Finding meaning and purpose in the all-team Ops meeting

Meetings. Nothing revolutionary or innovative there! Yet, our shop has little or no history of gathering as a whole team. Maybe it’s because such meetings are expensive. Everyone leaves their station and work grinds to a halt. Bodies fill the boardroom and the round of “updates” begins. Not everything shared is of interest, and no decisions are made. Conscientious staff members may find this stressful.

We’re all familiar with the regular meeting that happens for its own sake. And yet: Not meeting has always felt like a lack. The regular meeting of any team should reinforce a sense of the team’s cohesion and unity of purpose. This is especially true of Operations, which risks being perceived (within and without) as a miscellany of services and functions.

When virtual work introduced a new convenience to the large-team meeting, the time seemed right to make a start. We’ve been moved to figure out what we want out of it.

Our team’s unified purpose is to facilitate opportunities for people to meaningfully engage with the institution’s teaching, research, and community mission. The front line builds and advances relationships – our team provides the tools to allow them to do that. That could be data, could be a CRM, a report, or a mobile phone. No matter one’s role, the work in some way enables or facilitates carrying out the Advancement mission.

Each team member knows what enabling and facilitating looks like from their own perspective. They may be less aware of how others enable and facilitate. That’s my goal for these meetings: To help everyone get a sense of the range of ways Operations drives the mission.

First, each team manager speaks very briefly about a few current highlights. Not the full range of what everyone’s working on. Just what’s looming large now, with an emphasis on work that directly supports front-line success.

Second, one team member gives a short presentation on any aspect of their work, ranging from 10 to 20 minutes. The topic can be anything. It doesn’t have to relate to everyone (or anyone) else’s work. Given the diversity of the team this isn’t possible anyway. The only requirement is that it provides a concrete example of how Operations supports fundraising, alumni and constituent engagement, marketing, donor relations, or communications.

The aim is not cross-pollination or collaboration, which already happens. Rather, I hope it provides a little inspiration.

If your team meets for the sake of meeting, if you’re stuck in the rut of “that’s what we’ve always done,” then consider going on hiatus for July and August, reformulate your purpose for meeting, and reconvene fresh in the fall.

Advancement birds of a feather must flock together

Cardinals are frequent visitors to my neighbourhood. Male cardinals are bright red, but I know them mainly by their distinctive calls. They are hard to spot because they stay so high up in the trees.

That may be changing. A few days ago, I was in the middle of an email when a cardinal landed right outside my window, less than two feet from the ground. As human activity on my street has lessened, birds are coming down to ground level more often.

Or maybe it’s because I’m at home that I notice birds. Maybe I’m just better at noticing, period.

I notice other things. It seems the birds of the Advancement flock are also exploring their changed neighbourhoods. But the experience has not been the same for everyone.

When this crisis hit, frontline staff suddenly found themselves with calendars cleared of travel and events. Never ones to sit on their hands, they turned to tackling neglected to-do lists, or reading the huge volume of quality content on philanthropy and engagement in times of crisis, or becoming thoughtful and far-thinking.

This reflective hiatus for frontline staff will be brief, and in fact it may already be over. Conversations with alumni and donors must resume – different venue, different topics – and priorities for annual appeals are shifting toward direct aid for students in distress.

For support and operations staff, the experience has been quite different.

The rush to get everyone set up for working from home is over. We’ve discovered that the tools and technology were already there, like a safety net, waiting for us to arrive. (Our friends in the private sector could have told us that.) A few venerable business processes have been swept aside, temporarily, to suit the new reality. As a result, the physical move wasn’t as painful as we might have predicted.

What now? Operations staff never had empty calendars. The meeting load has in fact gone up: Leaders and managers are communicating with their teams remotely while the need for collaborative project work goes on. The opportunity for reflection never happened. We are busy just keeping up.

Temporarily, then, half the flock is on the ground exploring new territory, and half is still up in the trees.

The volume of meetings should abate, and a kind of normalcy will return. It will be a different normal, however: Advancement shops are gearing up for engaging with committed supporters during what will be a protracted health and economic crisis. What does a “face-to-face” visit mean now? How do we shift to rich digital experiences in place of events? How do we measure meaningful engagement? What processes need to be retooled, not just temporarily, but for all time?

The descriptive phrase I hear from colleagues is “business as unusual.” In such times our most important task is keeping the flock together.

Careful which rules you bend in the new work-from-home world

Suddenly every office worker in the world is doing their jobs from spare bedrooms and kitchen counters. Universities are having to rework processes on the fly, and some venerable rules are falling away in order for critical business to continue. As your institution figures things out along with the rest of us, the urgency can lead to needed change – but be careful your pruning isn’t sending the wrong signal.

