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Challenges for the Chief Operating Officer and How to Overcome Them

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8 min read
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What is the role of the chief operating officer?

Serving as the right-hand to the CEO, the chief operating officer is the critical connector for the organization. Whether acting as the bridge to the company’s strategy or the executor of the CEO’s vision and daily operations, the COO works to improve different levels of the organization.

A chief operating officer’s role involves driving different outcomes throughout the business hierarchy — improving efficiency, managing operations, connecting teams to strategy, incorporating new technology, and adapting to internal/external environments. 

Why is the COO role key to successful business strategy?

Chief operating officers are the model for balancing strategy with execution. They work in the gray area, ensuring execution-focused employees are in line with strategy while making the strategy itself accessible.

While operations may be in the job title, managing information is instrumental to the chief operating officer’s process. Information flows in the organization like streams into a river — it’s the COO’s challenge to make sure these streams don’t clog up by focusing on communication, optimization, and decision making.

The COO also sets the tone for how a culture operates — this can be the difference between an autonomous, trusting culture and an intensive, bureaucratic culture. 

The main challenges for a chief operating officer

With such an intense focus on the day-to-day work, chief operating officers are guaranteed to face challenges with bridging strategy and execution. These five main challenges for COOs are influenced by the future of work and the shift to digitalization: 

  • Inability to align
  • Operational redundancy and inefficiencies
  • Poor engagement
  • Rigid focus on data over impact
  • Complex/outdated operating frameworks

Inability to align

The chief operating officer’s first unique challenge is aligning operations with the vision of the organization. In managing the micro day-to-day operations, the COO must bring practical execution into the macro scope of strategic vision.  

However, poor alignment isn't limited to overarching strategy and execution. Without connecting company, business, and functional strategy, the impact of your organization’s execution will be severely limited. COOs are tasked with the alignment of operations to multiple levels of strategy. 

Operational redundancy and inefficiency

Often a side effect of poor alignment, redundancies, and inefficiencies are the antitheses of effective operations. COOs face the challenges of teams duplicating work, working against each other unintentionally, or working on the wrong priorities.

At best, redundancies cause operations to take longer than needed and cost the organization more resources (time, budget, energy). At worst, they cause priorities to be missed or forgotten, putting the organization’s security in danger. 

Poor engagement

Engagement impacts every part of the organization, from operational efficiency to retention and employee experience. In their quest to make operations more effective, COOs face the question:

“How can we ensure everyone cares about the work they’re doing and what the organization wants to achieve?”

Poor engagement plagues every organization, impacting the morale and consistency of the business. COOs are challenged with building an operations process that doesn’t disengage teams in the pursuit of higher output. 

Reactive with data

As a chief operating officer, measuring results is an essential component of operations. However, a rigid focus on traditional data measures (KPIs, for example) limits the ability to adapt operations and drive what really matters — impact.

Since traditional data is often backward-looking, COOs get a limited, lagging perspective on how operations are performing and, more importantly, what needs to change. A reactive focus is a major inhibitor for chief operating officers. 

Complex or outdated operating frameworks

The modern business world demands a focus on cross-functionality, growth, and agility in operations. Yet, COOs are often equipped with outdated frameworks or models for managing operations.

These frameworks fail to align company vision, strategy, and execution, or complicate the strategy execution process to the point of paralysis by analysis. The chief operating officer is challenged in implementing a framework for the way businesses operate now, not 20 years ago. 

Solutions for modernizing operations as chief operating officer

Here’s how COOs can overcome their main challenges to improve operations, connect strategy with execution, and align teams within a company. 

Alignment

Focus on the middle. Department strategy sits between company strategy and functional strategy in the hierarchy. With this in mind, department strategy may be neglected as the functional, day-to-day strategy is critical for execution, while company strategy is prioritized for most executive leaders. 

Using the department level to bridge company and functional strategies will break alignment silos and fill in the strategy execution gap.

Reduce hierarchy. For each person that strategy must go through, the execution of that strategy becomes more unclear — people down the line become increasingly disconnected through communication chains. 

Simplifying the strategy execution process and reducing hierarchical decision-making is critical for consistent alignment.

Make strategy accessible. Teams may fail to align to strategy simply because they don’t know what the strategy is. 

Ensuring your operations framework clearly states the strategy, who is responsible for what, and what success looks like goes a long way in aligning your teams. 

Efficiency

Transparency first. Use a strategic framework that prioritizes transparency and the goals needed to achieve that strategy. 

This is the easiest way to eliminate redundancies, allowing individuals to easily connect to the outcomes that need to be achieved (versus working in silos and hoping they’re doing the right things).

