So you want to do operations [Part two] - how to acquire and test for relevant skills

by eirine17th Dec 20185 comments

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Eirin M. Evjen, Exec. Dir. EA Norway
Jørgen R. Ljønes, Ass. Exec. Dir. EA Norway

This is the second post in a series on the talent constraint for operations roles experienced by the EA movement and associated organisations as the community grows. The other posts in the series are:

The first post covered which skills that are needed to succeed in an operations role, and to what extent these are innate or acquirable. We found that there are some skills that people in EA operations roles find to likely be innate, such as intelligence, understanding of complex systems, and having grit when dealing with difficult tasks. However, a lot of the skills needed are acquirable, meaning that they can be learned and improved. Such skills are management and prioritisation of tasks, being calm under pressure, and having creative problem solving skills.

In this post, we will look closer at these skills and discuss how to learn and improve acquirable skills, and how innate traits can be tested. As with the last post, we have based this on publications by 80,000 hours (80k), discussions on the forum and with members of the EA community, and our own survey of a few people in operations roles at EA organisations. This time we have also built upon our own experiences as leaders and community builders at EA Norway. We have found that having some sort of experience, either from a work setting, relevant side projects or volunteering. Indeed, research suggests at least in leadership roles, 70% of your professional growth comes from your work experiences (Arvey, Rotundo, Johnson, Zhang & McGue, 2006). Although the findings from our survey are not a revelation, we were still mildly surprised that the experience does not have to be directly related to operations. Rather, there seems to be a lot of different ways to achieve the skills through experience. We argue that gaining experience is important for three main reasons:

  1. It is the best way to test your fit
  2. You acquire relevant skills
  3. It can provide a useful signal to future employers

Content

  • Why are we writing this series?
  • What is this post about and who should read it?
  • The importance of experience
  • How to test for innate skills
  • How to acquire relevant operations skills
  • Potential side projects
  • Remaining questions

Why are we writing this series?

There’s a current discussion in the EA community on what talent gaps/constraints actually entail, and how we as a community can best overcome the bottlenecks to ensure progress. See parts of the discussion here and here. Although a lot of the confusion around talent gaps have been clarified, it is still unclear exactly what it entails for those of us who are trying to contribute to solving this problem. Many EAs, including local and national groups such as EA Norway, are eager to help fill the different talent gaps in the community. Some of the most sought-after skills, according to 80,000 hours’ talent gap survey in 2018, has to do with operations in an organisation. By “operations” we mean people at organisations and institutions that enable other employees to focus on core tasks and maximise productivity. This entails financial systems, project management, ensuring a productive office, assisting executive roles, organising internal events, hiring and human relations (HR), as well as communications, fundraising and general management (80k, 2018). Such roles are often abbreviated to “ops”, and which of these responsibilities an ops person has varies quite much from one organisation to another.

What is this post about and who should read it?

This post is about concrete ways to acquire and test for relevant operations skills as listed in our previous post. Our suggestions in this post are based on a survey of five operations people at EA organisations, insight into two organisations’ work trials, 80k’s publications, and our own experience with project work at EA Norway’s student groups. This post, as well as the rest of the series, is also an invitation to continue the discussion regarding talent constraints in ops roles and how EA groups can best help the community on this problem. This series of posts is relevant for people who are in charge of or helping out hiring for operations roles, people interested in taking on operations roles, and people in the community who in general are interested in these questions. We are very eager to receive feedback, additional resources, and any thoughts on this topic.

The importance of experience

The general theme from our findings is that succeeding in an operations role requires both innate talent and acquirable skills and that none of these two sets are much more important than the other. This suggest that people interested in testing their own fit with operations roles first should ensure that they have the most important innate traits, and then look for opportunities to attain and improve the acquirable skills. Conversely, this also suggests that recruiters should look for candidates with the innate traits and a varying degree of the trainable skills depending on whether you are recruiting for a junior or a senior role. Further, you should assess your capacity to provide training and/or make room for the candidate to learn on the job.

Another important finding is that getting relevant experience is important, but it need not be from an operations role. Other relevant experience could come from jobs or volunteer positions where you run large events, manage ambitious projects, are put under pressure, have a long list of tasks that needs to be prioritised, or create and implement complex systems such as a financial, donor management, and communications system.

