While nearly every software relies on product managers, many of them are still learning more about what a product operations manager and team do and what value it provides.
Product operations, more commonly known as product ops, is a relatively new role. Similar to other ops counterparts such as sales ops, marketing ops, and business ops, product ops are all about making it easier to scale the product team.
Here’s a valuable quote from ProductCraft about product ops: “Effective product ops teams accelerate feedback loops, increase efficiencies, and improve feature adoption.”
In this article, we’ll delve into the role of product operations managers, their responsibilities, and how you can incorporate product ops in product management.
Let’s get started.
The Role of Product Ops
Think of product managers like trailblazers. They’re venturing into new territory, and they’re cutting their way through the wilderness. But, while they’re out discovering, their cross-functional stakeholders need to access those roads. Those roads aren’t paved at all, and that makes these roads confusing to follow.
Product ops are the people who pave the way after the path has been set. They provide the infrastructure necessary so that everyone can scale up. They introduce new processes that streamline the company’s activities so that people can work synergistically together.
Some product managers might feel that the word “process” is a dirty word. Isn’t the point of product management to iterate as quickly as possible, and to throw out the playbook and be creative?
Yes - that’s the job but only at small scales. At large scales, it’s no longer effective to do so.
While product managers shouldn’t be mindlessly following processes, they’re responsible for building up cultures, systems, and processes that create self-improving engines.
The goal of product management isn’t to ship a product, it’s to up-level the org, and that’s why it’s crucial for product ops to exist for larger organizations.
Note that in small orgs, PM = product ops, in that there are much fewer coordination pains. Product ops really only show up in orgs that have at least a dozen product managers.
Key Product Ops Responsibilities
Product operations is all about making it easier to scale a product team. Therefore, many of the responsibilities below are focused on driving alignment and synergies for existing areas of ownership.
Product ops have the following core responsibilities:
- Amplify impact and velocity by coordinating with cross-functional internal stakeholders
- Establishing and refining feedback loops with customers
- Identifying and advocating for standardized toolkits and repeatable processes
- Translating analytics into actionable insight and holding product accountable for doing so
- Clarifying and maintaining frameworks for experimentation and documentation
Let’s discuss each below.
Internal Cross-Functional Coordination
Products can’t be built or shipped in silos. For your product to actually succeed, you have to ensure that your internal teams are ready to drive your product forward:
- Legal and compliance team need to sign off on your work
- Information security team needs to ensure your product is safe
- Sales and marketing teams need to know how to position the product
- Customer success teams need to know how the product works, how it fits into user workflows, and when to recommend using the product
- Support teams need to know how to debug the product if problems crop up
Product ops can help to ensure that all of these crucial stakeholders are kept in the loop. By bringing in their voices early and often and by sharing product team progress out on a regular cadence, product ops ensures that the product management team doesn’t get tripped up by a last-second blocker.
So, product ops accelerate velocity by ensuring that all internal teams are aligned and coordinated. Product ops also work with product management and other stakeholders to establish level agreements (SLAs) to set expectations for the time that it’ll take when a product manager responds to a bug or a feature request.
Product ops also standardize the rules of engagement between product management and other internal teams so that it’s clear who should reach out, for what reasons, and by when. You’d be surprised by how ad-hoc some product development processes are and how much variance you might between different product managers within the same company.
By standardizing the rules of engagement, product ops make life easier for internal stakeholders so that they know what to expect from the product team. And, they also make life easier for product managers so that product managers know what next steps they need to take to complete their initiative.
Product ops can also help to amplify the impact of the product through coordination and project management. Rather than ask the product manager to take the lead on release activities, product ops can drive a feature release instead.
They’ll know what feature it is, what date it’s expected to be available, and who needs to be involved in having a successful launch. They can train up internal teams, provide talk tracks, and ensure that there’s enough lead time built in to have successful marketing campaigns and effective sales preparation.
As product managers continue to build out an increasingly complex product portfolio, they’ll need to coordinate their customer feedback loops across a dizzying variety of customer types and touch points.
Product ops can step in to remove lots of the operational burden and mental overhead. Product ops establish best practices for how feedback gets captured, processed, analyzed, and acted upon.
It also ensure that product managers don’t all wind up reaching out to the same customer and can help to drive clean customer research protocols to ensure that customers don’t experience thrash from working with so many different product teams at once.
Product ops help ensure that inbound feedback doesn’t fall through the cracks and that product managers close the loop on any open threads of research that they’re tackling.
Toolkits and Processes
As product teams grow, they will use different tools for their work. They might use Google Drive, Dropbox Paper, Quip, Notion, and Confluence for documentation. They might use Sketch, Marvel, Figma, and InvisionApp for mock-ups. Or they might use Survey Monkey, Google Forms, Respondent, and Alpha for user research.
It starts to get pretty crazy pretty fast, and soon no one knows where to find information anymore.
Product ops serve as the gatekeeper. They help ensure that product managers use the same toolkit so that cross-functional stakeholders know where to go to get information.
On top of that, they also help craft new processes that make it easier for everyone to get work done. For example, product ops might craft standardized product spec templates, standardized feature request forms, standardized user research interview guides, standardized product results readout decks, and more.
Analytics and Action
As product teams tackle more and more features, they need to consume more and more data and analytics. The challenge here is that teams can become too much of a silo. If one team ships a feature and sees that their feature is doing well, they might declare it a win, even though they don’t see that they’ve caused a negative impact on someone else’s feature.
Product ops centralize analyses across the so that the entire product team is on the same page about what’s going well and what’s not going well.
