The Rise of Product Ops: the New Discipline Powering Product Excellence

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As product management continues to evolve, many new practices have been put in place to optimize product teams. Agile, Kanban, and similar methodologies have helped shape the landscape of product management in the 21st century. And the landscape continues to change at a rapid pace. New tools for product management teams appear frequently, each promising to improve the process in some way. Data is an increasingly significant component of product decisions. And, organizations can innovate at a faster pace than ever before. Many of these changes have led to the rise of a completely new discipline within the product management landscape: product operations.

In this blog post, I’ll share an overview of this new role, explain what product operations does, and take a look at how product operations are the new discipline powering product excellence for growing product teams.

What is Product Ops?

To understand product ops, it might be helpful to look at another similar discipline: marketing operations. In 2005, MarketingProfs defined marketing operations as follows: “Marketing operations builds a foundation for excellence by reinforcing marketing strategy with metrics, infrastructure, business processes, best practices, budgeting, and reporting.”

I believe that the same definition can easily be applied to product ops. You could, therefore, define product ops as follows:

“Product ops builds a foundation for excellence by reinforcing product strategy with metrics, infrastructure, business processes, best practices, budgeting, and reporting.”

In short, product ops serves to support the product team and help build better products. But how does that look in practice? The answer to that varies significantly from company to company.

Product ops is a very new field; as such, you will see massive differences in how different companies define the roles and responsibilities of product ops. To give you some perspective of just how much variation there is, here’s how a few organizations leverage product ops.

What does Product Ops do?

One easy way to understand the role of product ops is to break it down into three main categories: tools, data, and experimentation. In general, product ops provide support to the product team in these three critical categories.

More tools, more problems

One of the biggest changes in product management over the last 10 years has been the increase in the number of tools built specifically for product managers. From roadmapping to prototyping, the modern product manager has more tools at their disposal than ever before.

Graphic showing modern product management tools.
Source: Product Craft

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While product managers often have a wide skill set, managing (and administrating) all the different tools that make up the modern product stack isn’t always the best use of those skills. As product teams grow, the administration component becomes bigger and bigger, and this is where product ops comes in.

In a large organization, the product ops team is often responsible for managing the plethora of vendors used by the product team. They also work to establish best practices and processes for the use of those tools within the product organization.

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An explosion of product data

Just as the typical product stack has grown over the last 10 years, the amount of data available to product managers has grown exponentially over the last decade.

When you look at the volume of data produced the world’s most popular products (Facebook has over 2 billion active visitors, Netflix has 137 million paying subscribers), it’s not hard to imagine the product managers working on those products being overwhelmed by the amount of data available to them.

Even if you don’t work at Facebook or Netflix, chances are your product team has a data problem. It’s possible that you don’t have enough data available to make informed decisions. But, it’s far more likely that you either have too much (and are overwhelmed with the sheer volume of it) or you aren’t sure about the accuracy of the data available to you. (This is the most common “data problem” for product managers I’ve talked with).

In a growing product organization, a product ops team can lay the foundation for a successful, data-driven team of product managers. If you’re a new product ops hire, or even if you’re a small team of product managers looking to put data best practices in place, here are a few tips to get started.

Three quick tips for taming the product metrics chaos:

  1. Understand what you want to measure before you roll out new systems.
  2. Make one person responsible, at the end of the day, for data integrity and cleanliness.
  3. Establish naming conventions and make your team stick to them.

Actionable experimentation

Creating and optimizing an experimentation culture is key to successfully scaling a product organization. As your user/codebase grows, you will inevitably end up running more and more experiments. And, as your product team grows, you will inevitably have different product managers motivated by different metrics.

If you want to foster a culture of experimentation in your product team, it’s important to have the processes in place to make those experiments as reliable and actionable as possible.

In a recent article with First Round Capital, Alex Le and Kavin Stewart (co-founders of Reddit), talk about the importance of having a “traffic cop” when it comes to experimentation. This can be another important area for products ops to support the product team.

At Reddit, for example, product ops plays an important role in looking holistically at the product experience and making sure that all of the product-level experimentation is tied to company goals. As Reddit’s product team grew, it was important to have someone “keeping track of the various projects that are underway, how they relate to each other, how the results of tests might be interacting, and how changes are ultimately implemented.”

Do You Need a Product Ops Team?

At its core, a product ops team is about supporting the product team and making it easier to ship great products. When your product team only has 3 team members, they should be able to multitask and take ownership of the areas discussed above. As the team grows, however, you’ll begin to encounter these challenges first-hand.

Here’s a handy list of questions to ask yourself when determining whether your product team needs to hire someone for product ops.

  1. Are your product managers spending more time with administrative tasks than they are with their core responsibilities?
  2. Does your product experimentation culture feel out of control?
  3. Do you not trust the data that your team is making decisions with, and do you not see a clear path to fixings that problem?

So, if you’re experiencing any of the challenges above, perhaps it may be time for you to consider creating a product ops role, or even a product operations team. On the flip side, you could consider adding a product ops role to help improve your team’s effectiveness before you face any of the common growing pains above.

The ProductPlan team discussed How to Get Started in Product Ops in the webinar below. The discussion covered what signs to look out for to know when to start product ops, how to make a case, who and how to hire, where to focus, and what are your next steps. If product ops is of interest, it’s actionable and a great place to start your product ops journey.