Getting experience is important for three reasons. Firstly, doing projects, organising an event or filling a relevant role is a great way of testing fit. Some innate traits like having motivation to do tedious or difficult tasks and not being discouraged by complexity can only be tested by getting your hands dirty and doing it. Secondly, gaining experience through paid work or volunteering provides essential skills to succeed in an operations role. This is because a majority of the skills needed are acquired through learning by doing. This became clear in our survey: All of the respondents attributed a large part of their skills to various types of experience.

Furthermore, testing if you are a good fit for a job can save you a lot of time. And lastly, previous experience is a great way to signal your skill level for potential employees, which can lower their risk of recruiting - a significant cause for the current talent gap. Having this in mind while working on relevant projects is essential as you should try documenting how you are doing, accentuate your results and get independent evaluation of your work if possible. Think of how you best can help a future employer get to know you and evaluate your fit for the role. Being mindful of your progress and doing systematic self assessment is a great skill to learn in it self, and might help you learn other skills better.

How to test for innate traits

In our survey of ops people at EA organisations, certain relevant traits are perceived as largely innate. The innate traits needed can be sorted into four categories: motivation and interest, grit and tenacity, conscientiousness, and general mental ability. Although there were other traits mentioned in the survey, we have left out those who were more specifically related to a particular type of ops jobs as they vary greatly. These are traits that will be tested for in a work trial or interview as well.

Motivation and interest

As our survey found, being motivated by the work was listed as both an innate trait and acquired skill. When doing any of the side projects listed below, or tasks that are similar to operations tasks, do you get motivated by the work and do you find it interesting? Does creating a system, tool or routine excite you or bore you? Do you enjoy helping others do their work more effectively and don’t mind not having the direct impact yourself? What do you feel about having a lot of tasks that needs to be prioritised? A good way to test motivation and interest for the work might be to plan and carry out some of the side projects proposed below.

Furthermore, depending on sources of motivation, motivation to do a task alone and together with others might be very different. Therefore, be mindful of not writing yourself off as someone who lacks motivation just because you could not do it on your own.

Grit and tenacity

When tasked with a large project or assignment, do you easily feel overwhelmed? Do you get discouraged when dealing with difficult and tedious tasks? According to research, this trait is at least partly acquirable (Vanhove, Herian, Perez, Harms & Lester, 2015). Asking these questions and discussing them with friends, colleagues, or people at the organisation you want to work can be valuable. Of course, there are a lot of boring tasks that can be automated, see 80ks podcasts with Tara Mac Aulay and Tanya Singh on this, which is also a useful skill to have. Still, the processes of automating and creating systems can sometimes involve tedious and repetitive tasks.

Conscientiousness

Conscientiousness is the personality trait of wanting to do a project or task well and taking obligations to others seriously. Aspects of this trait came up in both the list of innate traits and acquired skills in our survey. People who score high on this trait are often organised, reliable, systematic and have strong self-discipline. To test your level of conscientiousness, consider taking a personality test that measures this trait. There are multiple tests you can use, we recommend HEXACO (100 questions) or the IPIP-NEO (300 questions) based on “the Big Five” personality traits.

General mental ability

General mental ability (GMA) has to do with cognitive abilities and intelligence. In their recent hiring round for an operations analyst, the EA Foundation used a GMA test. They based this decision on the findings in, among others, the “The Validity and Utility of Selection Methods in Personnel Psychology: Practical and Theoretical Implications of 100 Years” by Frank L. Schmidt. They used Raven’s Advanced Progressive Matrices. You can see a version of such a test here, and test yourself.

How to acquire operations skills

80k on acquiring skills

Based on our research, it seems like although there are some innate talents that are needed, there are a many skills that one can learn. But how might you acquire such skills? In their career profile from June 2017 on working at an EA organisation, 80k proposes the following entry requirements for operations roles:

  • Experience in law, accounting, HR or project management helps. Work experience or volunteering that demonstrates excellent organisational skills, attention to detail, and ability to communicate clearly and professionally.
  • For more senior roles: 3+ years of experience in operations, including leading teams.