Early to go will be hand-signed approvals for everything from expense claims to purchase requisitions to gift agreements. Universities that have been slow to embrace digital and cloud solutions are having to accept scanned and emailed copies in place of originals. They’d be in a less risky place today had they accepted secure digital electronic signing earlier. Presumably universities will not revert to paper processes when this is over. Probably a good thing.

Pressure to streamline has its downsides, though.

Mass dislocation of workers means a lot of personal and sensitive data will end up stored on personal computers, laptops, and mobile devices. Consumer-grade personal devices have long been present in the business enterprise, leading to heightened risk of data breaches. The work-from-home tsunami has accelerated the risk, as hardware gaps are addressed with even more personal devices.

Now is the time to insist on adherence to policies for protecting personal and confidential information, not cut corners.

Everyone is trying to adapt and do their work. I get it. We moved a staff of 73 with little or no history of remote work (aside from fundraisers) into their homes over the course of three days. Logging into a VPN and a central file store can seem like a nuisance. So much easier to drop the file in C: drive.

But the more data sitting outside your institution’s system of record – whether on people’s hard drives or as email attachments – the greater the chance that a lost device or a successful phish will lead to a data breach. Breaches can have negative consequences for alumni, supporters and others. They also damage the university’s reputation.

A few days ago there was a story in Slate headlined “America Is a Sham.” The subhead asserted, “Policy changes in reaction to the coronavirus reveal how absurd so many of our rules are to begin with.” The fact the US Transportation Security Administration has waived the 3.4-ounce limit for liquids and gels for hand sanitizer only is proof that the rules are arbitrary, nothing but security theatre. (1)

True or not, I don’t know. Either way, you send a signal to users when you let things slide for the sake of convenience. Choose wisely.


  1. America Is a Sham,”, 14 March 2020

Collaboration rules

Operations groups like to make rules. It’s our superpower. I guess this comes from our awareness of how laws, regulations, and university policy apply to the business. We have to develop internal guidelines to clarify grey areas and ensure compliance, so rules are a tool we’re familiar with. And maybe we reach for that tool too often.

Rules are necessary to prevent serious risk: to the security of personal information, to institutional reputation, to charitable status. (Other useful “rules” are actually standards; think of counting guidelines, which don’t target behaviour but ensure consistency, transparency, and credibility for fundraising reporting.)

Rules are less useful when the risks are operational – those times when doing something out of the ordinary puts us at risk of being inefficient. This new thing creates manual work, or it means some data that could be useful to the business is not created or used, or causes some disorder or uncertainty by straying outside of established process.

Efficiency is a worthwhile goal only when you’re doing the right things. If a new thing is the right thing to do, there should be allowance for short-term inefficiency and uncertainty. The size of the opportunity determines how much disruption is okay.

When an opportunity arises and a decision must be made, the best approach is to collaborate and consider the unique circumstances. (Barring legal, reputational or other serious risk.) Operations should advise on internal risk and be given due consideration. If there are short-term risks that don’t cancel out the benefits, and there’s a path to return to equilibrium, then it makes sense to mitigate the risk and press on.

This works when Operations is integrated with the front line, is fully aware of organizational goals, and is considered a credible partner. If Operations is just a back-office service desk disconnected from strategy, then you can create all the rules you like. Good luck with that.

To mess with a quote borrowed from Émile Durkheim: When there is a culture of collaboration, rules are unnecessary; when the culture is lacking, rules are unenforceable.

Operations maturity and innovation

What says “Operations” to you? For many, it’s all about planning, process, documentation, compliance, standardization, optimization, and efficiency. Good, solid stuff, and not in any way sexy.

What about “innovation”? Innovation seems to be about chaotic change, fluidity, rule-breaking, risk-taking, creativity, and disruption. Rebels on motorcycles!

This sets the stage for tension, because innovation typically touches on technology, digital platforms, data, and applications – projects that demand IT and technical expertise. Led by the wrong team, such projects are subject to high risk and failure. Yet led by traditional Ops, they might also not be very innovative.

I think Operations maturity must be characterized by seeking a middle way in partnership (and fruitful tension) with the more innovative elements of the Advancement organization.

  • Traditional Operations plans, then executes. Innovation executes, then iterates. A mature partnership pilots, learns, then executes.
  • Traditional Ops avoids risks. Innovation takes risks. The mature partnership identifies risks and mitigates them.
  • Traditional Ops insists on process and procedure. Innovation doesn’t have time. The mature partnership finds ways to continuously improve.
  • Traditional Ops seeks to optimize. Innovation prioritizes impact. The mature partnership figures out the right thing to do, and then figures out how to do it right.

Traditional Ops is reactive. Innovation is proactive. That contrast disappears in the mature partnership that has both sides working from a common strategy.

