Where operations, projects, and innovation collide and divide

To build it or to maintain it. That is the question.
It’s a classic question in organizational design. The answer of course is you have to do both. I’m not talking about the decision of a product nearing the end of its life cycle where you decide between adding additional features or putting it in maintenance mode. Rather, this is about allocation of people and teams within an eCommerce organization to maintenance or operational activities versus allocation to projects.

I’ve seen terms like “run the business”, “keep the lights on”, and “operations”.   Those terms refer to activities that an organization does to maintain service to existing customers or to maintain production of existing products. In an eCommerce team this might be activities like maintaining server equipment, network connectivity, data backups, content management.

But we also need people assigned to “build the business”, “new projects”, and “innovation”. These are tasks like building new features in the system and creating entirely new products and services that have new demand in the market place.

It’s not just an IT problem.
Other functional areas of an organization design responsibilities around this need. A typical Sales team will have inside account managers (run the business) and new partnership development (build the business). Marketing product managers are challenged with how to split time between servicing existing products (run the business) and building new features (build the business) for their product. IT is challenged with it because they have systems to maintain while also trying to help the business build features and solutions on new technology.

Eric Brown makes a good case for splitting the responsibilities and focus of an IT organization into operational and innovation areas. His point is that people are trained and have skills in certain areas. If that is “running the business”, then keep their focus on that so they do it really well. But don’t expect them to be good at bringing new innovation to the business.

Asking the question is easy. Answering it is not.
So how do you solve allocating people across operational and new project work? In my mind, there’s no single answer. It involves creating a balance and is effected by a number of criteria:

  • People: How many people do you have? Smaller organizations may not have the luxury of dedicated people per function. I think this puts them in a tough spot because to Eric Brown’s point, not everyone has the mindset (or skillset) to contribute to both.
  • Time: How do you split time between operations and project? Do you set a goal for 50/50, 70/30, etc? That’s likely tough to follow week-by-week because emergencies like hard drive failures don’t run according to a schedule.
  • Priority: What’s more important the operations or getting new business? This is such a tough question. Leaders that have incentives based on new revenue growth certainly lean towards new business. But we know that companies that neglect their existing customers and operations may not see tomorrow to have a chance to build out new business.

eCommerce teams need to find a balance.
To play the eCommerce game, teams need the ability to experiment as well as implement change. That’s how you drive new business. But maintaining the existing store is just as important. So when you create an eCommerce organizational design make sure to account for run the business as well as build the business activities.

I’d like to know how you’ve solved this within your organization. What say you?