Final update on EA Norway’s Operations Project

Eirin M. Ev­jen, Exec. Dir. EA Norway

Jør­gen R. Ljønes, Ass. Exec. Dir. EA Norway

In a fo­rum post in Fe­bru­ary, we posted our plans for or­ganis­ing an op­er­a­tions camp aimed at im­prov­ing re­cruit­ment of op­er­a­tions tal­ent for EA or­gani­sa­tions. The EA Meta Fund gave us a grant for the pro­ject in March. As we wrote in Septem­ber, we de­cided not to run an op­er­a­tions camp as part of our pro­ject, be­cause our re­search on the needs at EA orgs showed that re­cruit­ment isn’t one of the main bot­tle­necks. In this up­date, we’ll provide an overview of the progress of the pro­ject in this last phase, and the les­sons we have learned about run­ning a pro­ject funded by the EA Meta Fund.

Ex­ec­u­tive sum­mary:

  • Since Septem­ber, we have re­cruited new team mem­bers and run a fa­cil­i­ta­tion ses­sion for op­er­a­tions staff at EA Global Lon­don.

  • The four key out­comes from the pro­ject were that we:

    • Iden­ti­fied the most press­ing challenges and pri­ori­ties for EA op­er­a­tions staff.

    • Un­cov­ered key con­sid­er­a­tions for helping op­er­a­tions staff.

    • Created meet­ing places for op­er­a­tions staff.

    • Pre­pared skil­led peo­ple to build on this work in later pro­jects.

  • Les­sons learned through­out this pro­ject:

    • Ecosys­tem-level challenges are com­plex, they in­volve many stake­hold­ers, and the ap­pro­pri­ate ex­perts are hard to iden­tify. How­ever, they also seem like the most im­por­tant challenges.

    • Ex­pec­ta­tion man­age­ment, es­pe­cially on out­comes and level of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, is im­por­tant when work­ing on a grant from the EA Meta Fund

    • The im­por­tance of challeng­ing our fun­da­men­tal plan and its as­sump­tions early on and ex­am­in­ing whether our ap­proach is the best way to reach those goals.

    • Iden­ti­fy­ing the skills and ex­pe­riences the pro­ject re­quires, what skills we have and don’t have, and bring on peo­ple to fill the gaps is es­sen­tial, es­pe­cially when plans change.

  • While EA Nor­way will step down as lead on this pro­ject, we will ad­vise and sup­port the tal­ented and ex­pe­rienced vol­un­teers who are build­ing on the team’s efforts so far. Their next steps will be ex­plor­ing tar­geted sup­port for spe­cific challenges, ecosys­tem-level re­sources, and fur­ther in-per­son gath­er­ings for op­er­a­tions staff on a vol­un­tary ba­sis.

What we’ve done since the last fo­rum post

When we de­cided to not run an op­er­a­tions camp, but rather iden­tify top challenges and pri­ori­ties for op­er­a­tions staff and ways to solve them, we quickly re­al­ised that the EA Nor­way team did not have the nec­es­sary skills or ex­pe­riences to con­tinue the pro­ject. To ac­count for this, we re­cruited and on­boarded new team mem­bers and de­cided to re­duce our own in­volve­ment in the pro­ject. Mov­ing for­ward, the team con­sists of:

Core

  • Mark McCoy: Mark has a back­ground as an en­trepreneur, coach, and strat­egy con­sul­tant, and has worked on sys­tems-level challenges (e.g., a multi-year, na­tion-wide ini­ti­a­tive with the Rock­efel­ler Foun­da­tion to ad­dress US youth un­em­ploy­ment). Mark re­cently led a strat­egy fa­cil­i­ta­tion and man­age­ment sys­tems de­vel­op­ment pro­ject with CHAI.

  • Mario Pinto: Mario has been a re­search en­g­ineer, Agile Product Owner, and pro­gram man­ager, with 10+ years of work ex­pe­rience. Ex­am­ples of pro­grams Mario has man­aged in­clude ag­ile product de­vel­op­ment of oilfield data anal­y­sis soft­ware and over­see­ing the set-up of a sub­sidi­ary in In­dia. Mario cur­rently works as a pric­ing strate­gist for a Euro­pean cloud provider.

