How Do You Know If You Need Product Operations?

When it comes to the product team’s organizational structures and strategies, product operations is the hot new thing. More and more teams realize the value of having an operationally-focused professional. The role frees up time for product managers.

Product operations document and optimize processes, as well as streamline communication. Moreover, they aggregate and analyze data. Product operations have genuinely transformative potential for many types of product teams by offloading non-core tasks from overburdened product managers. However, product operations aren’t a solution for every situation. Teams must carefully consider if product operations solve the core problems and challenges.

Product ops isn’t a magic bullet capable of fixing everything broken or wrong with any product team. When it’s time to scale your product team, this post will help you determine whether product operations is the right fit for your situation.

Three Wrong Reasons to Add Product Operations to Your Team

It would help if you had the right tool for the job, and—despite its versatility—product operations doesn’t always fit the bill. Here are three scenarios where product operations is unlikely to cure your product team’s ills.

Trust issues

Since product management doesn’t control most of the resources to build and ship products, they must win over stakeholders. They can achieve this with compelling arguments and fact-based evidence. To be taken seriously, product must consistently demonstrate that they know what they’re doing. They create strategies and plans aligned with corporate goals and the needs of current and future customers.

Persuading skeptical stakeholders requires deep stakeholder analysis and understanding of the motivations and concerns of colleagues. This insight helps build trust with other teams.

While product operations might make this job easier for product management, their presence won’t solve this problem alone. Instead, product teams must first build their relationships with these stakeholders, genuinely listening to them and making them feel heard. That’s not a task to delegate to product operations, and something product leaders must do themselves.

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Product roadmap delays

Successful product management ultimately comes down to results. Did the plan unfold as expected, both in time and outcomes? Did the product strategy seize opportunities and deliver revenue, growth, and customer delight on time and as intended?

Product operations may sound like an easy fix. It’s easy to believe this new role makes sure they deliver stuff on time. And they’ll take on some of the communications overhead as well.

But in this case, adding product operations to solve this dilemma puts the cart before the horse. Frequent delays and poor outcomes remain a symptom of what’s wrong. However, adding product operations is no guarantee the underlying issues will be identified and corrected.

So before you start thinking up product operations interview questions, first do the work to dissect and unpack the current situation. It would help if you had a deep understanding of why delays keep happening. Moreover, product leaders should also know where the breakdowns in communications, processes, and strategies occur. One common difficulty that product operations can’t directly fix, for example, is when the organization claims to be Agile but hasn’t abandoned its waterfall mindset and approach.

In some cases throwing additional resources at a poorly understood problem can make it worse, especially when they’re new to the organization and don’t possess a lot of institutional knowledge. Instead, diagnose the core issues, determine the best course of action, and only then consider whether product operations would help and how you’d deploy them.

Buy-in troubles

Product management must lead without authority. Product managers don’t give orders to other teams; instead of relying on the soft skills of persuasion to convince others that their ideas are worth pursuing.

Some charismatic product managers seem blessed with compelling ideas and rock-solid supporting evidence. But even the most impressive product leaders sometimes run up against a brick wall. Their opinions get green-lit only to suffer from a lack of enthusiasm.

Product management must first identify which areas they need support in addressing this predicament and not rely solely on product operations.

Only after getting a handle on where the disconnects and fractured relationships exist can the team determine whether product operations have a role in creating a better working environment and team dynamic. In some cases, product operations can free up product managers to dig into these gaps by taking on non-core tasks, but if the problems are more foundational, adding product ops may not make a real difference.

Three good reasons to add product operations to your team

While the examples above illustrate how product operations can’t be a panacea for every problem plaguing a product team, many situations genuinely benefit from adding this discipline to the product organization. These are three cases where adding product ops makes sense.

Aligning priorities at scale

Everyone wants to be on the same page, but making that happen isn’t easy. Things get even more complex as the organization grows and product managers manage product roadmaps for multiple products used by an ever-expanding set of stakeholders.

Successfully scaling up for multiple products is impossible without additional resources dedicated to this task, and product operations professionals are optimal for making this happen. Instead of leaving process definition, communication, and buy-in up to each product manager, product operations can create consistency.

The whims and preferences of each product manager no longer dictate how other teams engage with the product. These individual approaches remain standard, reliable, and predictable process.

Marketing, product development, sales, and other teams now know what to expect and can plan accordingly. It also helps avoid some of the common pitfalls when strategic misalignment sets in.

Product operations is better positioned to hone and refine these tactics and processes. They now have the time to optimize things for everyone involved further. Product managers now have the time to focus on their products or features.

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Clearing up communications challenges

Many problems trace back to poor communication. In an ideal world, everyone operates with the same baseline understanding of the situation. Teams need to voice concerns, and essential discussions should occur promptly with all relevant players present. When stakeholders get what they need from the product team, everyone wins.

But few of us work in such an environment. Instead, silos divide and segregate us. Siloed teams allow questions to remain unanswered, and input gets ignored and falls through the cracks. It’s usually not intentional. However, these problems arise because there aren’t enough hours in the day. Moreover, competing priorities constantly usurp our time and attention.

When product management can’t meet the communication needs of its stakeholders and gets overwhelmed by the sheer volume of emails, Slack messages, meetings, and memos, product operations represent a welcome liferaft for the drowning product management team. They not only serve as the point person for communicating with different teams and key personnel, but they also create a standardized, central repository for all this critical input.

By instituting and executing a consistent communication process, including a regular cadence and the preferred communication methods and channels of various stakeholders, the entire product team feels more reliable and more receptive to feedback. This increases trust and collaboration while accelerating the overall product development process by standardizing what was once ad hoc and unpredictable.

Addressing a holistic need

The roles and responsibilities of product team members require a wide variety of skills and expertise. Inevitably, most teams are entirely lacking or at least a little deficient in some areas. When these shortcomings impact the quality of work coming out of the product team, product operations can likely address some of these weaknesses.

But the decision to add product operations to the mix should only come after a complete evaluation of how the current team spends its time, where it’s confident in its ability, and where it’s currently lacking. If those holes line up with what product operations can offer, it’s likely the right move.

By first assessing the current organization’s strengths and weaknesses, the decision to add product operations and how to deploy them can be made with confidence. This exercise should extend beyond just the product team. Interviewing stakeholders can provide additional illumination regarding the team’s inadequacies.

Having this well-understood and specific need focuses on the new product operations staff and a clear measuring stick for whether they’re having the intended impact on the product team and the organization as a whole. When product ops staff come aboard, the team should provide them with a clear mission with the ability to track their progress against their objectives.

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