Early thoughts toward an Advancement Operations maturity model

A maturity model provides a qualitative assessment of where your group sits in relation to some ideal pinnacle of evolution. I suppose the people who come up with these models are business school academics and committees of senior professionals. I’m not aware that anyone’s developed such a thing for the field of Advancement Operations, so allow me to pretend to be smarter than I am – and propose one.

When I do a search on “operations maturity model,” the two dominant themes I see in the results are IT and process. IT is wide of the mark for us. “Process” is closer.

Yet a process focus is still too limited. In process-based models, maturity entails evolving from ad-hoc activities to development of repeatable processes, on up through levels of better definition of processes until one reaches the top level, where processes are optimized.

This is an industrial definition of maturity, where the ultimate goal for operations is efficiency. In a mission-driven organization, efficiency is desirable, but not as desirable as the overall effectiveness of the organization. We can be efficient at doing the wrong things.

Advancement isn’t a factory. Advancement needs all teams, including the so-called back office, to help separate the right things from the wrong things. That’s strategy. The maturity model must take into account a capacity to be involved at a strategic level.

Process is fine, but we must have the people. That’s the missing ingredient.

So here we go – my stab at a four-level Advancement Operations Maturity Model:

Level 1: People are task-driven order-takers with basic skills. Processes are ad hoc and undocumented. Service is by ticket, first-in-first-out, with limited sense of relative importance. The team is characterized by inertia, exhibiting blind adherence to customary practices that are misconstrued as rules.

Level 2: Some skilled problem-solvers have been brought on. The team has developed an ethos of customer service and increased responsiveness to needs, with some prioritization. Still largely reactive, driven by frontline requests, sometimes lacking context. Increased documentation and standardization of processes.

Level 3: Operations staff are tactical partners, involved early on in Advancement initiatives, not just in the final execution. Engagement and fundraising objectives to be achieved are known, leading to more creative solutions. Process improvement is embraced as an ongoing imperative.

Level 4: Operations is a strategic partner, with involvement in shaping Advancement direction. The team’s thinking is forward-looking, characterized by proactive identification of opportunities, leading Advancement in new directions. The team has a comprehensive view of the organization. Ops knows where it fits in advancing the institutional mission.

Note that efficiency increases as the team moves up the ladder, but simple efficiency is overtaken by flexibility. Some things are too important to routinize. The ability to tell the difference is a matter of judgment, which is a property of high-quality, well-developed, empowered people.

As well, as we climb the levels, people’s view rises to take in more and more of the road ahead. We use this metaphor a lot when talking about BI and analytics maturity, but as we’ve seen, teams such as Gift Compliance can be forward-looking.

Level 1 teams are order-takers, which does not imply that Level 4 teams are order-givers. An ethos of responsive customer service, once gained, should be retained. Ops can be a strategic partner while still primarily playing a support role.

The difference is in outlook, an evolution from understanding the WHAT to understanding and embracing the WHY.

Innovation rewrites the rules for collaboration across teams

An ongoing upheaval in the way people give and engage requires us to find innovative approaches. The question is, who should do the innovating? Operations is better known for policies, process, and compliance than creativity and smashing things, while other teams have great ideas but err when making decisions related to technology.

Dysfunction occurs when one team has its foot on the gas and the other has its foot on the brake. Two adverse results seem likely: 1) Ops gets its way, and slows down good ideas or kills them completely, or 2) Ops doesn’t get its way, and projects plow ahead without regard for process, compliance, or risk.

Either way, innovation fails in the long run.

In the past I’ve been attracted to the notion of a “skunk works” team, separate and liberated from all the rules and cautious incremental improvement that hinders innovation. Small, disruptive teams have done wonders for some corporations; Lockheed coined the term skunk works and achieved success with it back when the company was an aircraft manufacturer.

In more recent times, however, corporations have found skunk works teams produce great, one-time ideas but not continuous, company-wide innovation and execution. These days, when everything is being disrupted, organizations need to execute on the core basics and keep inventing new products and approaches.

I’m not sure it’s true that innovation must be defined as entrepreneurial disruption smashing an Industrial-Age mindset concerned with efficiency, standardization, and process. This might be true of whole industries or monster-sized corporations forced to reinvent themselves. It’s a bad way to think of the work of our relatively small Advancement teams.

We can align our mindsets better than that. Would it not be ideal if the two forces were integrated and part of the way the organization runs? The answer for Advancement might be to adopt new rules for collaboration across teams.

For investments in engagement technologies, for example, would it make sense to form a small team made of equal parts marketing, engagement, and operations and give it ownership of that ecosystem? Given a clear mandate to execute on Advancement’s well-defined strategy, such a team could enjoy the creative autonomy of a skunk works to innovate over the long term.