  • Other Vol­un­teers: Sev­eral other vol­un­teers have ex­pressed in­ter­est in sup­port­ing this work. We will in­clude their names here as we con­firm their availa­bil­ity.

Advisors

  • Steve Thomp­son: Steve has a back­ground in train­ing and con­sul­tancy and is the co-founder and leader of a large school for en­trepreneurs. He has also worked for over 10 years as a lead­er­ship de­vel­op­ment con­sul­tant and coach in a va­ri­ety of multi­na­tional or­gani­sa­tions.

  • Jah Ying Chung: Jah Ying is a sea­soned en­trepreneur and startup con­sul­tant, and co-founder of The Good Growth Co., a net­work of spe­cial­ists who help high im­pact or­gani­sa­tions solve their bot­tle­necks and scale their im­pact.

To find po­ten­tial solu­tions for the top challenges for op­er­a­tions staff at EA or­gani­sa­tions, we ran a one-hour fa­cil­i­ta­tion ses­sion at EAG Lon­don in Oc­to­ber. A to­tal of six­teen par­ti­ci­pants from twelve or­gani­sa­tions at­tended. The ses­sion con­sisted of four parts:

  1. Short re­cap of the EA op­er­a­tions bot­tle­necks pro­ject and goals of this ses­sion.

  2. Pri­ori­ties & challenges: Par­ti­ci­pants wrote down three pri­ori­ties/​challenges they’re fac­ing in the next 6-12 months and ver­bally shared their top challenge/​pri­or­ity.

  3. Small group dis­cus­sions: We grouped par­ti­ci­pants based on their top pri­ori­ties/​challenges, af­ter which they dis­cussed shared challenges in groups.

  4. De­brief and dis­cus­sion about next steps to carry the work for­ward.

Over­all we see the ses­sion as a suc­cess. Most of the op­er­a­tions staff we in­vited at­tended, and the feed­back was pos­i­tive. Out of the six­teen par­ti­ci­pants, twelve an­swered our sur­vey at the end of the ses­sion, while the rest had to leave the ses­sion early. The Net Pro­moter Score was 42. When asked what the most valuable part of the ses­sion was, most of the re­spon­dents re­sponded it was meet­ing other op­er­a­tions staff and hear­ing the challenges of the other or­gani­sa­tions.

How­ever, there are mul­ti­ple ways we could have im­proved the ses­sion. For ex­am­ple, we re­ceived feed­back from sev­eral par­ti­ci­pants that it could have been longer. In ad­di­tion, the group­ing of the par­ti­ci­pants could have been greatly im­proved. We tried to get data on the top pri­ori­ties of se­lect or­gani­sa­tions lead­ing up to EAG Lon­don, but were un­suc­cess­ful. Be­cause of this, we at­tempted to match at­ten­dees based on their re­ported top pri­ori­ties dur­ing the ses­sion. In hind­sight, we prob­a­bly should have al­lowed the par­ti­ci­pants to self-se­lect their groups. Lastly, sev­eral par­ti­ci­pants re­ported that some form of manda­tory prepa­ra­tion would have made the ses­sion more valuable. Given the par­ti­ci­pants’ level of en­gage­ment lead­ing up to the ses­sion, such re­quire­ments did not seem fea­si­ble at the time. Still, the over­all re­sults may have been bet­ter if we pushed for the par­ti­ci­pants to pre­pare for the ses­sion, even if some wouldn’t com­ply.