Set clear priorities. Once a system of transparency has been established, teams need direction on where to go. 

Priorities bring focus and unity to team execution, building effective operations centered on outcomes, not busy work.

Review structure. Organizational hierarchies are inevitable, but as COO, you must consistently review and improve structures at each level of the organization. 

Are there unnecessary dependencies causing delays? Which areas of the business are lagging in development? As your business matures and transforms, needs will shift, making structural reviews a fundamental practice for any COO. 

As COO, it’s important not to let your teams conflate the idea of “more” work equating to “better” work. 

Engagement

Identify areas for collaboration. For example, when teams are involved in creating their own goals and tactics, they’re more likely to stay engaged with the work. Chief operating officers should support open collaboration, whether it’s setting priorities, determining the path of execution, or assigning responsibility. 

Your teams will generate more ideas, enhance collective buy-in to strategy on the functional level, and reduce the number of dependencies, delays, and defects.

Target people inhibitors. Inefficiency has more consequences for the business than simple outputs. Employee morale suffers when their work is inevitably wasted due to a poor management process. 

As COO, you must ensure any management you have in place are necessary decision makers not complicating execution.

Push for autonomy. Research has shown that employees who feel responsible and accountable for the way they work are more engaged. 

With this in mind, COOs should instill a framework enabling autonomy to give employees more power over when and how they work. Not only does this help employees be more fulfilled with their work, but it also leads to greater happiness which impacts employee engagement. 


Learn why flexible, autonomous teams will win in the future of work.

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Proactive decision making

Stay growth minded. A growth mentality as COO is about demonstrating the benefits of both success and failure, as well as encouraging both. 

With a growth-minded leader, teams won’t operate from a stance of fear and risk aversion, exponentially raising the ceiling for potential outcomes. Combined with future-thinking goals, a growth mentality is key to enabling proactive decision making.

Keep vision at the center. Corporate strategy isn’t meant to be a set-and-forget checklist item — it should guide the COO when working with departmental and functional decision making. 

The minutiae of day-to-day operations can cause even the best COO to lose focus and think reactively. The strategic vision of the organization, when informed by the right data, puts the power of alignment and proactivity back into operations.

Use future-thinking goal setting. Retrospective data measurements, like KPIs, have their place. As a COO, however, they should not be at the core of strategic decision making because they are backward-looking. 

KPIs inform what has happened, but to take control of operations, what will happen is more important. This only occurs when goals are structured around desired, measurable outcomes. 


Learn more about setting future-thinking goals.

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The modern operating model

Focus on outcomes. While traditional frameworks focus on optimizing quantity and production, modern frameworks prioritize outcomes. 

With COOs responsible for pushing operations strategy into the new era, evolving beyond outdated frameworks means redefining success. It’s no longer based on bureaucracy and volume of work, but on the measurable impact supported by real-time data.

Connect strategy and execution. Modern businesses are plagued with a this-or-that dilemma — create a data-driven and informed strategy, or focus on perfecting complex day-to-day operations. 

The COO is strategically positioned to close the strategy execution gap. By using a goal-setting framework to accomplish this, strategic objectives guide your teams while measurable results inform progress.  

Empowerment over control. In an outdated system, leadership has the tendency to micromanage each team’s decision-making process. The COO must fight against these tendencies in the macro strategy and empower teams to make their own decisions.

By aligning teams through corporate strategy and flattening the decision-making hierarchy, COOs are primed to shift their organizations to a modern operating model. 

How to achieve better operations as COO

The core challenge as a COO is bridging strategy and execution in your organization. This can be solved by fixing alignment issues, reducing operational inefficiency, and engaging teams with data-driven decision making. 

While balancing strategy execution, managing operations, and driving outcomes without help is possible, the right platform assists with managing this work more effectively. 

A platform accomplishes this by targeting the core challenges as COO — efficiency, alignment, and driving outcomes. By focusing operating culture on open communication, trust, and the free flow of information, you can successfully modernize your operations.


Learn how a strategy execution platform streamlines your process as COO.

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Quantive is your bridge between strategy and execution. Founded on the objectives and key results (OKR) methodology, our Strategy Execution Platform is where businesses plan successful strategy, focus and align teams to it, and stay on the leading edge of progress.

As your company looks to achieve the best possible results, you need a modern approach to run your business and change your business. The Modern Operating Model brings strategy, teams, and data together to help make decisions faster, optimize operations, and drive better business outcomes.

Whether you’re a large enterprise facing competitive disruption or a small business leading the innovative charge, Quantive helps get you where you want to go.

Ready to achieve the best possible? Start using Quantive for free.

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