Operations: Get More From Your Team Without Sucking Their Souls Dry

Let me direct your mind's eye for a moment to our shared cultural vision of 'entrepreneur.' For many of us, the word 'failure' comes immediately to mind along with the dismal statistics about five-year survival rates. Then, we imagine long all-nighters, the struggle for survival, the taking out of trash while shushing the dog with the phone pressed between ear and shoulder on another sales call, accidentally tipping a stack of papers off the desk and onto the maze of computer-cables below.

Flash forward a couple of years and 'success' looks like... more long days and nights, frantic to keep up with the demands of a growing customer base and less-than-helpful employees. Saturday at a 3-year-old's birthday party, the playful sound of kids bobbing for apples in the background, the entrepreneur stabbing away at a cell phone managing another emergency (and cursing that damn shipping company) while the husband/wife looks on helplessly, thinking that 'success' was supposed be different.

It's interesting to notice that there are big, successful businesses that don't look like this. Walk into most offices of corporate America today and you'll find not a single cable running across the floor. Employees are not spending their Saturdays glued to their cell phones, and they're not frantic about a shipping delay. The sense of chaos is replaced with something else. Something extremely drab.

The papers are neatly divided between in- and out-boxes and people in dull colors walk casually, in comfortable shoes, from their ergonomic workstations to the copy room and back. Other people, at oval tables behind glass walls, seem to be looking at but not quite registering the contents of a PowerPoint slide projected onto a screen. Clean, Formica-covered break rooms are decorated with laminated labor law posters and a cartoon that someone printed out and taped to the wall. The joke is about someone having a case of the Mondays.

These images are so burned into our collective imaginations that they've become cliches. The harried entrepreneur and the big, bad corporation, devoid of life.

What is it that big, stodgy corporations have discovered about running a business that keeps things chaos-free? How is it that they can so consistently produce a result (deliver a product, render a service) at mind-numbing scale without breaking a sweat?

And why is it that whatever they're doing also seems to suck the life out of the people who work there? Creativity, passion, and joy get replaced by monotony, drudgery and a photo of that trip to Hawaii taken eight years ago.

The answer, of course, is that big businesses have discovered 'process' and they've run with it. In order to create an outcome over and over again, every single function of a business is turned into a checklist and a protocol. These protocols live in binders and are taught in orientation. Reporting is put in place to ensure that protocols are adhered to, and papers are filed to record the processing of a protocol. Appropriate signatures are obtained. When workload increases beyond the current staff's ability to process it, more process-doers are hired and oriented.

This sort of systemization has proven to be an extremely effective way to get a lot of work done and to get it done right almost all the time. The downside is that running processes all day long -- all life long -- sucks the soul out of the process-doers who used to be vibrant, creative, happy people.


Of course, our 'entrepreneurial' organizations are full of creative, vibrant people... and a lot of emergencies and dropped balls. Very frustrating.

As entrepreneurs, we should be asking: how can we create an organization that has it all? How can we ensure that we're getting the business of our business done and done well, while NOT sucking the life out the people who join our team? How can we create a culture of happy, engaged and creative people AND have a machine that cranks out work like a bulldozer running on jet fuel?

Because let's face it: no one wants to spend their lives in gray corporate hell. The best people -- those you need on your team -- won't do it. As an entrepreneur and the designer of your life, you shouldn't either.

At ONTRAPORT, we are using the building of our company as an opportunity to experiment with the design of an organizational structure that supports our team members' personal growth and nurtures their talents, creativity and passion... and to kick-butt in our marketplace at the same time.

One of the things that we do differently is how we organize our work.

Most people think they do 'work' all day and that work is work. But we figure that in all businesses there are actually two kinds of work: business maintenance and projects.

Business maintenance is all the stuff that you do in the normal course of business to deliver your products or services, keep the lights on, pay the bills, answer the phones, make the sales, and so on. Think of business maintenance as treading water.

This is the stuff that corporations are really good at turning into checklists and protocols. It's also very often not so much fun... after all, who likes to do the same repetitive thing day in and day out? But too bad: it's gotta get done.

The problem arises when businesses are organized in a way that has some (often most) of the people spending their entire lives doing business maintenance. This is when the color starts to drain out of life, giving everyone a permanent case of the Mondays.

Project work, on the other hand, is the work that's designed to move your business forward. Projects are meant to take advantage of a new opportunity or to solve a challenge that you're facing in a new, more effective way. Everything that creates a better organization or has you better able to compete or to provide more or better products or services is what we call 'projects.'

Project work is fun. It's the creative, experimental stuff. It's about designing and building. It's strategic and future-focused. Projects get your juices flowing and make you excited about coming to work in the morning.

Unfortunately, in most corporations, project work -- the way we define it -- is done by just a few people at the top, if it's done at all. This is why working for bigger corporations often sucks. If you're not one of the very few 'creatives,' you're pretty much a (somewhat) glorified assembly line worker.

There's a better way.

At ONTRAPORT, no one does business maintenance all day long and everyone gets to do project work, most often on projects that they've designed themselves. In fact, the whole company works on a schedule that includes two 90 minute periods each day that we call 'time block.' Time block has two rules: first, you use the time to work on your projects and second, there's communication silence. No chats, no responding to emails, no interrupting a co-worker to ask if they've got 'a second' to answer your question. This is focused time to get your stuff done.

When most business owners hear our work-model, they find it interesting but immediately dismiss it as impossible because they're already overwhelmed with their to-do lists and the idea of taking three hours out of everyone's schedule each day is unthinkable.

We solve this by using a very specific and efficient time and work-management system that we teach to every new employee in a course that we've designed called Driver's Ed. In Driver's Ed, we teach the three biggest time-wasters in business -- re-work, transition time, and lack of follow up -- and how to solve them. Unlike most 'time management' efforts which start out inspired but quickly fall apart (like most good habits), our process is followed by the entire company which reinforces the good habit. Plus, there's a huge reward: dramatically improving your business maintenance efficiency gets you the opportunity to take on your own creative projects. Plus, in our organization, following our process is mandatory.

The outcome of all this is that we have a team of engaged, turned-on people who use their talents, creativity and personal drive to proactively search for challenges to solve and opportunities to grow. They see things that our 'leaders' never could. They are passionate, motivated, and refer their most capable friends to fill our open positions. We achieve unbelievable growth, win "amazing workplace" awards and, most importantly, get to spend our days surrounded by people who are happy, smart, and love their jobs.

p.s. If you'd like to learn more about our work-process and how it can make a difference in your company, we occasionally teach Driver's Ed to the public for free as a live-streamed online course. The course is one hour per week for six weeks. It's completely free and designed to be taken by company leaders and team members all together. To learn more visit