In my experience as a product leader I’ve observed product managers consistently doing many different things and that has been a quality I’ve always admired and looked out for in candidates. I’ve found that developing a wide range of skills has led me to expertly find similar qualities in the people I hire.
For example, I get excited when I meet with product people who feel just as comfortable writing user stories as they do speaking with customers, can implement the right level of process and love delving into the data.*
However, I’ve also experienced first hand how product managers spinning (too) many plates end up losing sight of some of their core tasks around discovery and understanding the data. I wonder whether the primary function of Product Operations is to support product managers — particularly from a process perspective — similar to more established functions like designops and devops. Could product operations act as the ‘glue’ that binds different business functions and product focus areas together?!
To start building my understanding of what product operations is and isn’t, I’ve asked and listened to a few actual product operations professionals:
Christine Itwaru is Senior Director of Product Operations at Pendo, which helps companies accelerate software product adoption. I recently heard Christine talk about product operations acting as “a golden thread that weaves through multiple teams across an organization and outward to customers”.
In this podcast episode, Christine explains how at her company Pendo the product operations function came about, supporting teams across the business in learning “how to best execute with more detailed processes, rigour and standards.” She describes her team as highly cross-functional, having dedicated product ops people working closely with internal revenue teams.
For instance, one of Christine’s team members focuses on product education and works closely with Pendo’s product marketing team, while they all partner with customer success and sales to understand customer pain more deeply, marrying those insights with product analytics and NPS. I can see how, especially where the product is software based, product operations people can really support the wider business and its customers in areas such as communications, data and process.
Christine’s take on Product Operations is that it’s meant to strengthen businesses as they grow and scale, not just the Product Team.
Though her team spends a good portion of time with Sales, Customer Success and Marketing, the heart of their success is true alignment with the product managers, staying in lock step, to ensure they’re able to both amplify the work of the Product Team and share data and learnings to each PM, as they continue to build better a better experience for their users, together.
Jonathan Hau is a Product Operations manager at Prodigy Education. Prior to his current role, Jonathan was a product operations manager at InVision where he and his products ops colleagues focused on a number of what he describes as “scaling problems”. For example:
- Fragmented and inconsistent communications with the customer support team — Jonathan and the product operations team at InVision worked closely with the support team to develop a weekly support call between product managers and support team leaders to triage support tickets.
- Product managers trying to keep on top of creating and storing process documentation — At InVision, the product operations team maintains and updates all internal documentation on product process, guidelines, onboarding guides, etc.
- Strained communications with the sales team and product managers infrequent engagements with customers — Jonathan and his colleagues established a product manager / sales buddy system, allowing product managers to get invited to live customer calls a few times per month.
Product operations can thus save product managers and other product related business functions time and effort by driving and standardising routine practices. As Jonathan says, “it frees up time for product managers to focus more of their time doing strategic thinking, user research, problem discovery work, and data validation.” He’s also explicit about the things that product operations isn’t:
- Technical program management
- Project management
- A replacement for poor / ineffective product management
- A replacement for a data science team
- A replacement for a user research team
- A replacement for a product marketing team
Jonathan views Product Operations more as a catalyst function that routinises and automates repeatable Product Manager tasks, while constantly searching for opportunities to help product managers focus on making user-centric business critical decisions. For scaling teams, this is critical because many of the fundamental patterns of more mature teams haven’t been established. And Jonathan believes this is especially true when it comes to data quality and in case the organisation wants to become a truly data-driven organisation. Product Operations can serve as a partner in helping drive forward data quality initiatives led by the data team.
New York-based based Lauren Hungate is another experienced Product Operations professional. Lauren leads Product Operations at Simplifeye and has a clear view on the value of product operations: “Product Operations is all about interoperability. It’s not only making sure that your product is operating at its peak, but also communicating its successes and failures to sales, marketing, and engineering to continually make it better every day. By doing this, not only will operations run at a smoother pace, but you will continually evolve and never become obsolete.”
Having spent about 10 years as a designer, Stockholm-based Björn Simonson is now a senior product operations manager at Zettle. In a recent talk, Björn outlined how he applies some of the same steps to product operations that he use to take as a designer:
- Gather input — Talk to people in the organisation to learn about their needs and wants. Think different teams across the business, but also internal talent recruiters and HR. Not only is this a good way to learn about the potential value of product operations, Björn says, these conversations also help to spread awareness about product operations.
- Analyse your data — Continuously gather and analyse your data to identify the most promising opportunities. Björn explains how the insights thus gathered can help you answer questions like “How do we organise our work?” or “Are we focused on the right missions?”
- Set the outcomes + first steps — Björn stresses the importance of prioritising, and re-prioritising, to continuously put your effort where it really matters the most. Make sure to align with the strategic goals of the business but don’t forget to support the long-term health of the community as well.
In conclusion, Björn says that product operations teams are in a great position to serve cross-functional product teams, helping them work sustainably and achieve key outcomes for customers and the wider business.
Main learning point: Product operations isn’t just a bunch of trouble shooters, who make up for underperforming or non-existing business functions. Instead, product operations will collaborate closely and reinforce different customer and business outcomes across the business. Particularly when your business and product are scaling, it can really pay off to have a dedicated Product Operations team provide targeted support.
Related links for further learning: