Joel T. Sanders
How to Create a Business Operations Document for Your Company or Team
Updated: Jul 4, 2020
What should your team be doing now?
That's the fundamental question everyone in knowledge work faces every moment of every day. It's why we have weekly—or daily—team meetings.
But how should you design those meetings? What's the agenda? What should you talk about? How do you hold everyone accountable to their commitments and keep track of them?
What if new information arises during the workweek that uncovers a better, higher potential opportunity? How do you shift a team's focus on a consistent basis without creating a chaotic mess and overwhelming everyone?
In startup business operations, stopping everyone in their tracks and shifting focus comes with the territory. And it's not just startups: any small business may have to drop all prior commitments on a dime if a new, large business opportunity comes in that requires immediate action.
In this article, I show you how you can create a simple business operations document for your team, using a specific, real example from one of my clients (for privacy, I've modified names and project details).
As you'll see, the document:
Serves as the meeting agenda for your various team meetings throughout the week;
Prioritizes topics for discussion in a logical way;
Tracks the high-level measures that determine if your team is on-track or off-track;
Outlines each team member's projects with key milestones and due dates; and
Puts into writing each team member's weekly commitments.
This document does not replace a project management tool like Asana or Clubhouse, nor is it a dumping ground for every team member's individual to-do lists, skunkworks project ideas, and other "someday / maybe" lists.
It's a lightweight tool created in Google Docs with just the right balance of structure and flexibility to give creative teams definition to their business operations. It's also easy to use and update, so there's no learning curve.
For most teams, a single document is all that's required. You don't need to juggle or update multiple plans or tools.
As you'll see, you can use simple hyperlinks in the document for easy access to project plans, research notebooks, individual to-do lists, financial spreadsheets, and other tools.
So let's dive in to the various sections.
Team Focus, Key Meetings, and Highlights / FYIs
Here's a modified example based primarily on a startup team of five: the founder / CEO, a CTO, marketing director, product coordinator & me as the fractional COO.
The dates are Monday to Sunday. Each team member is required to have his or her projects and commitments updated by Sunday evening, and then a copy of the document is made for the following week.
In this example, notice that the team has chosen three areas of focus for the week. This would have been set in the prior week's meeting, or in the first leadership team meeting of the week.
Key meetings are listed next. This doesn't necessarily include all of a team's meetings, although in an early-stage startup or a small company it could.
The Headlines, highlights and FYIs section is where the team shares things that aren't actionable now, but may be in the future.
Scorecard with Results Measures and Lead Measures
The next section is the scorecard. Figuring out which measures to track is one of the most-difficult things to get right for any team, and particularly challenging for early-stage startups that are pre-revenue.
"Results" measures are goals that result from other work but cannot be directly done as a task. Examples include: revenue, leads generated, or signups.
"Lead" measures are measures of activities that lead to results. Examples include phone calls made, presentations scheduled, and website visitors.
The Accountability section is the core piece of the business operations document. It's where team members outline the high-level plans for their various projects, forecast dates for completion of the next major milestone, and make specific 7-day commitments to one another on deliverables.
Team Accountability is reviewed in every meeting in order to identify obstacles, questions, and areas requiring team, customer, vendor, or other collaboration and expert help.
In this example, Maureen's primary project is "New Product Strategy." The next major milestone for that project should be completed by July 15th, and she's indicated that she is on-track to hit that deadline.
Notice that the project title contains a hyperlink. That link points to the Product Strategy Document, which is itself linked to a variety of spreadsheets, Asana projects, and other documents and resources that define the full scope of that particular project.
The next section is "7-Day Commitments." These commitments are set for each team member during the Discussion Queue portion of the meeting, which I describe next.
The "Back Burner" is where to offload various projects, ideas, and next-layer priorities for each team member. When the project sections for team members become unmanageable—usually because they've committed to too many outcomes at once—those project outlines should be moved off of this document to new documents, hyperlinked from here.
"Where are we stuck? Where are the opportunities? What should be prioritized?"
The conversation queue serves as the core agenda for the team's various internal meetings. This is where bottlenecks and opportunities are discussed. It's where team members propose solutions and make their 7-day commitments to one another on their individual deliverables.
Any team member can suggest a topic for discussion. Prior to a meeting, whoever is in charge of the discussion should frame the conversation with a basic outline to ensure that the topic is focused and outcome-driven.
Prior to discussing the details, the team should review the proposed conversation topics and rearrange them in order of priority. The most-important, earth-moving conversations come first.
In the above simplified example, the team already discussed the Marketing & Sales Plan in a prior meeting that week, as indicated by the checkmark. At the bottom is a list of follow-up action items from that discussion, and who is responsible. These action items then make their way onto the appropriate team member's 7-Day Commitments list.
Notice that the topic "Scantech Strategy and Direction" hasn't yet been discussed, and it has the beginnings of an outline in place.
If a team member wants to propose a conversation on another topic, he or she would simply create a similar outline just below the first outline in the list, and so on. During the meeting, the team decides on the priority for discussion and rearranges the topic sections accordingly.
If the timing for a particular discussion isn't right, or if the team runs out of time, that topic can remain on the list for the following week, or it can be moved to the "Parking Lot" section, described below.
Outbound Communications, Meeting Ratings, and Parking Lot
Outbound communications are messages that need to go out to others on the team who weren't in the meeting, or perhaps to board members, customers, the email list, regulators, and so on.
At the close of each team meeting, each participant ranks the meeting on a scale of 1 to 10, as a way of subjectively communicating the overall effectiveness of the meeting in assisting the team towards reaching its goals.
Finally, the parking lot, described above, is a place to "park" conversations that don't make sense in the next week or two, but may down the road.
It's About Process, Not Perfection
Constant chaos is the norm in startups or any small business—or for that matter, in any creative enterprise or team, large or small. Getting into the right rhythm of meetings and coordinating efforts takes time and discipline.
If you haven't gone to the gym in many years, you can't expect to get into olympic shape overnight. At a minimum, you need to consistently go back, week-in and week-out, going through the same exercises and using the same tools to get stronger and stronger. You also might want to get yourself a coach who can assist you in the right techniques and nuances of the process.
The good news is that the right tool for the job is one you already know how to use: A simple document that captures the key high-level strategy and operational topics your team is facing. It has enough structure to eliminate the noise and focus everyone on the specific projects and to-dos that have the highest potential payoff or that eliminate the most risk.
With built-in accountability and an easy-to-follow agenda, it keeps your team moving forward in the right areas, limits distractions, and measures results, all in one place.