Re­sults of the op­er­a­tions project

The four key out­comes from the pro­ject were that we:

  1. Iden­ti­fied the most press­ing challenges and pri­ori­ties for EA op­er­a­tions staff.

  2. Un­cov­ered key con­sid­er­a­tions in helping op­er­a­tions staff.

  3. Created meet­ing places for op­er­a­tions staff.

  4. En­gaged skil­led peo­ple to build on this work in later pro­jects.

Press­ing challenges and top priorities

As we wrote about in the pre­vi­ous fo­rum post, we held a work­shop at EA Global San Fran­cisco and sent out an on­line form to or­gani­sa­tions that didn’t par­ti­ci­pate at the work­shop. Based on re­sponses from eigh­teen op­er­a­tions staff, we found that there were five par­tic­u­larly press­ing op­er­a­tions challenges:

  1. Stan­dard­i­s­a­tion and doc­u­men­ta­tion of in­ter­nal poli­cies and pro­cesses.

  2. Ta­lent re­ten­tion.

  3. Mak­ing time for strate­gic think­ing.

  4. Shar­ing best prac­tices be­tween or­gani­sa­tions.

  5. Cul­tural challenges.

Dur­ing the fa­cil­i­ta­tion ses­sion at EAG Lon­don, we asked the par­ti­ci­pants what their top pri­ori­ties were for the next six to twelve months. Here are the main cat­e­gories that were men­tioned:

  • Set­ting or­gani­sa­tional strat­egy and multi-year plans.

  • Align­ing team mem­bers around a defined cul­ture.

  • Hiring new team mem­bers.

  • Sup­port­ing the de­vel­op­ment of ex­ist­ing team mem­bers.

  • Stan­dard­i­s­a­tion, doc­u­men­ta­tion, and team al­ign­ment around new pro­cesses.

  • Mov­ing offices.

  • Fundrais­ing.

The re­sponses from the work­shop at EAG SF and the ses­sion at EAG Lon­don aren’t di­rectly com­pa­rable since the ques­tions and cir­cum­stances were differ­ent. In SF we gath­ered data on the high-level challenges to find the largest pain points, while in EAG Lon­don we asked the par­ti­ci­pants to men­tion spe­cific pri­ori­ties in the near fu­ture.

Key con­sid­er­a­tions in helping op­er­a­tions staff

Through­out this pro­ject, we have co­or­di­nated and worked with mul­ti­ple op­er­a­tions staff mem­bers. Based on our ex­pe­rience and con­ver­sa­tions with them, we have gen­er­ated some key take­aways and les­sons learned on how to best help peo­ple in their po­si­tions.

  • Oper­a­tions staff strongly value in-per­son con­ver­sa­tions with each other.

  • Tak­ing or­gani­sa­tional size and mod­els into ac­count may prove use­ful to bet­ter un­der­stand their needs, pre­dict their tra­jec­to­ries and pre­pare for challenges.

  • There are sig­nifi­cant and un­der-util­ised re­sources in the effec­tive al­tru­ism net­work.

  • The spe­cific challenges that op­er­a­tions staff and or­gani­sa­tions face may vary.

  • Oper­a­tions staff col­lec­tively feel over­whelmed and don’t have time to fo­cus on any­thing that’s not an im­me­di­ate pri­or­ity.

Any fu­ture pro­jects or efforts aiming to help op­er­a­tions staff with their challenges should con­sider these take­aways. In par­tic­u­lar, next steps should in­clude tai­lored and tar­geted sup­port ad­dress­ing the main challenges faced by op­er­a­tions staff, should build on the ex­pe­riences and les­sons learned from other or­gani­sa­tions, and should in­clude op­er­a­tions staff meet­ing each other.

Create meet­ing places for op­er­a­tions staff

At both EAGs, our events be­came a fo­rum for op­er­a­tions staff to be in­tro­duced to each other. We had a to­tal of twenty-six par­ti­ci­pants from six­teen differ­ent or­gani­sa­tions be­tween the two events. Par­ti­ci­pants said that they re­ally value meet­ing other op­er­a­tions staff, hear­ing oth­ers’ challenges, and get­ting some in­put on their own challenges. We know that the ses­sion at EAG Lon­don led to one-on-one con­ver­sa­tions be­tween par­ti­ci­pants who had not planned these be­fore­hand.

