Imagine having a connective thread that ensures every action taken directly impacts your ability to achieve strategic objectives. Jenny Bodenlos created this exact system in Airtable.
Jenny Bodenlos is a tinkerer at heart, someone who is always looking for ways to improve. “I always think there's a better way. Even if I do something really well I won't do it the same way again. I'm constantly tweaking things,” Bodenlos said.
In her ongoing quest to streamline decision making and empower collective success for her team, she found Airtable. It was 2016 and Bodenlos was serving as the Director of Strategic Planning at a Fortune 500 retail company. From the beginning she noticed a disconnect between her company’s strategic vision and the projects they were spending the bulk of their time on. So she wanted to get to the root of the problem. She saw a tweet promoting Airtable as a no-code solution and started playing around with it by importing all of her existing planning spreadsheets. “In two weeks I composed a Portfolio Snapshot of all the projects that were underway, this simply wasn’t possible before Airtable. We immediately rolled out this tool across the entire department of 300 teammates. Within a year 5,000 users were in Airtable across the organization,” Bodenlos said.
“That's why Airtable is so contagious. It allowed me to demonstrate something that was undeniably valuable, yet impossible to achieve previously, so everyone wanted it for their team.”
What happened next completely changed her career. Bodenlos developed a system she calls “solving the red thread problem” – a way for teams to create a direct link between every action and every result. She leveraged the power of Airtable workflows to accelerate the creation of an Enterprise Product Management Office at BlueOcean, a brand tracking and measurement software company. Getting her colleagues to actively participate in goal tracking was the easy part. “There isn't a single person anywhere that doesn't want to be set up for success, or doesn’t want acknowledgement for their contributions,” she said.
In setting up this new function, she wanted to avoid the most common pitfall most companies face as engagement surveys commonly surface the same thing: "People don't understand how the actions they take on a daily basis align with company-wide goals. This lack of alignment can lead to a lack of fulfillment and connection.” To Bodenlos, all of the individual tasks happening in an organization should create a beautiful mosaic when you zoom out. But when teams aren’t meticulous about tying everything together, that picture might not look like the one you set out to create. The actions individuals are taking will take the company somewhere, just not where it’s trying to go.
It starts with diagnosing this disconnect. Bodenlos meets with teammates, asks them what they’re working on, who they partner with, and what dependencies are in place to get that work accomplished. She then builds a base and uses Airtable apps to create charts and graphs that show the team where they’re spending the bulk of their time. This draws a direct line between the work the team is doing and the result they’re actually going to achieve. Jenny says a lot of the time the picture she paints for teams isn’t rosy; it often reveals to them that they’re not set up to hit their goals. “By doing that I can paint a picture that the leadership team can look at. If the answer is unexpected or undesirable, then we can take action to help progress towards a different outcome,” Bodenlos said.
With traditional goal setting and status meetings, information goes out of date as soon as it is put into a static tool and will have to be updated manually, ad hoc for the next request or meeting. Preparing updates for executives often involves tracking down each person that’s working on a project and disrupting their creative flow or searching through files saved in various locations looking for information that is likely out of date.
“Without a solution like Airtable in place it is next to impossible for a company to have a real time pulse on projects.”
She usually sets up a system in Airtable the same way, by creating one table with big-picture goals and a related table with tasks. Teammates are tagged to projects through Airtable’s collaborator fields, and tasks are linked to OKRs via linked records. Calendar views show what deadlines are on the horizon and timeline views show how much bandwidth each team member has. Once they have this rich base of project tracking in place she then puts automations to work, reducing redundant tasks like sending out updates when a task is complete, or notifying a teammate when a project is ready to be handed off to them. She never wants to ask someone to update something if Airtable can do it for them.
Passing the baton between teams without automatic updates can cause a lag in the workflow. “If there's a delay, things can change between the completion of one function's tasks, and by the time the other function starts doing their work the first group might have to do that work all over again, which is costly,” she said.
At this point the structure is set and information is continually flowing in. Jenny leverages Interface Designer to create an array of always on curated snapshots for her Leadership Team to stay apprised of what is happening across the Portfolio. This allows real time identification of potential issues, and timely resolution, thus minimizing roadblocks to success. “I love Interface Designer. Interfaces are my entry point for anyone that's brand new to Airtable because it's not overwhelming,” she said.
Bodenlos has helped her teams avoid adding unnecessary headcount by enabling alignment in this way. Without Airtable she says she would have had to hire a team to diagnose why they were behind on goals. “I didn't want to have to justify the investment of more people to do more manual things instead of innovators or engineers who could be creating products and new solutions,” Bodenlos said.
Her favorite part about the red thread is seeing how this connection creates autonomy. It empowers her teammates to spend more time on the work they enjoy and provides a sense of purpose by rooting every action in the big picture.
“The magic of Airtable is that it’s enabled me to truly achieve the Holy Grail – to really understand how to execute against a strategy with a high level of confidence that it's repeatable at scale.”