May 23, 2023
by Rangsey Keo, our Director of Finance & Administration
(If you prefer to listen, click here for a voice note version of this post from Rangsey.)
I’ve never thought of myself as much of a creative—not in the sense that I don’t dabble in any form of arts whatsoever, but rather that I’ve never considered myself the type to make something new. I copy, replicate, and adapt. I take in what I see, hear, and learn and adapt it to my own understanding and way of expression. That is how I do art, and that is also how I work. I can look at something and, using the multitude of knowledge I’ve gathered and experiences I’ve had and heard from, think of many ways to improve it. But, I’ve never been asked or given the opportunity to completely recreate something in its entirety. Because, in all my previous work, improvement was more than enough, if any was asked of me at all. So, when the Guild entered the Portal and we began reimagining and recreating our functional work teams (or as we began calling them, “pods”), I got stuck.
My field of work is Operations. How does one reimagine something that is so focused on the “doing” part of an organization, that the idea of dreaming up something new feels vague? Operations, to me, has always seemed a list of tasks to complete and quantifiable goals to reach based upon the dreaming of others (governance, programs, etc). Particularly in an organization like the Guild—one with a long history of the classic hierarchical structure typical of midsize to large organizations in our non-profit sector (which we are now working on reimagining). More often, I’ve been asked to figure out how to achieve goals already decided upon by upper management and/or a board of directors, or wait upon the program team to give me a list of things they need for a program to run. I was stuck inside the operational box, and could not envision what to put on this new blank canvas I was given. I felt lost.
Do Something Else (preferably physical activities)
After weeks of frustration at my current state of “stuck and lost”— partially due to my stubbornness to ask for help from fellow staff who were also busy with their respective pod reimaginings and research— I finally threw my hands up and decided to do what has always worked for me in the past when in this situation, which was to forget all about it.
No, this didn’t mean I had given up. Rather, I decided to put it away for the time being and step away from this dilemma entirely because I realized continuing to run around in circles within the problem was leading me nowhere. So, I stepped out. I stopped thinking about it. I went and did something else. I still completed my mundane, operational tasks, I organized our physical office (we were in the process of moving), I read articles that had nothing to do with operations or my work, I did gardening, aerial yoga, archery, anything that did not involve thinking about what an operations pod/team/department could or would look like.
It helped—particularly the physical activities, because when my thinking gets stuck, I let it rest and have it focus on the movement of my body. It’s pretty amazing how intake of knowledge, sensations, and experiences from doing various activities can spark an idea towards a solution.
Going Back to the Roots: What is the purpose of “Operations”?
A thought came to me.
I didn’t have to start from scratch. Particularly with a team function that involved a lot of “doing”. So, I simply typed “nonprofit operations” into my browser’s search bar and skimmed through the varying definitions. From that, I surmised the commonality among them to create my own one-liner definition for operations: the primary role of the operations team is to ensure the Guild teams are equipped and empowered to do what they do.
As such, I decided to internally call this work pod “Cog Movers”.
Then, after further research on various job descriptions of a variety of operational roles, I compiled a list of duties and responsibilities that fit this definition. I did the equivalent of looking through other artwork for inspiration to set a theme, and collecting scraps of various things that fit said theme.
Sorting Things into Categories
Now that I had my jumbled list of responsibilities—my scraps—it was time to sort them. Much like trying to sort something by color, I grouped anything that seemed related into various categories. And after merging, unmerging, and re-merging different groups of tasks and activities, I came up with five major functions: Human Resources, Budgeting (finance), Systems (administration), Vendors (contract management), and Trail-making (documentation and contingency planning). With Human Resources being its own pod at the Guild, I’m left with four major functions for the Operations pod.
Breaking it down into chunks to work on is much more manageable than what I was trying to do in the beginning—creating the full picture in one shot. This is the age-old advice of “divide and conquer” applied. The rest is simply a matter of listing further detailed tasks and responsibilities for each main function, and connecting the dots.
It’s still a work in progress. As I’m fulfilling these responsibilities and collaborating with the other pods, I constantly discover more tasks that can be added, merged, modified. When we reach a point where we expand this pod to have more humans, these functions may look rather different to fit our needs.
Tips from the Toolbox
Using definitions found on Google doesn’t work for everyone. I know there are folks who better process in and create from other forms rather than words: visual, auditory, and movement, to name a few. In fact, if you scroll back up to the top of my blog post, you’ll find that I started out by doing things, using movement and motion to spark inspiration. I used words to create a base to work with, and then eventually produced something that was a combination of words and images.
Some already know what type(s) of form they prefer at each stage, but others may be just discovering it. For those still in the stage of discovery, I recommend some of the below.
Look at images, videos, or go sightseeing for inspiration.
Draw or paint what comes to mind when thinking about something—use images online even.
Do something fun, something you like. Dance. Jog. See what crops up.
Use motion to describe something. Record it to refer back to (and permanently delete evidence of moments of embarrassment afterwards if you like, although I personally don’t think anyone needs to feel embarrassed).
Listen to music, a podcast, or sound clips. Head to a beach and listen to the sound of waves crashing against the shore or hike a trail and listen to the rustle of the leaves in the wind.
Add sound clips to your creation, or name a sound to help describe something.
Record yourself talking about your creation.
This toolbox of tips is by no means exhaustive. To some (or perhaps many in our field of arts and arts education), the things I’ve listed may be nothing new or surprising, so I am curious of the various ways other folks use to make a breakthrough when stumped about what to do or where to begin with their projects or work. The Guild will be holding a Portal Cafe on this topic on June 15th where I will share and discuss further about resetting and finding inspiration to get “unstuck”. I invite you to join us for this session to discuss creative ways of problem-solving or even to explore any questions on what “operations” is and means, particularly in a non-profit.
Published: May 23, 2023