Scaling Operations in a Fast-Growing Business - 3 Key Success Factors

Luke Walker
March 12, 2021
6
minutes

Every business leader is looking forward to it – the moment when things really start to take off.

After months of trial and error, searching for and exploiting growth wherever you could find it, finally, real sustained traction is here.

You’ve nailed your product-market fit. You’re starting to dominate your corner of the sandbox. New business, new orders, and new leads are pouring in. And the revenue forecast has never looked better. It’s a feeling like none other.  

Of course, for the operations leader, the view looks a little bit different.

Rapid-growth: the operations perspective

Naturally, the demands of newfound growth are quickly outgrowing your processes, teams, and systems – seemingly overnight. You’re approaching (or already beyond) maximum capacity, and things are starting to break down. There are increasing delays, lost emails, orders missed, and emergency phone calls well into the evenings and weekends.

It’s clearly no longer possible to run your operations the same way, lest the business implodes, or your customers just never receive what you’ve sold them (author’s note: I’ve witnessed both).

Whether you like it or not, you’re in scale-stage now. And as the operations leader, it’s your job to ensure the continuity of business. Some ops leads will look forward to the olympic challenge that lies ahead. Others will reach for the nearest lifeboat.

Scaling operations successfully does require careful preparation, but with committed leadership, a clear understanding of your operations processes, and a sound process automation plan, it can be done efficiently – both in terms of time and cost – and with little interruption to ongoing business operations.

With that in mind, here are 3 key factors of a successful operations scale-up that every ops leader should take in account when faced with the challenge of scaling operations in a fast-growing business.

Allow operations leadership to focus on operations

Especially in early- and growth-stage businesses, it’s common to see operations leaders wearing multiple hats. 

They might be in charge of finance, oversee sales and marketing, be responsible for revenue, and still have to find time for general management of day-to-day operations. In the early stages, this gives operations leaders a high degree of direct control over multiple business functions, and keeps management costs low. 

However, once business growth forces operations into scale-mode, this type of operations leadership role becomes impossible to maintain. At this point that dedicated oversight and optimization of operations processes should become the sole focus of operations leadership, and extra-departmental responsibilities need to be handed off to dedicated managers.

It’s not that revenue reporting or the latest marketing campaigns have become any less important. However, the challenge at this particular inflection point in your business growth is scaling operations. If your operations leader doesn’t have the ability to give their full attention to scaling operations processes, hire or nominate a team lead who does.

You no longer need to prove that marketing can market, or that sales can sell. Right now, you need to build scalable operations that can handle your spiking growth. That’s a full-time gig.

Create and maintain a list of operations processes‍

It might come as a surprise, but very few operations leaders have a complete understanding of the processes and workflows that their teams carry out every day. 

Fewer still have any documentation of those processes.

That’s often the dirty nature of operations work: teams simply figure out the easiest way of getting something done on time, do it repeatedly, and – just like that – you’ve got yourself a “process”. Of course, these are exactly the kinds of processes that are the first to break – the ones that are the most poorly understood. 

So, best to start by establishing basic documentation of all the processes carried out by your operations organization, to create a clear baseline of “what’s going on”. It’s your job – as the operations leader –  to understand exactly what your people do and how often they do it, if you hope to succeed in scaling.

This does not mean that you should go out tomorrow and buy some overpriced enterprise business process management software. Rather, document your processes in whatever format feels most natural to you. For some, that’s visualization software. Others prefer whiteboarding with a phone camera. For the author, pen and paper work just fine.

What matters most is that you do it. If you focus, it’s a 20-30 minute job to quickly list and describe your processes.

Begin simply by listing all of the business operations processes that are carried out on a recurring basis, one after the other. Write a short description of the process (e.g. “rental return”), name the responsible team 
 (e.g. “retail operations”), and then write down approximately how many times you run that process on a monthly basis (e.g. “100” if you have approximately 100 rental units returned each month).

Establishing clear operations processes may seem like a departure from the agility and flexibility of early-stage life, but at this stage it’s absolutely essential. 

As your business grows, it will cease to be possible for operations team members to be in constant contact with management and with each other to coordinate their daily work. Already, you can see the costs of this coordination style piling up. They’ll need processes and adequate systems in order to avoid wasting massive amounts of time and energy on coordination.

It’s also unwise to start scaling your operations before you’ve documented all of your processes. If rapid-growth has already forced your hand, it’s time to get your process list down ASAP.

To help create your process list, you can use the ready-to-go template provided on page 30 of our free operations automation playbook.

Rank and prioritize operations processes for automation

With a dedicated operations lead and a full list of operations processes, you’re now ready to set up operations for scale. Automating information- and step- intensive processes is the first step. 

Too often, the knee-jerk impulse of operations leads is to hire more hands and build more teams to solve operations scalability issues. That can help solve the problem in the short term, but with the next wave of growth, you’ll be right back where you started.

Rather, the sustainable path is to focus on automating operations processes – in particular, those processes which require the largest amount of manual coordination to carry out, and as such, are the most likely to break as volume increases. This is where no-code process automation comes into play. 

Start by evaluating and rating each of your processes along two dimensions:

  1. Automation Maturity – rate the degree of manual coordination load from 1-5:

    Example: “1” being fully manual, with emails, phone calls, meetings, and no automation, and “5” being fully-automated, with automated notifications, handovers, system integrations, and no manual coordination requirement.


  2. Business Criticality – rate the potential for serious business outcomes from 1-5:

    Example: “1” where quality and process performance 
have limited impact on business success, and “5” where the process has a high cost of failure, and getting it right 
(or wrong) directly impacts business success, costs, performance.

Processes with ratings of 5s or 4s in either dimension are more than likely to directly impact your operations scalability. If a process has a 5 or 4 in both dimensions, it needs to be prioritized for automation as soon as possible.

Based on your evaluation of the full process list, select the top 5-10 processes which you would like to begin automating starting today. Your automation tool 

Rank them numerically by order of urgency, assuming you will only be able to focus on automating one process at a time. Do not put off a process due to logistical, technological, or budgetary concerns, and don’t assume that a particular process is “too big to tackle” – if it’s costing you time and money, then it’s in your best interest to address it first. 

The time to fix operations is now

If you’ve made it this far, then you’re probably aware that you will have (or already have) an operations problem. With these 3 success factors in place, you’ll be in a much better place to meet rapid growth head-on, and build sustainable, scalable, and adaptable operations for the long-term future. The next step is to implement automation for your most coordination-heavy and business-critical operations. When done well, the benefits are nearly immediate.

But make no mistake – there will never be an “ideal time” when business is slow, and the bandwidth, budget, and alignment will be there to get your operations processes figured out.

This will not happen, and as the operations leader, you know that your attention will be constantly pulled away to deal with other “more urgent” business concerns.

What will happen – if you push ahead with manual, email-coordinated processes – is that you will continue to burn time, human, and monetary resources on unscalable operations. You’ll be constantly fighting to keep your head above water, and risk losing your best assets (and your sanity) along the way. 

The truth is that you – the operations leader – are in the best position to fix your business’s processes. 
 You know the processes, requirements, and subtleties 
of your team’s functions. Don’t leave it up to a steering committee or consultant 
to tell you how to scale your operations teams and processes. 

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If you need help getting started, download our free Operations Automation Playbook, a 70-page step-by-step guide for operations management seeking to automate and scale their processes.

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About the author
Luke Walker is the Product Marketing Manager at Next Matter. He is a longtime process hacker, and writes about marketing, business digitization, leadership, and work-life balance. When he's not at work, you can find him listening to records or climbing rocks.