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Product ops

 

Managing products is not easy. Especially in a growing company. When you need to deliver value to your customers, plan strategically, onboard new colleagues, and do customer research - it could be overwhelming and often could lead to chaos. Hence the role of product ops emerged to take on those challenges and empower product teams.
   

What is product ops? 

Product operations, or product ops, is a business function in scaling organisations that aims to empower product teams. 

Let's look closer at the key parts of this definition. 

Business function 

Product ops is not a technical role, even if it's useful to have technical understanding - having a technical background is not necessary for a product ops role. It's far more important for people in the product ops to understand the business they're part of, have good relationships with other departments and have an outside the company network of like-minded professionals to share experiences. 

Scaling organisation

The need for a product ops function appears when an organisation starts to scale. A tiny startup often cannot afford a product ops role and quite frankly, they don't need it. Startups are usually laser-focused on one product, one problem they want to solve and their main priority is time to market. But when a company grows, so do its product teams. Multiple competing priorities appear, data begins to pour in and often tooling teams use goes out of hand. Such growing pains are known to most businesses and if not addressed - they might significantly threaten business success. 

Empower product teams

Product ops work to increase product teams' performance and outcomes. They do that by providing product teams with the right tools, data and know-how. Even though product ops can sometimes do the work themselves, more often they serve as advisors and enablers for the product teams. Product ops help product managers, designers and engineers to pick the right processes and tools to reach their objectives. They also support product teams with the relevant data and experimentation. Finally, product ops serve as knowledge and alignment centres, making sure product teams use best practices and therefore can reach their full potential. 

Why a company might need product ops? 

As organisations grow in size inevitable challenges emerge: 
  • How to set unifying goals for product teams? 
  • How to prioritise work? 
  • How to onboard new team members quickly? 
  • What tools and processes to use? 
  • How to measure teams' performance? 
  • And many, many more...
It's almost a given that with scale comes the need for alignment, support, and operational excellence. That's why in many other business functions, such as sales, marketing, finance, and system engineering we now have "ops" functions. So product managers decided to have an "ops" for themselves. But not out of vanity, but rather to focus on the most important task they have - solving their customers' problems in a delightful way. 

Unfortunately too often product managers are busy with other, loosely related activities such as establishing processes, setting up tools, analysing and organising data. All these activities are needed, but they are time-consuming and distract PMs from their main job. 

Therefore, when product managers in your company are too busy with supporting tasks and couldn't fully focus on the main activities - you need to help them by creating a product operations team. 

When should you consider creating product ops in your company? 

Often product managers are some of the busiest people in a company. Even more so when this company is actively growing. New products get designed, new customers signed, and new employees hired. When everything is constantly changing and product managers still need to deliver value to customers, continuously and with quality - that's the time to think about creating a product ops function. 

You can make a simple test to learn if you need to hire product ops people. Ask your product teams how much time they spend doing their main activities vs supporting, non-core tasks? If admin work takes considerable time off your teams - you need product ops. 

Another test you could use is analysing all the different tools and processes your product teams use. If you could count more than a couple, and especially if those tools and processes are different across teams - you need product ops. 

Still not sure? Then ask your teams how they set goals and analyse the outcomes of their work. Is it clear and consistent across all the teams? No? You need product ops.  

Who should be in your product ops team? 

The product ops team should have at least one seasoned product professional. Most commonly that would be a senior or principal product manager with a wide experience in different organisations and industries. This person should be naturally curious and verse in product management theory so as in practice. 

Together with a veteran PM, there could be other people in a product ops org. These people do not necessarily need to have product management experience. They could be business analysts, project managers, data scientists, or product marketers. As long as they share the passion for helping their peers, continuous learning and optimisation. 

People on the product ops team don't need to have a technical background even if some level of technical understanding could be useful in their work. The following skills are essential for the performing product ops team: 
  • Communication 
  • Empathy
  • Data analysis 
  • Facilitation 
  • Conflict resolution
  • Negotiation
Product ops folks should be emphatic organisers with the hunch for data. 

How do you measure the effectiveness of product ops? 

Measuring the effects of product ops or even the core product management is a packed and complex subject. People will have various opinions and ways to do it. However, at the end of the day, to judge whether having a product ops team is worth it - you need to go back to basics and check how well your product teams solve their customers' problems in ways that work for your business. 

If you use something like a North star metric - you can utilise it to benchmark the outcomes of your teams before and after product ops. 

You can combine this data with HR-related metrics such as your employee turnover or e-NPS. 
Greatly simplifying: if your product teams grow their efficiency and job satisfaction - your product ops org is doing a good job. 

Product ops are not...

Project or program managers. They don't come up with plans, timelines or roadmaps. 
Formal product leaders. They are not responsible for coaching product managers and organising their professional development. 

UX or discovery researchers. They could help set up and kick start the right process but there is no substitute for product managers talking directly to their customers.

Data scientists. They can help define data needs and organise insights distribution, but product ops will not write data models or build data lakes. 

In summary

Everything gets more complex with size and time. So does product management. These days the competition is fierce, resources are scarce and customer attention is precious. In those circumstances, to win in a market one needs outstanding, empowered product teams and a product ops org to support them. 

Product ops could empower product teams with the right tools, processes and data to excel at their jobs. They help companies to solve their growing pains and create a product culture for long term success. 

Here's some additional reading on the subject of product ops:

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