Product operations is an emerging function. How does it help modern product management organizations to scale effectively?
Similar to the emergence of design ops in the last five years, product operations fulfills a need to streamline a scaling function. It defines, communicates, supports, and improves important operations which can be standardized, such as communication, planning processes, team gatherings, and training.
I’ll describe what product operations does and how it fits within product teams at my company InVision, then share some of my personal learnings over the past three years, including:
- Why product ops is needed
- What product ops is
- How it’s become a critical function for scaling effective product teams
What Product Managers do
Our product squads at InVision usually consist of a product manager, designer, engineering manager and four to seven engineers. Many other tech companies organize themselves in this way, including Spotify, Atlassian, and Airbnb.
In software product development, there is a growing demand for product managers to perform more tasks, do complex data analysis, and strategize with competing priorities. Product managers often use skills like strategic thinking, user research, product prioritization / backlog grooming, data analysis, and communication.
Most importantly, effective product managers spend time doing product discovery, the process in which new ideas are iterated and validated with actual customers. Over the years, I’ve observed our product management team improve their skills in these areas and grow from a size of four to over 30 product managers, with my role as our product operations manager being a key component in their arsenal.
What is Product Operations?
Product ops is ultimately responsible for ensuring product teams are held accountable to their outcomes and ensuring the product organization is set up to scale consistently and with low friction.
Product ops’ Primary Responsibilities:
- Engineering, design, product team communication / announcements / reinforcing process, policies, and practices
- Maintaining templates, guidelines, how-to references and resources. (The product ops person should have access to these and be able to direct people to the latest versions)
- Streamlining intelligence and automation of tasks / routine practices
- Bridging important changes from inside the organization to other departments like customer support or sales
- Developing and maintaining a continuing education program for product managers
- Supporting onboarding
- Researching and organizing information on product management best practice
Why is Product Operations a Growing Need?
As InVision has grown in size, product ops has become a critical function in automating and holding our team accountable to the tasks that product managers perform on a routine basis.
I’ve spoken with product ops counterparts at other companies where it’s also a growing function. I’ve heard consistently that product ops is centered on helping people within the product organization and their relevant cross-functional stakeholders to be more effective at the delivery of products that matter to the business.
I’ve seen many growing pains in my time at InVision. Below are some examples of problems we’ve encountered during our rapid growth, and how product ops was able to resolve them:
|Scaling Problem||How Product Ops Resolved the Problem|
|Communications with our support team became fragmented and inconsistent.||Worked with support leadership to develop a weekly support call between product managers + support team leaders to triage support tickets.|
|Communications with our sales team grew strained and product managers weren’t always speaking to customers.||Set up a product manager/sales buddy system that allows product managers to get invited to live customer calls a few times per month.|
|Product managers would spend their time searching for documentation on performing basic functions like our routine cadence for team meetings, getting executive approval on a project initiative, and other general product development process tasks.||Built an internal team wiki and created guidelines in coordination with product leadership for consistency and easy access.|
|Product managers were also documenting the process itself and then looking for a place to put the documentation.||Product ops maintains and updates all internal documentation on product process, guidelines, onboarding guides, etc.|
|Cross-team dependencies got more complex and took longer to resolve with more people on our team.||Takes on ad-hoc responsibilities to project manage work where cross-team dependencies lie and routine comms need to be sent to ensure individuals are aligned with each other.|
|Communication became fragmented and it became difficult to get adequate context for a problem.||Product ops takes on the role of asking the difficult questions and documenting the context of problems the org is trying to solve.|
|As we scale, with more product leaders and more new product managers, it becomes harder to onboard all new product managers consistently.||Onboarding documentation, walking through new product managers through how product is shipped, and maintaining the product readiness checklist all fall within the scope of product ops.|
|Getting new team members up to speed on the history of a feature / tech debt becomes an increasingly difficult task.||Product ops organizes and points product managers to the history of documentation that other product managers / product leaders have written, thereby reducing the effort to find the source of truth on historical decisions made.|
Product ops saves us time by cutting down the work on to figure out how to organize and systematize routine practices. It frees up time for product managers to focus more of their time doing strategic thinking, user research, problem discovery work, and data validation. Though, the value can be even greater later on by supporting consistency and not accruing debt in the organization.
When you add up all the time savings across the team, it quickly becomes apparent that product ops is a critical component to growing product management organizations effectively.
What Product Operations is not
Technical program management
It doesn’t function to serve by coordinating and aligning multiple stakeholders to execute a large department/company-wide initiative.
It does not serve as an ad-hoc role to product owners by taking on project-oriented prioritization or defining, grooming, or prioritizing the backlog.
A replacement for poor/ineffective product management
A strong product organization has clearly defined roles and responsibilities where product managers effectively execute user research.
A replacement for a data science team
Good data scientists know how to help strong product managers develop measurable key performance indicators (KPIs).
A replacement for a user research team
Good user researchers know what it means to perform user interviews that elicit the most valuable insight into not only why a user/customer is having a pain point, but what problem the user is actually trying to solve. User researchers help gather the qualitative insight to inform the quantitative trends (behaviors) being observed by the data science analysis.
A replacement for a product marketing team
Good product marketers understand and know that their role and function is to develop a storyline around the emotional components of a group of features that get shipped; defining the marketing execution strategy around how and when to announce a feature to the world and to what degree it should get announced.
Product Operations: An Emergent Need
While the concept of scaling a product organization is not new, many companies still struggle with growing their product management teams so they are effective in each stage of a company’s expansion. Product ops will continue to evolve, becoming an increasingly important function. The best practices that product ops professionals rely on will continue to change and mature as needs shift in large organizations.
Like other functions (devops or design ops), there is ample opportunity to improve the rigor of this function to match the complex needs of product teams maturing in their practice. For example, if an organization is struggling to organize and find information that product managers frequently rely on, it could be an indication a product ops person would be helpful to their needs. In my view organizations should invest in product ops professionals to adequately support product managers as their organizations evolve because our role goes far beyond that of an administrator. We have to reduce the cognitive load on product management, enable product teams to work effectively, and establish a cadence and culture around best practices. As an example, one of my responsibilities as product ops manager is to question the way OKRs are written during the OKR review. I’m also responsible for ensuring our quarterly OKR planning cycle stays on track. I send out the kick-off email, I follow up with product managers on roadmap discussions, and ensure they are delivering the artifacts our product leaders expect.
If you’re in a company where you are playing a similar role or hold responsibilities that sound familiar, we’ve formed a LinkedIn group a few months ago to share learnings as the needs of this function grows over time. While we’re relatively small and are just getting started, we invite you to join us on this journey as our industry continues to evolve.
Editorial note: I’d like to thank Brent Tworetzky for helping to edit and co-write several elements within this article.