Working with academic leaders

Advancement Operations participates in the university mission beyond supporting our development, engagement, and marketing colleagues. We work with others across the university, which sometimes includes academic deans.

Understandably, deans are more likely to spend time with development and engagement leaders than they are to be interested in matters of processing gifts or managing alumni and donor data. Before we seek access or a seat at the table, we need to be clear about what deans ought to care about and why.

Advancement Operations serves academic divisions (in Canada, “faculties”) in direct ways. We manage the records and information of their alumni and donors, generate invitation lists for their events, facilitate the spending of gifts in accordance with donor intent, provide intelligence via reporting and benchmarking – and so on. When academic leaders are unaware of all that Advancement does, the result can be duplication of functions and undesirable behaviours that put the institution at risk.

To my mind, this is not quite enough reason to seek direct and regular access to deans. Clear policy and good working relationships with administrative staff reporting to the dean can go a long way. As well, Advancement colleagues who do meet with deans should be quite capable of conveying the general nature of operational supports that benefit academic units. To help them, I provide a one-page summary of these supports.

A larger concern is the quality of the relationship between Advancement and the academy. We can accomplish more together when there is trust in the professionalism and sophistication of the advancement organization, of which Operations is an integral part. It’s being able to show that decisions are based on evidence, that relationships with alumni and supporters are managed effectively, that donors are connected with relevant opportunities.

Perhaps the Operations story can be delivered directly to new deans and then refreshed once a year. Whichever way we seek to engage with academic leaders, it’s best to keep it relevant to their needs, and especially to the needs of the Advancement relationship.

(Thank you to Kevin Kardasz of University of Ottawa, Chris Armitage of Trent University, and Sarah Clarke of Carleton University for their thoughts.)

Breakfast, strategy, and you

Picture yourself standing with your team in your Operations kitchen, ready to work. As you roll up your sleeves, your gaze takes in pots, gadgets, and ingredients – enough to make almost anything.

Someone pops their head in and shouts, “Eggs!”

Startled, you turn and ask, “What?”

“Eggs,” says the visitor. “We just need eggs. You’re the cook, figure it out.”

“Um, I have questions,” you stammer. But your colleague has already left.

You’ve just been handed a project. It’s called eggs. You’re vaguely aware there’s an initiative called “breakfast” but not sure if this is related. And you are completely unaware of the overall strategy, which is “wholesome nourishment.”

Do you hand over raw eggs, or prepare eggs benedict dripping in hollandaise sauce with a side of fried potatoes? Either way you’re not aligned with the strategy. Had you been better informed, you might have come up with basic poached eggs. Had you known the big picture you could have integrated eggs with another project called “multigrain toast.”

You can plead with your marketing, engagement, and development colleagues to involve you earlier in their tactics. But better if you are a partner in strategy. As a partner you neither take orders nor dictate the menu. Rather you hold yourself accountable for understanding the strategy and contributing to its development.

Every tool or process or dashboard your team delivers is a vehicle for realizing strategy. It’s that simple. And that hard.

Back office, step forward

The shipping containers were parked alongside each other in a lot. I passed them one day on my way to work: About a dozen plain white boxes, each one discreetly labeled “Cirque du Soleil.”

The spectacle of the circus is delivered to us in anonymous, dull packages. If all the containers arrived in town on time, hardly anyone would know. If even one was delayed, very likely the show could not go on.

The logistics behind Cirque reminded me of Advancement Operations: Invisible when functioning well, a disaster otherwise.

How then, given its importance, do we talk about this team? In a hurry, I might refer to us as the “back office.” People seem to know what that means. Unfortunately, some of those people have in mind a typing pool out of the 1950s; lose a button-pusher or two and it’s no big deal.

Given more time, I might enumerate gift processing, compliance, prospect management, records management, data integrity, reporting and analytics, applications and systems, and more. To my audience, though, these are so many white containers in a row, many discrete functions in search of a unifying purpose.

I have to talk about the show that must go on.

Advancement Operations provides tools, services, and information that enable the interests and passions of individuals to be aligned with our university’s mission to educate students, advance the frontiers of knowledge through research, and effect societal change. We deliver impact on this mission through facilitating the initiating, sustaining, and advancing of relationships.

This is a deliberate echo of the overall Advancement purpose. It’s not succinct but it’s accurate. It’s not a vision statement puffed with adjectives. It’s a statement of what our team actually does. Everyone working in Operations should be able to see their role in it.

If Operations meets and exceeds its goals and targets, and this does not lead to the front line succeeding as well, then Operations has the wrong targets. The magic of Cirque du Soleil doesn’t happen only under the lights.