Final update on EA Norway's Operations Project

by Jorgen_Ljones, eirine 9 min read10th Jan 20206 comments

28


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.

28