“If you’re a growth stage company then you have to be able to make strategy decisions very rapidly. If you don’t have the data then you can’t make secure decisions and alter course.”
A key insight shared by Melissa Perri, CEO of Produx Labs and author of Escaping the Build Trap during our “Getting Started with Product Ops” webinar series.
It’s no secret that product management often looks different from one organization to the next. There’s a lot of reasons why this is the case. It’s not necessarily bad when product management adapts to each company’s specific needs. Product managers are versatile and possess a broad range of skills, so if any role for company-specific customization suits them, this is it.
However, product management must be consistent within the same organization. The responsibilities and expectations for product managers shouldn’t be based on individual personalities and preferences, and it must be steady and dependable regardless of the particular product or line of business.
Product operations (more commonly known as product ops) is where product management becomes a scalable resource and function for companies instead of a made-to-order one-off.
What is Product Ops, Exactly?
As a relatively new discipline, there is plenty of confusion regarding product ops. When we spoke with Melissa, whose company helps organizations stand up their product ops, she identified product ops’ three key components:
- Business Data & Insights: There is a sea of data locked inside various nooks and crannies of corporate systems, but knowing what’s available, getting it regularly, and making sense of it all can be tricky. Product ops collect and analyze internal data to support strategic planning and monitor progress. It includes revenue, costs, usage, churn, etc.
- Customer & Market Insights: Talking to customers and using their feedback to drive product decisions and priorities are essential. But executing that comes with major administrative overhead. Product ops can facilitate and aggregate external research, whether sizing the market opportunity or unlocking user research basics.
- Processes & Practices: The more product teams grow and multiply, the less homogenous they get. But both high-growth and enterprise organizations rely on consistency to remain efficient and effective. Product ops introduces and maintains operational standards. This addresses the potential differences and disparities that can emerge when lots of people are trying to do the same things in different silos.
One thing product ops is not, however, is program management. While they may have some surface-level similarities, they definitely shouldn’t be doing the same things.
Program management, often housed in a centralized Program Management Office, is all about executing large-scale projects and initiatives that span multiple business units and groups within the organization. It’s an essential role for growing and large companies, but it’s really an outgrowth of project management.
Product ops, while also a centralized resource, is responsible for very specific areas of expertise. They’re providing information that serves as an input to strategy decisions, but they’re not involved in execution.
When Is the Right Time to Add Product Ops?
Product ops don’t exist in smaller organizations for a good reason—they don’t really need it. There’s simply not enough people or products requiring their services, and a business analyst can probably do all that’s required.
But once a company’s headcount and product offerings start multiplying, Melissa thinks that product ops can start adding value.
“At larger enterprise organizations, they don’t always do the basic stuff, like talking to customers, because they’re afraid that unbeknownst to them a different teams might also be talking to the same customers. Start to classify your customers in databases so that every product manager is empowered to reach out them or know who to start or stop reaching out to.”
For ProductPlan co-founder Jim Semick, he sees product roadmaps as one early warning sign that product ops are in order. Melissa believes, “Large companies don’t tend to have a standardized roadmap because they’re stuck in an excel sheet… Roadmaps will bring in transparency into what people are doing.”
Companies not only start to worry that roadmapping is too variable, but that stakeholders can’t even find the product roadmaps they need because they’re in a forgotten folder on someone’s hard drive instead of being widely available and frequently updated.
Forming the Team
Of course, starting with product ops doesn’t require organizations to hire an entire team immediately. Plus, these hires aren’t the same generalists that might make good product managers.
Melissa suggests that this first hire should fill the product data analytics role. They’ll be responsible for doing data analysis, modeling, identifying trends, and segmenting customers. Over time the team can grow, with a second hire often best filled by someone who can program business intelligence and analytics tools to aggregate data and make sense of it. It also frees the product team from relying on development resources to get the data they need.
Ideally, Melissa advises, there will be a VP of Product Ops reporting to the Chief Product Officer (or a Director of Product Ops reporting to the VP of Product). They’ll be responsible for analytics, standardization of practices and tools, standardized cadence for strategy reviews, roadmap reviews, agile cadences, budgeting, and those sorts of tasks.
Other hires to fill out the team can include user researchers, folks doing user outreach to build out the customer database, and additional data analytics people. But making these new teams work requires product management to give up some of the tasks they may previously have been directly responsible for.
Delegating isn’t easy, but Melissa said that product ops ultimately makes product managers more visible, available, and productive. They can be more present for internal stakeholders since they’re not so busy mucking with data and scheduling customer calls.
Product managers must accept this trade off so they can focus on other things. No product manager ever complains they have too much extra time, and product ops free up time for other duties.
Proactive, but Advisory
Product management shouldn’t fear product ops hijacking their core responsibilities. Product ops is a support function, offering up data, insights, and assistance without grabbing the reigns.
For example, many large companies shy away from reaching out to customers for feedback. This shyness is because they’re not sure what each company is up to and their openness to this solicitation. Plus, they’re afraid someone else from their organization might have already reached out.
With this function centralized and an accurate database of customers and their feedback channel preferences known, product managers can survey, conduct interviews, and even identify beta testers with confidence and speed.
That said, Melissa mentions that product ops shouldn’t just be an on-demand resource; they can be encouraged to proactively identify and communicate relevant information. Since they’re looking at the data all the time, they can spot trends product managers didn’t even know to look out for, while also responding to specific information requests. The secret is empowering product ops to investigate and report what they find while still managing the scope of their activities.
Product Ops Is the Key to Scaling Product Management.
People like dependability and consistency. Executives like it even more so in their employees. When a company scales, there’s little leeway for lone wolves and their individual styles and traits.
Companies must make strategic decisions quickly, which means they need data, product roadmaps, and all the other ingredients for those processes to be readily available and easy to consume. By instituting standard policies, defining tools and frameworks, and facilitating data analysis, product ops make it all go smoothly.
People start speaking the same language and presenting data using the same benchmarks, templates, and baselines. Teams mine customers for data and insights without ruffling feathers or squandering unnecessary hours identifying and contacting them to gauge their interest.
Melissa advocates that product ops streamlines everything for optimal strategic performance. It ensures teams are working toward the right goals, and you’re spending product investments properly,
Putting off this building out product ops is all too easy. But any delay can sacrifice potential growth since what worked when the company was smaller isn’t feasible after a while.
To learn more about building out a product ops team in your organization, check out our webinars on this topic.