and rebalance
  • 80/20 rule
  • Automation rather than headcount (priority)

Budgeting/resourcing, especially getting the Finance team onside:

  • Sharing the 'why'
  • Sharing both quantitive and qualitative data
  • Cost comparisons e.g. from engagement - two support people versus marketing spend