Product operations is on the rise. When done right it makes the product management team better, fostering better decision making, greater efficiency, and tighter alignment among stakeholders.
It sounds great in theory, but introducing product operations often raises questions and concerns like:
- Is product operations really necessary?
- How do you know when your organization is ready for product operations?
- What does a good product ops manager look like?
- How do you measure success?
In this webinar, Adrienne Tan, Cofounder and CEO of brainmates, Hugh McLachlan, Head of Product at SafetyCulture, and our own Rachel Wynn, Principal Product Manager here at ProductPlan answer all these questions. They break down some of the fears and ambiguity around product operations and discuss how to implement them the right way.
If you prefer video, you can watch the full webinar below.
First, Let’s Define Product Operations
Think of product ops as connective tissue. It supports product management, giving it structure and cohesion. Product ops will streamline processes and help product management scale.
- Streamlining and automating communication channels
- Facilitating user interviews and other market research
- Collecting and organizing data making it more accessible and actionable
- Developing and documenting business processes
- Managing the product team’s tech stack
Product Operations is on the Rise but There’s Still Fear Around It
Product ops is a natural evolution as product management matures. As Adrienne explains, “it’s an indicator that we’re now starting to think seriously about product management in organizations.” With departments like marketing, sales, and engineering successfully implementing operations roles, it was only a matter of time before product did the same. In The 2022 State of Product Management Report, nearly a third of product managers said they have a dedicated product ops role and that number grows to 40% for companies with 1,000 or more employees.
But is product ops really necessary? That question is still controversial.
The first step to removing controversy or conflict around the role is being very clear on what problem you’re hoping to solve. Our panelists agree there is no one-size-fits-all approach. You have to look at the specific problems plaguing your organization and product management team.
Hugh also brings up the common fear that adding product ops will leave you with “anemic” product managers with watered-down roles. To avoid this, all our panelists agreed that product management should be protective of their core functions.
For example, product managers have to stay close to the customer. While they are responsible for having frequent face-to-face interactions with customers to identify pain points and solutions, it might be the product ops team who helps schedule and facilitate those interactions.
Another example of a core product management function is analytics. Product managers need to breathe data. They should retain the autonomy to ask questions, dive into the data and make decisions based on that data. Ops should arm product managers with data, not be a barrier to it. It’s the job of product ops to help scale and consolidate data, which may include things like product usage, survey results, market data, and customer interview trends.
In a nutshell, product ops exists to help make the product team as good as it can be, not add red tape, additional handoffs, and unhelpful, time-wasting processes. They bring good habits and scalability and remove stress from product managers so they can do their best work.
The Ideal Product Operations Manager
Adrienne firmly believes the best product operations managers come from product management. While all our panelists don’t think a product management background is crucial, they do agree the best product ops managers will have many of the same qualities as product managers. They will also understand product management inside and out because ultimately, as Adrienne points out, ops functions a lot like product, except their “product” is the product team itself. And to make the best product team, they have to have an insider’s understanding of it.
Hugh explains that like product managers, ops managers should be curious by nature. They should be adept at spotting problems, prioritizing, and testing solutions. These qualities are essential to creating frameworks that allow you to solve problems in a repeatable, scalable way. But one key difference is that ops managers will be more interested in people and systems. While product managers have a passion for products, technology, and innovation, product ops live to analyze, create efficiency, and improve processes.
When Do You Need Product Operations?
How do you know it’s the right time to hire product ops versus another product manager?
As mentioned earlier, first get complete clarity about what problem you’re solving. Then ask yourself:
- Will a specialized ops manager solve that problem better than a product manager generalist?
- Is it still scalable to solve your problem(s) with basic processes?
- Is communication between product and other departments increasingly complex or fragmented?
- Are product managers too diverted from their primary functions like spending time with customers and development teams, creating product strategy, and conducting analysis?
- Are you running into consistent tactical challenges? Are you wasting time repeating work or slogging through inefficient processes? Are actionable insights falling through the cracks?
- Can ops help you take things like research and analysis deeper?
Our panelists also mention there’s no superficial tipping point, like company or product team size when ops become critical. You have to look at your organization’s unique challenges to make the call.
Measuring Product Operations Success
Making sure you can measure success starts early, possibly before you have hired a single ops specialist. If you’ve clearly defined your problem, measuring success will be far more straightforward.
Hugh explains that product ops need to be built into the topology of the product and development organizations. Clearly carve out responsibilities and how they will interface with other departments. For example, product ops typically sit alongside other product functions, it is not subservient to them.
Adrienne advises against trying to implement large-scale processes and frameworks all at once. She compares it to product management – they don’t build entire products at once, they prioritize what’s most valuable to their customers and they start there. In the same way, product ops should begin with the diagnostics and then tackle the area where they can drive the most value. Adrienne recommends, “treat it like an experiment.” Dig into a specific problem and try to fix it. Once you can demonstrate that it’s been solved, move on.
As far as the measurement, our panelists reaffirm that outcomes are what’s important over outputs. Adrienne clarifies that outputs can still be an important step on the road to outcomes, but it’s measurable outcomes that will justify your product ops investment.
For all our panelists’ expert insight into the role of product operations, watch the full webinar.