The need for a product operations person or team is growing in many organizations. Those that are looking to scale and need their product people to think less about the ‘how’ and more about the ‘what’.

Being a relatively new function the most often asked question is a simple one  -what is it that product operations actually does? The answer isn't always that simple  -  it depends!

Each organization has different structures, needs to be met, problems to solve, internal politics to master, customers or domains to understand and team capabilities.

The result is that the role of product operations can vary wildly from one organization to another. The more time I’ve spent talking with people from these different places, the more that is confirmed. Some focus solely on streamlining their data process to help product teams best serve their customers. Others are looking more at team health and product culture, some on product development efficiency and key metric drivers.

The common thread to all these various types of product ops teams is exactly why those teams emerged in the first place. To focus on ‘how’ we do product development, rather than ‘what’ problems we go after or solutions we build.

We’re going on an adventure!

To help illustrate this point I’m going to use a simple analogy (because who doesn’t love those?). One that covers the core product functions of product strategy, product management, and where product operations fits in. These may or may not be distinct roles or teams, what matters here is what they do and where their focus is.

Building great products can be compared to going on an adventure. With little but an enticing destination, the most exciting journeys are supported by plans that provide only enough to act as a guide. Without having too much detail along the way that opportunities for flexibility end up being confined.

Product strategy defines the direction and provides a high-level guide for product management to set out on the adventure. But where does product operations fit into this? Let’s explore!

Product strategy

A good product strategy provides the product organization with the desired vision of where the product could be in the future. It outlines the high-level view of a destination and objectives with measures to help teams orientate and move towards that desired place.

When compared to an actual journey — we want to get to a destination and to do that we must go through various places. Each one moves us closer to the destination while also proving we are on the right path.

The role of the product vision is the same as the role of the seaside resort poster, it doesn’t explain how to get there but provides something to aim for. The strategic objectives are like place markers on a map. The route to the place markers is not planned, our Product Managers must do this to further their progress to the destination.

This is our product strategy: a destination to aim for and place markers along the way to give direction and build confidence the route is the right way.

Product management

Providing the teams with a product strategy they can start on their journey to the destination. They know the place markers they need to pass through and they have a view of what the final destination looks like.

Here we can compare the product management function to that of the traveller. They have the destination and map with place markers, which path they take is now down to them.

They must make a plan and learn more about where they are going, identify when it’s the wrong direction and course correct often. They must navigate towards the destination and reach each place marker identified to them.

This is our product management: given a destination and place markers they set off on their journey.

Product operations

We need our product managers to deeply understand their customers, the market, the business and the technology. They need to be able to identify the most important customer problems, define the most likely solutions to solve them and ensure that they make money for the business.

They know the destination, they have started on their journey and they course-correct regularly. But they’re still walking and the destination is far. With big ambitious product strategies, the vision is exciting but can often be something that might seem unattainable.

How can we make their journey easier, more efficient and maybe even more valuable?

Product operations can build them a car

Not only do we build a car but we maintain it and we improve it depending on the conditions the traveller is faced with. With every course correction, the traveller makes they may come across various new and different terrains or obstacles. Product operations are there to make sure those don’t stall any progress towards the destination.

Depending on the path chosen the mode of transport may be different per traveller. We can provide updates to their map with the latest place marker information or if the destination has shifted. We’ll make sure that every traveller has the same map and reads it in the same way. We can even provide GPS technology for new travellers that need more support along their journey!

This is our product operations: given that the traveller is on their journey, we support them at every step of the way. We make their life easier and more manageable. We allow  them to focus solely on their path and the destination rather than their achy legs, to think more about the place markers than the new terrain they’re faced with.

Thinking about introducing product operations?

Product operations are there to make things better for product teams and leadership. Even though their focus may be different in each organization, and at different times, there is a common cause and that’s to support people on their journey.

There are many ways that that can happen. There will be times that we need to define new paths for them to take, throw the map away and start again. There will be times that other travellers need to join the journey and product operations will ensure that the communication and the relationship between these travellers is clear and strong.

When looking at the first product operations hire it is vital to consider the challenges the product teams are currently faced with. Is it a strategic direction issue? Lack of customer data processes? Maturity in the experimentation mindset? Overall culture and team health?

Considering these obstacles and where the function has most of its challenges around ‘how’ product development is done today, will mean that hiring an operational team is more successful.

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