The Difference Between Flow and Project Operators

At the end of the day, there are mainly two core types of operators — flow operators and project operators. The distinction doesn't just refer to skillsets, but also to professional maturity. As an Ops leader managing multiple Ops managers, it's worth asking yourself — which kind of operators do I have on my team, which one do I need, and am I setting them up for success?

 min read
March 23, 2022
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It’s no news that members of the Ops department at a startup get usually bucketed up together. Back-office, people operations, business operations, finance, legal, strategy, revenue, etc. — the list goes on. 

It’s no wonder that this is happening — in the era of business specialization where each function is undergoing a constant process of operationalization, there is a growing need of talent that is able to see the big picture, break down core workflows and re-build them in a way that fit the specific function, whether that involves people, finance, sales and marketing, or general business strategy.

However, this doesn’t justify operators being lumped together in the same bucket. After years of experience in building and scaling startup operations, as well as interviewing tens of Ops leaders as part of our Strategy & Operations Fellowship program,  we recognize that Ops has many functional nuances, but at the end of the day we believe there are mainly two core types of operators — flow operators and project operators.

1. Flow operators

Flow operators are folks who reliably execute on already existing processes and work tirelessly to incrementally improve them. On the other hand, they may struggle to set up these workflows in the first place.

Flow operators are usually more junior individual contributors that are great at running the show, and naturally identify low-hanging fruits to improve their workflows, iteration after iteration. You can usually find more flow operators in more mature companies, where the Ops team is already a larger organization made of business, back-office, people and revenue units. They are incredibly valuable in the scale stage, as they build on an existing baseline of processes to bring the ship from outer atmosphere into hyperspace.

2. Project operators

Project operators are people who are great at building out operational processes and workflows from the ground up, but not necessarily great at executing them. 

They can see the big picture, quickly understand how information and people flow in and out of it, and can quickly design processes that smoothly generate growing outcomes where there was none before. Project operators are usually more senior operators in scale ups organizations, but also high-impact generalists who make a great fit in early-stage to series A startups, where there is barely any structure and there’s everything to build across the board. They are extremely cross-functional, and set up the backbone of operations across every department in the organization to lay the foundation for scalable, compounding growth.

If there is a spectrum that defines ops folks, then flow and project are its extremes. Usually, people are a mix of both but they really embrace more so one flavor or the other. As mentioned, the distinction doesn’t just refer to skillsets, but also to professional maturity. As an operator, you start as flow, and end up growing into more of a project ops role.

Where things get weird is in the middle. Usually, midweight ops managers get hired from within the ranks of junior flow operators. Some of them get promoted because they’re great at their flow ops skills. However, when they make the leap, they often struggle to transition to project ops. Some get promoted because they prove capable at project management, but they may not yet be ready at being more hands-off and manage the routine from the “control panel”, away from the action.

As a manager, some of the biggest mistakes we’ve seen relate to expecting flow operators to graduate instantly to project operators. This situation is especially tough because opportunities for flow ops to graduate are mostly capped because project ops roles are almost always held by already senior operators, like Directors of Operations and COOs.

As an Operations leader managing multiple Ops managers, it’s worth asking yourself — which kind of operators do I have on my team, and which one do I need, given the scale of our company and maturity of our processes? Am I setting them up for success, or should I make changes to empower them more?

If you’d like to continue this conversation — or have similar ones — together with a community of selected Operations Directors and COOs from top-tier tech organizations like Tesla, Skillshare, Doordash, and Webflow, you should consider joining our On Deck Strategy & Operations Fellowship — ODSO for short. At On Deck, we’ve created ODSO with the goal of bringing Ops leaders together to share these types of challenges, provide each other with valuable, tailored feedback to navigate them, while making long-lasting relationships.

If you’re tired of Googling answers to these kinds of questions, and instead jamming with seasoned peers that can give you much more than a solution to your problem, but also expand your horizon of opportunities and insight, apply today.

The concept of flow and project operators has been coined by Charles Cushing — you can read more about Charle’s writing on his Substack.

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