Product operations is having a moment— and for good reason.
With a shift toward remote-friendly work and an increased emphasis on customer-centricity, businesses are putting a stronger focus on tracking the impact and value of work being done and, now more than ever, the culture and processes that fuel a business’ ways of working, of which product ops plays a critical role.
This article illustrates the value of product ops, the need for businesses to invest in this discipline, and how companies can unlock the full value of product ops by protecting the scope of the role.
My road to product ops
- I first fell in love with solving customer problems at the start of my career as an Account Manager at Google.
- My eagerness to learn how products work in order to solve customer challenges fueled my transition to technical product support, and then product operations at Google.
- I returned to school for an MBA to gain a holistic understanding of business administration and reflect on my experience in product support and operations in this context.
- After a detour in product management, I found myself drawn back to solving the challenges faced by many tech companies when it comes to the operations of building and maintaining products that scale.
- I returned to the world of product ops to establish and eventually grow the discipline at Deliveroo as their Product Operations Lead.
- Most recently, I joined Sedna to set up the foundations of product operations in preparation for scaling the team and the product line.
I feel lucky to have found a role that speaks to my strengths and truly motivates me.
As a product ops professional, I am uniquely positioned to spot seemingly intangible problems, such as regular miscommunication in an organization, that can put a dent in the productivity and culture of a team. I love helping organizations spot these hidden issues in their operations and implement solutions that can unlock business efficiencies and even increase employee happiness.
The 4 pillars of product ops
The role of Product Ops can take many shapes depending on the stage, industry, and need of a business. It’s also natural for product ops professionals to flex and stretch in startup environments where teams aren’t fully staffed.
Regardless of a company’s stage or business need, it’s important to define the scope of the role of product ops within your business to ensure there is agreement and acknowledgment of how this discipline can be the most effective in scaling its product operations.
When describing product ops to those outside of tech, it helps to compare the role to the race team for Formula 1 drivers. Product ops is the team that supports the racers—in this case product managers, in how they drive a product forward.
Product ops is not typically accountable for what gets built but for how the product gets built. As such, the primary customers of product ops are internal stakeholders, as the role focuses on solving pain points and removing blockers for product, engineering, and business teams so they’re enabled with the time and resources to deliver great products to customers at scale.
There are four core pillars of product ops that highlight what the role should be accountable for.
- First, product ops helps scale the product and tech teams’ best practices by standardizing documentation, processes, tooling, and team-wide ways of working.
While it’s natural that everyone will have their own style, it’s important to create foundational shared frameworks that help remove miscommunication and save product and engineering professionals time by having a go-to playbook to structure their work.
- Secondly, product ops improves communication both within the tech team and across the organization. Specific ownership areas include being the reliable source of truth for the roadmap and creating communication touchpoints to keep everyone aligned.
- Next, product ops ensures products are effectively launched and maintained by building feedback loops, bug-tracking processes, and feature prioritization frameworks.
- Lastly, product ops is always focused on optimizing team efficiency by spotting broken processes, miscommunication, and opportunities for automation to improve team collaboration and impact at scale.
Focusing and protecting the scope of product ops to the above pillars will allow your business to unlock the full value of the discipline in helping to standardize processes, forward your product roadmap, and launch and scale products with ease.
Common pitfalls in unlocking the full value of Product Ops
Unfortunately, many product ops teams aren’t able to consistently and effectively deliver on the four core pillars of product ops due to a frequent redirection of their focus to short-term, many times, gap-filling activities within the business. This tends to occur when business leaders identify a lack of ownership and therefore a lack of progress against a particular piece of work that requires cross-functional collaboration.
Two areas where product ops is commonly tapped on by business leaders to step in and provide structure to a team or a project include team routines and project management activities.
Team routines such as stand-ups or daily updates are typically intended to track a team’s day-to-day progress, assess the need for re-prioritization or capacity planning, and hold individuals on a team accountable for their work.
While Product Ops may attend these routines as a way to collect relevant information to later be packaged up and shared with business teams, there is little value in product ops leading these rituals, given they’re not usually expected to drive team resourcing and roadmap prioritization decisions.
These routines should instead be led by those with oversight of these decisions, whether that be dedicated roles such as delivery manager or scrum master, a team lead, or even individuals on a team.
Project management activities such as developing a project plan, running meetings, or providing regular status updates to key stakeholders are intended to keep a project on track to meet a set of goals within an agreed-upon timeframe.
While product ops can (and will at times) step in to lead these activities, there are many reasons why individuals within a project team are better-suited to own these activities—most importantly, they have a comprehensive understanding of the objectives, stakeholders, and requirements for project execution.