80k recommends joining a startup or smaller business of 10-100 employees. They argue that companies of that size provide a good learning environment, and that any role their often requires multiple skills. 80k also advises improving and demonstrating relevant skills through helping to run an EAG event and running events at a local effective altruism group. Additionally, they suggest doing side projects and improving productivity, organisation, and learning ability (read more about improving such skills here).

Responses from operations people in EA-organisations

In our survey of people in EA operations roles, we both asked how they acquired their skills and other ways one might acquire the same skills. Many of the respondents attribute parts of their skillset to different types of work experience that don’t necessarily have to do with operations. The respondents were not asked to elaborate on how the different work experiences taught them relevant skills. Still, it seems reasonable to infer that having experience with prioritizing many tasks, being under pressure, paying attention to detail, and communicating with others are ways to learn many of the skills mentioned above.

Also, work experience with operations, running logistics at events and workshops, and project management are mentioned as ways in which the respondents gained some of their skills. Furthermore, internships, volunteering and doing independent side projects were mentioned as concrete ways to gain certain skills, while also being less costly than taking a job somewhere.This is echoed by the EA Foundation’s post on their recent hiring process, where they advice future applicants to take the lead on one or more projects, for example setting up a website or organising an event.

Other mentions in the survey were reading articles and books on business-related topics, trying to improve the organisations you work at, and getting feedback from colleagues and experienced operations people. As an example, we’ll mention Josh Kaufman’s Personal MBA, which also links to good sources for further reading in several relevant fields. In terms of other ways which one could acquire these skills, the respondents proposed attending workshops, and work experience in the private sector or non-EA organisations. They also mentioned taking tutorials on relevant topics, coaching from others, and online courses.

On responsibility

In the comments of our last post, having complete responsibility for your project was raised as a key part of working in operations. Complete responsibility does not just mean receiving responsibility from others, but that you have to take responsibility and seeing projects through. It is about doing anything you can to finish a project or task. It is also about seeking out and doing tasks that are outside the project description and the initial responsibility you are given by a superior. This requires taking initiative and not waiting for others to tell you what to do or how to do it.

We are unsure to what extent taking responsibility is an innate trait or acquirable skill, but based on the comments it seems to at least not be completely innate. A similar notion of doing things without being asked was raised in 80ks podcast with Tara Mac Aulay. A key way of training for this might be to assume complete responsibility of a task, either at work, university, home or your local group. Further, try to identify ways you can improve a situation at one of these places. For example, could the way a class is organised be improved? Could the way your household is cleaning your home be more efficient? Is there a system at work that is sub-optimal? Take initiative, assume complete responsibility and try to improve the situation. Be aware of the failure mode in not listening to others and push away others on your team. Taking complete responsibility does not mean that you have to do everything yourself, just making sure it gets done. In large organizations and projects this means more often than not that you need to trust and motivate others to do most of the work.

Potential side projects

We think the aforementioned suggestions of how to acquire skills through taking an internship and getting work experience are important, but we were lacking concrete examples of cheap ways to test your fit, upskill, and signal your value. Therefore, we have created this list of proposals for side projects that might achieve these goals. We have tried to make them cheap in terms of time and prior experience needed. The list is inspired by work trials at two EA organisations and projects we have carried out at EA Norway. We encourage readers of this post to provide further ideas for relevant side projects in the comments.

The purpose is not to provide an exhaustive or prioritised list of ways to acquire skills. We wanted to provide concrete examples beside just saying: “volunteer, work and do side projects”. We think the value of doing any of these projects will increase if you document your work and be mindful of the skills you wish to learn and have been taught. Try to get feedback from others often, adopting an agile methodology of working in iterations.

Becoming acquainted with systems

  • Create a personal finance spreadsheet for friends/people in your household. Developing a system together with someone else that they themselves are going to use is similar to many real life operations situations.
  • Turn cleaning your home into a project and create routines and systems for it.
    • Put together a list of the different tasks you need to get done.
    • What should you be optimising for? (e.g.: cleanliness, time spent, comparative advantages of people cleaning)
    • In which order should the tasks be done?
    • Create checklists and routines.
      • How often should the various tasks be done?
  • Make a cost-benefit analysis of developing a GiveWell recommended charity.
    • Create a spreadsheet with high and low estimates of the costs and benefits of creating a charity that is likely to become recommended by GiveWell.
    • This requires research, reaching out to people, quantitative thinking, setting up a system, and critical thinking.
  • Contact an EA organisation (e.g. LEAN) or local group and ask: Is there a system I can produce and implement for you?
    • Most local groups would be interested in creating or improving systems to help run their group, run events or communicate with their members.
    • Are there some routine tasks that you can automate?
    • You should ask the group/organisation if you can get feedback and evaluation of your work.