En­gage skil­led peo­ple to build on this work in later projects

As men­tioned above, we have en­gaged a team of ex­pe­rienced and mo­ti­vated peo­ple to build on the work we have done so far to con­tinue iden­ti­fy­ing and solv­ing the most press­ing challenges in op­er­a­tions at EA or­gani­sa­tions. In agree­ment with the EA Meta Fund man­agers, we con­sider the pro­ject we re­ceived fund­ing for as com­pleted with this re­port. We are glad skil­led peo­ple are con­tin­u­ing to work on op­er­a­tions challenges and solu­tions, but now as a new pro­ject not funded by the EA Meta Fund. With EAG SF in March 2020 as the next mile­stone, the new pro­ject team will ex­plore po­ten­tial paths to lev­er­age their ca­pac­ity and ex­per­tise to the benefit of op­er­a­tions staff.

In ad­di­tion, many of the op­er­a­tions staff we have en­coun­tered have ex­pressed in­ter­est in be­ing in­volved mov­ing for­ward, ei­ther as a par­ti­ci­pant or as an ad­vi­sor. This is promis­ing for the team’s work ahead. Still, as the phase lead­ing up to the fa­cil­i­ta­tion ses­sion at EAG Lon­don showed, op­er­a­tions staff have limited available time.

We be­lieve one of the most valuable re­sults of the op­er­a­tions pro­ject has been to en­sure skil­led and ex­pe­rienced peo­ple are ex­plor­ing and im­ple­ment­ing solu­tions to the challenges that op­er­a­tions staff are fac­ing. We hope that we have given them what they need to con­tinue the work suc­cess­fully, through get­ting in con­tact with op­er­a­tions staff and ad­vi­sors, un­der­stand­ing key con­sid­er­a­tions when co­op­er­at­ing with op­er­a­tions staff, and be­ing mo­ti­vated to do the work.

Les­sons learned from run­ning a pro­ject funded by EA Meta Fund

This has been EA Nor­way’s first time run­ning a pro­ject funded by the EA Meta Fund. For any­one con­sid­er­ing do­ing the same, here are some of the les­sons we have learned that might be use­ful.

As with most ap­pli­ca­tion-based fund­ing sources, there seems to be a fun­da­men­tal con­flict be­tween the grantor’s need for re­li­able sig­nals when eval­u­at­ing ap­pli­ca­tions, and the grantee’s need to se­cure fund­ing be­fore sink­ing re­sources into a pro­ject. The best sig­nal for a grantor is the qual­ity of com­pleted work. The trade-off be­tween these two needs de­pends on the risk ap­petite and risk port­fo­lio of each party. Be­fore we sub­mit­ted our fund­ing ap­pli­ca­tion, we re­searched the need for help with re­cruit­ment at EA or­gani­sa­tions with run­ning an op­er­a­tions camp in mind, but we did not spend time ask­ing broader ques­tions of how press­ing hiring needs are com­pared to other op­er­a­tions bot­tle­necks. After re­ceiv­ing the grant from the EA Meta Fund we had the time to ex­plore such ques­tions, which turned out to be cru­cial for our de­ci­sion to not go through with the camp as our ve­hi­cle to im­prove the op­er­a­tions ca­pac­ity at EA or­ga­ni­za­tions. Ideally, we and the EA Meta Fund would have benefited from hav­ing this in­for­ma­tion be­fore de­cid­ing to spend the re­sources, but this was not clear to us be­fore we ap­plied. We are un­sure about the best take­away here, and we are in­ter­ested in sug­ges­tions and similar ex­pe­riences from oth­ers in the com­ments. But it seems like grantors and grantees should dis­cuss this prob­lem at an early stage and re­veal their level of un­cer­tainty, will­ing­ness to spend time get­ting more in­for­ma­tion and risk ap­petite to make bet­ter trade-offs.

A re­lated trade-off is whether it’s best to plan for and ap­ply to carry out a con­crete pro­ject or to achieve a cer­tain goal. We ap­plied for funds to or­ganise a camp, but our over­all goal was to help miti­gate op­er­a­tions challenges in the EA com­mu­nity. When we de­cided not to or­ganise the camp af­ter all, we changed the means of achiev­ing the goal, but the goal per­sisted. While get­ting a grant to carry out a con­crete pro­ject is much eas­ier to com­mu­ni­cate and pro­vides clearer ex­pec­ta­tions be­tween grantee and grantor, this is much more rigid than hav­ing an over­all goal as the fo­cus of a pro­ject.

