Product operations is an emerging discipline in the world of technology. While a growing number of startups and scaleups have discovered the value of a cross-functional product operations team in optimizing and streamlining processes tied to the launch and management of their products and services, there are plenty of companies still grappling with the decision to hire for product operations.
This article examines the need for this integral discipline, in addition to highlighting the three critical signs that signal a company may benefit from a product ops arm.
Product operations: A key part of your company’s evolution
The role of product ops is easiest to understand when looking at the lifecycle of a growing tech startup. Many startups build their product teams by starting out with one or several product managers. This focused yet nimble product team suffices in the early stages of startup operations when launch and maintenance are simple, due to the size of both the company and its customer base.
As an organization scales, however, previously simple tasks easily handled by product managers become full-scale critical work streams. If overlooked, these workstreams can not only result in a business being unprepared to support their products, but also negatively impact customer perception of the product, and, in extreme cases, risk damaging customer relationships.
When the time required to maintain these operations outgrows the time product managers are able to invest in the associated tasks, product ops becomes a valued asset, stepping in to own and optimize these workflows while allowing product managers to refocus their efforts on the development and execution of product strategy.
So how will you know when it’s time for your company to begin to build a product ops team?
Every organization is sized, structured, and scaled differently, so while looking to other companies of similar makeup for guidance can help, it’s best to turn inward and evaluate for three critical signs that your organization needs greater product lifecycle oversight.
Three signs your company is ready for product operations
Sign 1: Product documentation and processes are growing in size and beginning to diverge
It’s natural for a growing organization to change its approach to documentation and business-as-usual processes. This is especially true in tech startups where turnover, changes in leadership, and shifts in business strategy can be a frequent occurrence.
Still, if you start to see that a single approach to documentation and process is no longer being adhered to or that there are now several different and varied paths taken by product managers to achieve the same goal, this could mean you’re missing the operational glue needed to drive consistency and ensure efficiency across your company and the product experience.
One of the cornerstones of product ops is standardization. By establishing and making uniform product terminology, documentation, and key processes such as feedback mechanisms and roadmapping, product ops can reduce the need for product managers to spend time on the process of developing a product strategy. Instead, they can refocus their energies on product strategy.
As opposed to building out processes, product managers can do what they do best: digest customer feedback, uncover cross-functional dependencies, and lead product feature and function prioritization discussions – all of which enable product teams to develop an optimal product strategy for their business and customer base.
Sign 2: Your business teams are consistently chasing product for information and updates on similar product topics
Product Managers have the rewarding role of developing products that solve customer needs, but this role doesn’t come without its difficulties. In many organizations, product managers are the gatekeepers of valuable information, such as why a product was built, how it was built, and why certain features were included or excluded from its scope.
When an organization is still relatively small – with few products in the market and few customers, a product manager serving as the single expert of product is unlikely to pose any problems.
As an organization scales and its suite of products increases in size, the number of product-related questions and requests a product manager receives can grow exponentially and become increasingly unmanageable. This is when product ops can step in, with significant success.
Product ops creates structure and consistency in communication between technology teams and the rest of the organization. It not only owns the what, when, and how of communicating your product roadmap effectively with the rest of the business, but also helps to define new processes to reduce the volume of requests that product managers and even engineers receive regarding the products they own.
To successfully move product information across your organization, product ops will make some small changes, such as creating a common language for discussing product status in the development cycle and state of launch readiness, but also more robust changes, such as developing new processes and tooling for capturing and making decisions on feature requests or bugs.
Sign 3: New product releases are resulting in urgent customer escalations with greater frequency
When bringing new products to market, there are a variety of factors to be considered. In early stages, product teams will typically prioritize launch tasks related to achieving adoption goals and, where relevant, revenue goals.
As an example, these tasks may include developing a product’s pricing model, defining a product's key value proposition, and building effective sales collateral.
As products and organizations become more complex and their customer base grows, launch activities tend to continue to be focused on those that will have an impact on adoption and revenue. However, there are new considerations that need to be acknowledged - keeping their existing set of customers aware, happy, and ultimately invested in their product and vision.
To make a scaled product launch successful, it is therefore important to prepare all customers for upcoming changes to the products they know and love, while also setting business teams up for success.
Startups in a phase of growth tend to get caught sticking with what they know — focusing, for instance, on sales-related launch tasks rather than critical change-management launch tasks, such as user journey testing, technical documentation, and team training support — the result of which can be detrimental.
Product ops can help to prevent this by driving structure and accountability in an organization’s approach to launch readiness.
So what is launch readiness, and how does product ops play a part?
Launch readiness is defined as the time when a company is prepared to deliver and support a product.
Your company is “launch ready” when your product is usable — meaning the user experience is intuitive, serviceable — meaning there are paths to diagnose and service a product when issues do arise, and supportable — meaning the teams required to support the product have what they need to assist customers if and when things go wrong.
While many launch readiness tasks can and do often fall to the product managers, there are a number of to-dos that product ops can take over efficiently, including but not limited to:
- Building launch readiness frameworks
- Designing success metrics for alpha or beta testing
- Managing the internal go-to-market strategy of a launch
- And in some cases, even designing and leading user journey testing
Ultimately, through these activities, product ops can help your organization build standards of launch readiness that preemptively address potential customer issues, as well as provide necessary resources and tools that will help your organization more effectively manage escalations that arise post-launch.
What comes next: How to start hiring the team your team needs
A product ops arm can help you standardize processes, forward your product roadmap, and launch and scale products with ease. If you feel your product team becoming stretched or see a need for streamlining product development internally, it's never too early to begin the product ops hiring process.
To begin the process of hiring, you’ll need to have a clear understanding of and set expectations for how product ops will play alongside your product management team, and then communicate this to your organization.
You’ll also need to determine the maturity of your product ops requirements — for instance, do you need a single product ops hire to put in place a set of foundations? Or a team to quickly eliminate critical inefficiencies across your product and processes?
Finally, you’ll need to develop a set of initial goals and success metrics to guide your new product ops team in delivering and demonstrating value to your business from day one.
By dedicating the time to defining the role of product ops from the outset, you won’t only foster an environment of collaboration that will accelerate innovation and streamline processes, but also deliver value to both your customers and your growing business, seeing your company to success.