Organising events

  • Host an event (e.g.: dinner, party, outing, discussion meeting, meet-up,lecture)
    • Treat it as a project: What are the steps needed to solve it? How to best carry them out?
    • Create concrete tasks, learn to use a task manager, prioritise the tasks.
    • Are there ways you can automate parts of the project?
    • How can the event go wrong, and how can you reduce the chances of such scenarios happening? Learn to use Murphyjitsu.
  • Pretend that you’re hosting a 3-day conference on an EA-related topic and make a plan
    • Set up a goal one-pager with the vision, goals and measures for your event. The Theory of Change framework might be useful here.
    • Analyze your target audience and create personas.
    • Create a budget.
    • Create a timeline.
    • Create a RACI-matrix.
    • Create a cost-benefit analysis of different forms of conferences.
    • How can the conference go wrong, and how can you reduce the chances of such scenarios happening?
    • Get feedback on the quality of your plans from experienced event organizers.

Research and written skills

  • Write a report from a time you carried out a project. What did you achieve and how do you measure it?`What are the skills you learned? What were some of the most difficult problems, and how did you solve them? What are your recommendations for someone carrying out a similar project in the future?
  • Research a legal framework, for example work visas in the UK/US or GDPR, write a report with your research method and recommendations.
  • Evaluate a political party’s policy platform based on certain criterias (at EA NTNU, they evaluated the different parties’ platforms based on their development policies).
    • This requires you to prioritise between different criteria and gather information.
    • You don’t need to publish this anywhere if you don’t want to.

Project management

  • Read up on various resources (Quiet leadership, Messages, Triggers, How to Measure Anything, Getting Things Done, Personal MBA), create a plan to help someone with their productivity, and test it out on a friend.
    • Make sure to evaluate the process.
  • Start a project at your local EA group (contact EA NTNU for tips on projects or see here)
    • If possible, get 2-3 others on your team.
    • Set goals - what’s the product of your project?
    • What are the tasks that need to be done, and who is responsible for them.
    • What’s the timeline?
      • If you are on a team, agree how you will stay coordinated. For instance, times when you will check in for short status reports.
      • Set toll gates: Is there a point in your project where you need feedback or approval from others before moving on? What do you need for these toll gates?
    • Break your own tasks into actionable steps that bring you closer to completing each task.
    • Evaluate with your team afterwards.

These are just some examples of side projects you can do fairly cheaply. Remember that the value of doing such projects come from three things: testing your fit, improving relevant skills, and signalling to others. Although they are cheap, doing side projects can be difficult to do on your own. Consider finding an accountability buddy who can help you see it through, or check if someone in your local EA community can help you.

Remaining questions

Researching and writing this series continues to be a valuable experience for us, and we hope others who are interested in narrowing the talent gap of operations roles in EA organisations will benefit from reading this as well. We greatly appreciate the discussion on the previous post, and hope to continue the conversation in the comment section of this post. We are especially interested in answering the following questions:

  • How did you recognize that your were/weren’t a good fit for operations roles? Is there something you recommend others to try?
  • What are the best ways of acquiring new valuable skills for operations roles?
  • What should promising candidates do to signal their fit and experience to potential employers to help smooth out the costly recruitment process?
  • Given the answers to the above questions, what can local and national groups do to find and train potential candidates and help in the recruitment process?

We intend to continue this series with further posts seeking to answer questions like these, and explore concrete ways EA Norway plan help narrowing the talent gap. We think there are opportunities for EA organisations and local/national groups to work more closely together to find how we can best reduce the talent constraints in the community, and we think discussing and answering the questions above are ways to explore these opportunities. We welcome a continued discussion and feedback in the comment section below and in the posts to come.