Becky Asch, Head of Product Operations at FullStory, gave this talk at the Chief Product Officer Summit.
Hi everyone. I'm Becky, and I lead product operations at FullStory. For those of you who don't know FullStory, we're a digital experience intelligence platform. We combine product analytics, session replay, and real-time insights to help you identify opportunities for your user experiences on the web and mobile.
Product operations is a very nascent discipline. There are very few tenured product operations teams that exist. This means that we all have the opportunity to mold and shape what this discipline looks like to make sure it's the biggest force multiplier for our product teams.
Product operations as I see it is a product manager for the product lifecycle. There are a lot of folks who’ve weighed in on the right remit or the right scope for product operations.
What I'm going to focus on today is:
- When is the right time to start a product operations team?
- Building a stellar product ops team: Success signals and critical attributes
- Product thinking vs. project thinking: The key to effective product ops
When is the right time to start a product operations team?
In terms of scope and remit, product operations focuses on the hotspots across the product lifecycle at your company.
For example, if your product team is struggling with getting closer to and compressing the distance between your product managers and your customers and getting real-time feedback from customers, that's something that product operations could help focus on and really unlock.
There are also interlocks with the go-to-market team and making sure that everybody at the company is well-equipped to bring to market new product offerings that your team is building.
I really believe there’s such a thing as too early, too late, and just the right time to start a product operations team. So, let's talk about what that looks like in pursuit of what I'm calling ‘the Goldilocks moment.’
On the too-early side of the spectrum, a former coworker of mine reached out to me a couple of weeks ago. He wanted to chat about building out his product team. He’d started a company a few months before, and he was looking to hire a product team beyond his co-founding engineer, one product manager, and a couple of contracted developers.
We talked about the right structure for his team and what a good hiring profile should look like. Then he asked me, “When should I hire a product operations manager? Should I do it now? I want to lay the foundation as early as possible for a highly effective, productive product team.
It's definitely forward-thinking, but I advised him against it. Why? Because in order to thrive and add value, product operations needs something to fix, to build off of, and optimize. There has to be a product culture and a DNA to adapt to, pain points to address, and systems and processes that are being outgrown.
If you don't have a product team that has stormed and formed and armed and then experienced some growing pains as the team and company scale, then the time is too early to start a product operations team, in my opinion.
On the too-early or too-late side of the spectrum, too late is definitely the more sinister one because it's much harder to bounce back from.
I've spoken to a lot of folks in the product operations space who were hired to build a product operations team and they weren't set up for success. It was too late for them to truly be effective.
It was striking to me how many of their stories were similar in terms of the kinds of patterns and pain points that companies faced, up to the point where they decided to start a product operations team, and I'd love to dig into what those patterns looked like.
Prior to starting a product operations team, these companies scaled pretty significantly over a six to 12-month period. They nearly doubled the size of their customer-facing teams, sales, and CX. They added a handful of PMs and designers and probably more than a handful of engineers.
Over that same period, you started to see a couple of patterns emerge.
First and foremost, the touchpoints and the channels of collaboration between product and go-to-market teams or customer-facing teams started to break down. Product couldn’t run their bi-weekly meetings with sales and CX to get feedback, keep that interlock, and share roadmap updates.
The meetings became unstructured and there were so many new people it was hard to know who should even be in the meeting. So those started to fall off.
Sales and CX had trouble figuring out how to submit product feedback. They didn't know where to submit it and it went into a black box.
On the flip side, product managers, folks in UX, and engineers didn't know how to handle the feedback coming out at them from 10 different channels. As a result, the trust and goodwill started to deteriorate between product teams and customer-facing teams.
At the same time, internally, product team members who may have managed processes on behalf of the product team had just stepped up and started to manage processes on behalf of the team, and they started to get overwhelmed. They were saying, “There are so many new people. I need to focus on my day job.” They started to grow a little bit resentful.
New PMs, designers, and engineers who started in this hiring process lacked guidance on the product development process. They started to feel lost, and product leaders started to notice a difference in performance between the old guard and the new. It wasn't due to lack of experience or skill, it was because there was ineffective onboarding and ramping of these folks.
These issues became loud enough and troubling enough that product leaders decided they needed to hire a product operations team to address it. So they went to the market, they posted a role, and it took three months, give or take.
In that time, they were telling sales and CX, “Don't worry, this product ops person is going to start and they'll solve everything.
Product team members were saying, “We'll fix that later; this product ops person is going to join.”
So, this product ops person joined, and the cultural issues at that point just ran so deep and the expectations were so high that they weren't set up to be super effective in their role. It was too little too late.
But if we rewind a few months, we can find that Goldilocks moment. So let's talk about the signals that indicate that the time is just right to start a product operations team.