Product operations is a hot topic for product management thought leaders, but not everyone fully understands what it is and how it might help their organization. Product operations isn’t a product team’s first or second hire. However, it begins making more sense as the team grows and products mature.
Some early warning signs that product managers are spread too thin, and it’s time to consider product ops include:
- No longer capable of managing the product management toolset themselves.
- Not enough time for timely communication to align the organization.
- Inability to process and learn from the flood of customer feedback and data pouring in.
- Realizing the freedom and independence given to every team to work however they prefer created a tangle of inconsistent processes. As a result, organizational partners are confused about how to work with the team.
A product operations manager may be just the role the team needs. So, who exactly is a product operations manager, and how do they work with the product management team?
Who is the Product Operations Manager?
In a nutshell, the product operations manager supports the product team. They enable product managers to focus on the product and their core tasks and responsibilities. While product management focuses on the customer, the product operations manager’s customer is the product team. So, the product operations manager’s responsibilities fall into four broad categories.
- Implementing or optimizing systems and processes
- Ensuring timely, audience-appropriate communication
- Analyzing, synthesizing, and automating data created or used by product management
- Offloading non-core product management tasks
To understand where product operations add value, think about everything required to maintain a well-connected and smoothly running product team that isn’t product management. In addition, product operations can take on many ancillary responsibilities that don’t need a product manager.
For example, product managers must translate customer insights and prioritize them in the product roadmap. However, myriad supporting tasks precede this step, such as sourcing and categorizing customer data and insights. When product operations managers handle this important paperwork, product managers have the information they need to prioritize and build a roadmap.
We’ll examine each broad area of product operations responsibilities in the following sections.
Implementing or Optimizing Systems and Processes
Even the best systems and processes need a champion to ensure they run smoothly. Processes may work well with one team, but others do things slightly differently. These differences scuttle attempts to create a consistent view into how things are progressing.
Or perhaps support, sales, or marketing staff struggle to interface with product team members effectively. A product operations manager can optimize the product team’s systems and processes. And in doing so, create sustainable ways of engaging with the product team. And when your organization grows rapidly or changes its organizational structure, you likely need to develop and document your processes so new colleagues can understand how to use them or re-engineer them to reflect your current organizational reality.
Ultimately, the product team is the arbiter of the requirements for each process or system. As the customer to product operations, they have the final approval of a new process or system.
The product operations manager must listen closely and present the product team with system and process options. Once implemented, they own the selected option. As an owner, they document the process and train colleagues to use the process correctly. They are in charge of ensuring everything runs smoothly, making adjustments as needed or when requested by the product team.
Some systems and process activities include:
- Identifying areas where team effort doesn’t align with the core strategy
- Defining, documenting, and maintaining release processes
- Building (or re-engineering) processes for repeatable, critical tasks
- Identifying product feedback loops within the organization and working with stakeholders to close those loops with new routines
- Scaling product knowledge across the organization
- Developing and documenting the norms and standards for tool use within product management
Ensuring Timely, Audience-Appropriate Communication
Effective communication is essential for product teams and another area where product operation adds value. After setting all current and new processes, the product operations manager oversees its consistent usage. When done right, the team consistently follows proper cadences and schedules. And communication is optimized for each audience.
The product operations manager also tailors content for each meeting based on attendees’ seniority and functional roles. When done well, The correct information gets to the right people with enough context and time for efficient decision-making. Some of this work bleeds into systems and processes. For example, ensuring optimal communication involves automating some reporting and building reusable communication vehicles that clarify when and how each stakeholder can take action.
Product operations managers filling this role serve as the connective tissue of the team. The product operations manager enables each organ within the product team to do its job. They hold everything together so the organs can work in harmony.
In this way, product operations might also act as a traffic cop. They help other parts of the organization determine the best way to interface with the product team efficiently. Some responsibilities that fall into communications include:
- Communicating product changes
- Helping shape communication about product strategy for each audience and class of internal stakeholders
- Coordinating with product marketing and sales
- Acting as an intermediary between front-line support and engineering
- Coordinating critical aspects of product launch
Analyzing, Synthesizing, and Automating Product Data
If the communications function of the product operations manager is the connective tissue, then data is the lifeblood of the product management team. The product operations manager ensures that data flows from product to the rest of the organization using those communication processes. However, data flow alone is insufficient.
Product operations managers must think critically about the context and level of shared details. Different audiences need different perspectives and granularity to be most effective. As a result, less is usually more when disseminating data.
Additionally, there is all the incoming data. The flood of inputs can come from customer support inquiries, real-time product usage information, insights from in-depth customer interviews, or the latest market sizing and competitive trends.
This information all plays a critical role in product management. However, a product operations colleague can take on heavy lifting and prework to assemble, synthesize, and segment the information. Product operations can fill that gap for teams lacking dedicated product or business analysts.
Some activities in the data category are :
- Collecting, analyzing, and synthesizing customer insights
- Examining customer experience at the global level
- Bubbling up unexpected insights or ideas revealed in data
- Segmenting user data and extracting insights from analysis
- Reviewing end-to-end customer product experience
- Automating instrumentation, telemetry, or other internet of things data aggregation
- Building reporting dashboards using tools such as Tableau
- Acting as a data steward for product management data, owning cleanliness, integrity, and data gap resolution
Offloading Non-Core Product Management Tasks
The expectations placed on product managers have never been higher. But, to meet those expectations, product managers must offload non-core tasks to conserve their bandwidth. Those tasks could range from managing the software and technology tools used to support product management to championing various internal team experiments.
The exact list depends on the organization. However, anything that increases the product team’s efficiency and effectiveness could land on the desk of a product operations manager. Some activities that may fall into this category include:
- Managing product management toolset and its associated standards/norms
- Managing vendors
- Taking on some operational burden of product support
- Owning insights and processes for team experiments
Sounds Great! How Do We Hire a Product Operations Manager, or How Can I Get That Job?
Overburdened product teams can easily envision how a product operations manager could help product management better reach its goals. But how do you get started with this new function? Experts advise considering your organization’s size—larger organizations often create an entire product operations team reporting to the head of product, while smaller companies typically begin with an individual contributor.
This article covers the vast range of possible areas where product ops might contribute. At first, it makes sense to zero in on the most significant pain point for most organizations—which is data. Therefore, this initial product operations manager preferably has a consulting background. They can do modeling, understand customer segmentation, and are familiar with analytical software and dashboarding applications.
They’ll be able to answer questions such as “which of these two features are most desired by customers?” or “what does x metric look like over time for this segment of customers?” This hire can also bubble up trends, metrics, or functions that the rest of the product team may not know.