We be­lieve it was the right choice to not or­ganise an op­er­a­tions camp, but in hind­sight we see that com­mu­ni­cat­ing changes and ex­pec­ta­tion man­age­ment proved more challeng­ing than we ex­pected. Grad­ual changes and many marginal adap­ta­tions to new in­for­ma­tion may re­sult in stake­hold­ers out­side the work­ing team per­ceive a larger de­vi­a­tion from the origi­nal mes­sage than the work­ing team re­al­ises. If we end up ap­ply­ing for a grant in the fu­ture, we are likely to have the ap­pli­ca­tion and pro­ject de­scrip­tion fo­cus more on the goal we are try­ing to achieve rather than the ac­tivity we are guess­ing is our best way of achiev­ing it.

Another les­son we learned was to dis­cuss com­mu­ni­ca­tion ex­pec­ta­tions at the very be­gin­ning with both the EA Meta Fund and CEA. In calls with the fund man­agers, our im­pres­sion was that the Fund and CEA did not want gen­eral up­dates, and that we were over­all given a lot of flex­i­bil­ity in how we spent the money. Be­cause of this per­cep­tion, we did not fre­quently com­mu­ni­cate with rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the EA Meta Fund or CEA about pro­ject ex­penses or up­dates, and the EA Meta Fund did not ask for fur­ther up­dates even af­ter be­ing offered it ex­plic­itly. In hind­sight, it would have been bet­ter if we had clar­ified the bound­aries of our grant, and what hap­pens if our plans changed af­ter we be­gan work­ing on the pro­ject.

Work­ing on an ecosys­tem-level challenge such as op­er­a­tions bot­tle­necks in EA has re­quired a lot of in­volve­ment of key stake­hold­ers. In this fo­rum post we have men­tioned that peo­ple we talked to were busy and right­fully pri­ori­tised other things when asked. How­ever, our ex­pe­rience has been that most EAs we have asked for in­put and data for our pro­ject are friendly, helpful, and hon­est. This is also true for the con­tacts we have had at the EA Meta Fund and CEA—they have always been ea­ger to co­op­er­ate. If any­thing, we be­lieve we have been too slow and hes­i­tant to ask for help and in­put from peo­ple in our move­ment. We are very grate­ful for ev­ery­one that has con­tributed to this pro­ject so far.

Mak­ing sig­nifi­cant changes mid-pro­ject and work­ing on such com­plex is­sues has been challeng­ing for us. Not go­ing through with our ini­tial plan has some­times given us a per­cep­tion of failing. Fur­ther­more, when we re­al­ised that we lacked suffi­cient ex­pe­rience and skills to con­tinue solv­ing bot­tle­necks in op­er­a­tions, it was dis­cour­ag­ing. Be­cause of this, we have been re­ally thank­ful for all the sup­port and pos­i­tive feed­back we have re­ceived on this op­er­a­tions pro­ject. It is great to be part of a com­mu­nity that ap­pre­ci­ates un­cer­tainty and val­ues up­dat­ing on new ev­i­dence.

Fi­nal remarks

This pro­ject has been both ex­cit­ing and challeng­ing for us at EA Nor­way. Try­ing to solve these types of ecosys­tem-level prob­lems is com­pli­cated and difficult, but has the po­ten­tial to un­lock a lot of value if done suc­cess­fully. Work­ing closely with skil­led peo­ple—both our team mem­bers and op­er­a­tions staff—has been a mo­ti­vat­ing and im­por­tant learn­ing ex­pe­rience for us.

If you want in­for­ma­tion about the op­er­a­tions pro­ject as it ran un­til Novem­ber 2019, don’t hes­i­tate to reach out to EA Nor­way at post@effek­ti­valtru­isme.no. If you want in­for­ma­tion about the work mov­ing ahead and what the plans of the new team are (or if you want to see how you can help), con­tact Mark at ea@markm­c­coy.me.