When product ops is pulled in to support projects, many times this will require additional time investment to learn project details, build required stakeholder relationships, and define the project plan and rituals— this reduces the time available for product ops to focus on and drive impact through the core scope of the role.
While there is always a case to be made for product ops to support critical projects for a business, this time-consuming work can often be picked up by individuals in the cross-functional group of executing teams.
When product ops is continually pulled away from core scope to run day-to-day team routines or projects, business leaders are choosing to reduce the long-term return on investment for this discipline to see short-term gains in project execution.
Protect product operations scope by creating a culture of project management
Project management is one of the most important skills an employee can have to effectively lead a team or execute a piece of work through to completion, but few business leaders actively instill and reinforce project management best practices within their organizations. This results in poor prioritization, lack of cross-team visibility, and inconsistent measurement of success.
It’s no wonder that product ops professionals, who thrive in creating structure and transparency, are commonly tapped on to fill this need.
To combat this, business leaders should instead strive to empower their employees to be effective project managers, so that when the need arises, more than a few individuals can step in to drive a project forward with success.
By leveraging a few key best practices gathered from my personal experience and the learnings from my broader network, companies can create a shared culture of strong project management.
Invest in training and template standardization
It’s no secret that onboarding is sacred and a critical moment in the employee journey; it’s also the perfect opportunity to introduce what great project management looks like.
Prior to the emergence of project management-focused roles at Deliveroo, I developed and led project management training for teams with limited project management exposure across the business and instilled project management best practices within specific tech teams. This effort helped to further the adoption of a shared project management approach and increased trust and collaboration between teams.
Coach team and project leaders on managing conflict resolution
When it comes to cross-functional work, it’s best to acknowledge the similarities and (more importantly) the differences between individuals and teams involved. From seniority and preferred ways of working, to personal and professional motivators, the makeup of a cross-functional project team will surface differences that can result in conflict throughout a project journey.
Conflict isn’t a bad thing, yet it’s often incorrectly overlooked or avoided to “keep the peace”. In reality, digging into the details of conflict and working through disagreements can not only bring team alignment but can also draw out innovative ways of thinking that can elevate project team collaboration in problem-solving.
Toegel and Barsoux, organizational researchers and professors at IMD Business School, published research findings on the appearance of good conflict and bad conflict that support the impact of ‘respectful debate’ and how it can yield ‘solutions that are often far superior to those first offered’.
Management training and onboarding are two effective areas for companies to help employees embrace conflict and facilitate effective conflict resolution. If you don’t have a dedicated trainer with an MBA or conflict resolution experience, there are plenty of online training courses that can be easily embedded within employee training paths.
Hold owners accountable
Fostering a culture of accountability is no small feat but is crucial for optimizing team productivity, promoting fairness, and achieving organizational goals.
When it comes to effectively leading a project team, some key tactics can be used to drive accountability across even the least reliable of project contributors.
- First, involving all members of a project team in the act of defining a project plan can instill a feeling of investment in each project team member. When an individual sets their own expectations, there can be an increased level of ownership and accountability.
- Second, maintaining a single source of truth of all project activities that’s easily accessible to both the project team and key stakeholders will allow all those involved or interested in a project to understand status, timelines, and ownership.
- Next, bringing transparency to a project’s progress and key action items on a regular basis will openly hold individuals accountable to stakeholders and senior leaders when certain activities are missing expectations.
- Finally, developing a culture of feedback within a project team can support in driving collective ownership over a project and allow for the entire project team to hold each other accountable for their owned activities.
Celebrate the process alongside the impact
Publicly celebrating the art of project management can help to emphasize the importance of teamwork and collaboration, and further ignite a spark within individuals of an organization to follow suit. These moments help to shed light on the outstanding accomplishments achieved by the (often) unsung heroes who orchestrate projects with finesse.
Some forward-thinking companies have already started to pave the way for others when it comes to recognizing the value of project management and other process-related work within an organization.
While there are a variety of mechanisms to support the celebration of process work both informally—such as with shout-outs on Slack, and formally—such as with Culture Amp’s kudos software and accompanying ‘project management pros’ badge, what’s most important is that it happens.
Just by generating awareness of the importance of these activities business leaders can begin to cultivate the project management culture needed to have an evergreen impact on their business operations.
Allow product ops to support your business to success
Product ops sits centrally within a business—where knowledge is kept and shared. While being central to an organization is required to identify and drive solutions to business challenges, it can also be used as an excuse for business leaders to task these individuals with driving projects outside their core scope.
It’s important for companies to recognize and leverage the expertise of product ops and be conscious of the pitfalls that can pull product ops professionals away from the work where their value will be fully realized.
If companies can give this discipline the space to thrive, product ops can be invaluable for maintaining continuity, fostering innovation, and equipping teams with the operations to drive business success.