Furthermore, product ops helps to extract insight from analyses to propose actions for product managers to take. They’ll also hold product managers accountable for making the fixes that they need to make so that customers have better experiences and so that the business can continue to grow.
Experimentation and Learnings
Each product team will naturally experiment with new ways of working and with new hypotheses for what problems to tackle. While working scrappily is important, it’s also important to ensure that people aren’t duplicating work or losing their learnings.
Product ops ensure that teams are aware of each other’s experiments and help to collate the learnings that come from each experiment.
They’ll share out the results so that every product manager on the team can benefit from each other’s experiences, rather than having to reinvent the wheel themselves each time.
Why Product Ops is Heating Up
Operations teams typically come after the core team has been set up. Therefore, it makes sense that product ops have been relatively overlooked since product management is still a new discipline itself.
But, now that more and more companies are scaling up their product teams, it’s getting to be too hard for the product manager to maintain core product management responsibilities while also tackling enablement and scaling processes.
Let’s be clear - in small product organizations, the product manager must perform the duties of product operations on top of all of their core responsibilities. In larger organizations, where there’s the ability to specialize further, product managers typically give up these operations responsibilities to their product ops counterparts.
The Ideal Product Operations Manager for Product Ops
The product operations manager and the product ops team members need to have specific qualities and skills for effective product ops and product marketing. The rise of any new product and its success depends on a successful product ops strategy and team. As a result, proper roadmapping for each team member and onboarding is crucial to ensure they work well together.
It doesn’t matter whether you have a startup or an entire organization like Amazon or Uber; your product ops team would have the same skills and abilities.
Generally, product operation managers need to have three primary qualities, including the following:
- They should be customer-centric and focused on customer experience and customer support.
- Product ops managers should be product data-focused no matter how time-consuming it is.
- They should be completely functionality and efficiency-driven to take quick product decisions.
It’s ideal to have these qualities, regardless of whether you work in high-profile tech companies in New York or San Francisco or small organizations. The product operations role demands these qualities because they help the product operations manager complete their responsibilities better.
General Idea of the Product Operations Manager’s Responsibilities
For any product roadmap and rollout process to be successful, you need a team that understands its responsibilities. In the case of a product launch, the product ops manager needs to always be on top of their duties. Finding a great team isn't complicated if you're part of a massive product community.
Typically, the product operations manager’s responsibilities are related to the following.
- Strategy – Includes the creation and rollout of product strategies based on certain methodologies. These may be slightly different when managing a DevOps launch, but generally, the idea remains the same for most products.
- Data – It’s critical to collect, organize, and analyze all relevant product data and metrics for the entire organization to use effectively.
- Tools – The management of all product tools like Pendo and the product tech stack is crucial. The product operations manager may also have to assist team members in using each tool.
- Experimentation – One of the most important parts of the product ops role is experimentation. The official job title and description of the product operations manager dictate that they should implement and track all relevant experiments related to product ops.
- Key Decisions – The product operations manager has to work with executives, vice presidents, and other stakeholders to make crucial decisions regarding product operations. That means they need to have excellent communication skills.
Furthermore, there may be additional responsibilities and duties, depending on the organization and industry. In any case, to get a better idea of the product operations manager’s responsibilities and duties, you can always check out Indeed or Glassdoor for more information.
How To Be a Good Product Management Partner to Product Ops
The promise of product ops is a more effective company and a more effective product. What product manager doesn’t want to see these promises brought to life? After all, product managers are measured by the impact that they shipped - and if they can have a partner to help them drive processes that amplify impact, that helps the product manager do a better job.
But, product ops can’t work without willing product management partners. After all, alignment doesn’t come for free. Here are ways for you to ensure that you and product ops can drive the most impact together.
First, share your context about why you built the product this way and not a different way. By candidly discussing tradeoffs and tactics, you empower the product ops team to position you in the most favorable light possible - both to internal teams and to customers.
Second, provide transparency into the roadmap and why work was sequenced in that way. The more details you can share, the more product ops can build out objection handling to ensure that you can run your roadmap smoothly, without interference. At this point, things like budgets, national origin, or other stuff don’t matter anymore.
And, on the flip side, if they understand what you’re optimizing for, and they find new information that justifiably should alter your roadmap, they’ll know what information they need to provide you so that you can pull the trigger to change your roadmap accordingly.
Third, proactively raise your pains to them. Product ops are all about ensuring that the product team can do things more effectively. If you don’t raise your pains to them, they won’t know which process change proposals are relatively painless and which proposals are relatively painful.
By letting them know your pains, they can ensure that they craft the best process solutions for your needs while also balancing the needs of the rest of the organization.
And finally, please listen to your product ops counterparts with an open mind. They have a much deeper understanding of the pains of your cross-functional partners.
As product teams specialize, they tend to lose stakeholder empathy, and product ops are the best team to rely on to get the best bird’s eye view of what the rest of the company needs from product management. If they have a proposal, hear them out and give their proposed process a try.
While you will face initial pain, you might be surprised by the long-run results - your life might actually get easier!
In any case, product operation managers and their teams help along with product management to the core. The idea is to create a step-by-step process that makes the entire product process more efficient, quicker, and more productive.
Product operations drive multiplicative impact across the company by providing the infrastructure for how product management interfaces with other departments.
By doing so, product operations eliminate friction, drives alignment, and removes mental overhead for all teams - which all ultimately benefits the customer and the company.
Clement Kao is a Co-Founder of Product Manager HQ. He is currently a Product Manager at Blend, an enterprise technology company that is inventing a simpler and more transparent consumer lending experience while ensuring broader access for all types of borrowers.