It all starts so simple. You want to make a great product. You do market research and user research, design and prototype, iterate like crazy, and finally release your product into the wild, following best practices every step of the way. And great news: people love your product!
But as you start to scale, that simple goal of making a great product gets complicated. Tech stacks need to be maintained as new updates and workflows roll out. New features are introduced to your core product, and then a second product enters development, complete with its own team and product owner. The sales team provides feedback through a form they built, while customer service asks for a weekly sync call, with all of these insights living in different places. Meanwhile, valuable data about user behavior pours in, but you’re too swamped managing internal stakeholders to properly clean and analyze all of this valuable information.
This is where product operations comes in. Product operations buckets all of the administrative and maintenance work of product development into one skillset, person, or team, letting core product teams focus on what they do best – making great products.
Let’s dig a little more into this emerging discipline and gauge the types of organizations that could benefit from it.
What is product operations?
Product operations – or product ops, if you’re on friendly terms – is a function within a company that seeks to streamline and optimize workflows related to product development. Product ops can be managed by a single person, a small task force within a larger team, or as a complete team unto itself, and it serves as a bridge between product management and other cross-functional departments like engineering, marketing, and sales.
Product ops handles the low-level, day-to-day tasks of product development using high-level operational thinking and data preparation techniques. They seek out and eliminate bottlenecks, inefficiencies, and wonky processes with single-minded devotion.
In short, product ops managers help product managers do great work.
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Why is product ops important?
Product ops is important because product management is important. Product ops deepens the work that product management teams can do, freeing them up from tasks like standardizing documentation and managing research projects so they can focus instead on the hard analytical thinking and innovation that leads to great products.
All of which isn’t to merely cast product ops as a sidekick to the product management team. Indeed, product ops is an ideal place for people who love to innovate new processes, build consensus with internal stakeholders, prepare data for analysis, and even perform exploratory data analysis. By delegating these tasks to a product ops employee or team, the entire product team can be more:
Efficient: Product ops is tasked with innovating new ways to reduce friction and increase speed.
Data-driven: Product ops often helps speed up the data collection and analysis process.
Scalable: Product ops creates better documentation, enshrines best practices, and rolls out standardized training for tools, helping the company grow sustainably.
Lean: Perhaps counter-intuitively, having dedicated product ops personnel helps product managers be more efficient with their time.
Innovative: Product ops not only frees up product managers to come up with new ideas, but they can also be a source of fresh thinking on their own, whether as a function of proper data collection and analysis or by improving the company’s use and understanding of its tech stack.
What does a product ops manager do?
Every company’s product operations needs are slightly different. Which is to say that there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of what a given product ops manager does. Moreover, they may be assignment-based, coming onboard to handle one gnarly operational issue before moving on to handle others.
That being said, there are a couple of large areas in which a product ops manager may work.
Product ops managers facilitate collaboration between internal teams, making sure that requests from customer service and marketing are properly cataloged and routed through product, design, and engineering. Additionally, product ops teams often communicate product strategy to internal stakeholders, building cross-functional alignment.
Great product teams test ideas with real users. But how are those users sourced, who structures the tests, and who oversees them? Product ops teams can be involved in all aspects of this experiment process, ensuring it moves efficiently so real user data can reach the product team’s hands as quickly as possible.
Data is the lifeblood of good organizations, but it must be cleaned, transformed, and analyzed before it becomes useful. Product ops teams strive to make sure data is ready and actionable for the broader product team.
Product ops managers have a bird’s eye view of the product team’s operations, constantly seeking bottlenecks to iron out. They make sure that processes are followed in a uniform way, that documentation is consistent, and that onboarding for new team members is as efficient as possible.
From design to project management, a product team uses numerous software tools. But each of these tools has its own needs, from training and best practices to vendor management and tech support. Any of these tasks can easily swallow a day (or at least an afternoon) for the average product manager, which is why funneling management of the tech stack to product ops can be such a time-saver for growing teams.
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Product ops vs product management
So, you’re starting to get the value of product ops, but the distinction between what a product manager does and what a product operations manager does still seems a little fuzzy. Let’s break it down in a table.
Define product vision and roadmap
Optimize and facilitate product development processes
Own product lifecycle from ideation to delivery
Streamline operational processes, coordinate teams, and ensure execution
Create a successful product that meets customer needs
Enhance efficiency of the product team
Monthly active users, time on site, churn rate
Resource utilization, operational efficiency
Success based on product adoption, revenue, user satisfaction
Success based on operational efficiency, reduced bottlenecks, and improved collaboration
Underlying all of these distinctions, though, are a few commonalities. Both roles are:
Highly collaborative: Product managers and product operations managers will both be called on to work with the broader product team, others in the organization, and each other.
Overlapping: These roles likely collaborate frequently, brainstorming things to test, dreaming up new features, and plotting out the product roadmap. The borders between jobs may be left intentionally fuzzy.
Deeply focused on product strategy: While this may be obvious from the description of the product manager, the operational side should remain keenly focused on how the product serves real user needs and business objectives. In a way, product ops serves as an advocate for the product strategy internally and operationally.
Do I need a product ops team?
A curious feature of product ops is that most organizations don’t need it in their earliest days. Rather, the need for product ops is a sign of growth, an indication that a company has reached a certain threshold in size and its product team now needs dedicated operational support.
All product teams will hit this point at a different time. Some of the questions to ask yourself are:
Do you have multiple product teams?
Are you growing quickly or planning to grow quickly?
Is the amount of time spent by product managers on administrative tasks preventing them from concentrating on analysis, research, and design?
Does data seem unreliable or unwieldy? Is customer feedback too overwhelming to be useful?
Do product teams and other internal teams like sales and marketing not see eye-to-eye?
Does the product’s feature set seem overloaded, with some legacy features hanging on despite lack of use?
Do experiments and usability testing seem piecemeal, as if they’re thrown together haphazardly?
If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” it’s worth considering product operations as a discrete function within your team.
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Implementing product ops on your team
If you’re ready to start taking product ops seriously, you can take discrete linear steps to get there. It can and should grow organically.
For example, if you answered “yes” to one of the questions in the previous section, perhaps product ops is just a discrete amount of time for a person on your team to fix that problem. As other, similar operational issues pop up, that person could continue to take them on. Eventually, this whack-a-mole solution may turn into a full-time position, whether for that individual or someone else.
From there, you can look into creating positions like a product operations analyst – someone whose primary goal is data analysis and reporting – as well as a product operations manager – someone who creates efficiencies and builds internal buy-in. Positions like these can work together between custom product teams and other departments to keep the entire operation running as smoothly as possible. And the new, bigger product team, now strengthened with a full product ops function, can focus all its energy on making great products.
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