In essence, the ultimate goal of any product team is simple: Make a product, then make it better. Product managers compile user data, customer feedback, industry trends, and business goals to determine their product’s features and direction.
However, it’s not always this simple day-to-day, especially when a business begins to scale. As a company launches more products and these products take on more features, systems and processes become too much for product managers to maintain. Added to the confusion is exponentially more product data and user feedback, which must be considered when crafting a delightful product.
This is where product operations comes in. While you may have heard of sales operations or marketing operations, the newer idea of product operations might be less familiar to you. What does a product operations manager actually do?
Not to worry — in this post, we’ll explore the role of product operations within the product team and company at large, including what tasks they perform, why they’re important for growing companies, and what makes the role different from a product manager.
What is product operations?
Product operations (or product ops for short) is a role within a product team that supports product managers by facilitating cross-team collaboration, collecting and managing data, selecting software tools, and creating standards and best practices for internal teams, among other streamlining functions.
The exact responsibilities of a product operations team will vary from company to company depending on the organization’s internal structure, culture, industry, and the product(s) it makes. However, like marketing ops is to marketing and sales ops is to sales, product ops exists to make the product team more efficient, effective, and consistent.
Why is product operations important?
Going back 10 to 15 years, product operations wasn’t really a thing at companies of any size. Why has this role become so important in recent years?
The biggest benefit of product operations is that it saves product managers time. Before product ops, a product manager was in charge of everything related to their side of the product, from low-level tasks (e.g., conducting research, managing data, and establishing processes for the team) to high-level tasks (e.g., making decisions about how the product should work and what it should include). This is a lot of time-consuming work that pulls from various areas of expertise — not the best recipe for efficiency.
With a product operations team, product managers no longer need to worry about the low-level stuff. Product ops provides the data and insights that inform the product manager’s decisions, which allows product managers to focus exclusively on their core job: developing, improving, and launching the product and its updates.
Is product operations necessary?
Not always. For example, small businesses likely do not have the headcount and resources for a product operations team. In these cases, product ops tasks could be shouldered by someone else on the product team, like a product manager or a project manager.
However, as a business grows and its product offerings increase, a dedicated product operations manager or project operations team becomes an invaluable resource for the product organization. Without product ops, the product team must devote more time and resources to internal work in lieu of developing products. With product ops, product managers can do their core job while the ops team keeps them informed.
To sum up, product operations is the secret sauce to a scaling product org. Well, not so secret anymore. Today, they’re commonplace at larger product-focused businesses.
Product Operations Responsibilities
If you look at the typical product operations role across 10 different companies, you’ll get 10 different answers — the responsibilities of product ops depend on the needs of the company. However, this role is generally in charge of the following areas as they relate to product teams:
To stay competitive, all businesses leverage data to some extent to assess their current standing and shape goals for the future.
In a product org, data helps the team prioritize which areas of the products to focus on. Product managers need to know which parts of the product are working, which aren’t, and which could be enhanced with some tweaks. Data from users can guide this work by telling product managers what needs to be addressed first.
Still, extracting information from data is easier said than done. Products and research can generate heaps of data that isn’t actionable by itself, and product managers may not have the time to dive deep into customer datasets.
Fortunately, product ops does have the time — a big part of their job is collecting, cleaning, and combing the data for the best insights into the product, then sharing this data with the broader product team.
Data could include a range of quantitative and qualitative items, including Net Promoter Score (NPS), product usage data, results from experiments, sales numbers, and feedback from surveys and interviews.
For instance, if a newly launched product feature is seeing a relatively low adoption rate, a product operations manager can confirm this with the data and present their information to product managers who then decide whether to improve, change, or sunset the feature.
This important work by product ops allows others to act on these insights instead of searching themselves. Product ops helps product managers decide not just what to do, but where to focus.
Research and Experiments
Besides data analysis, it often falls on the product ops team to collect this data with product research. For example, product ops uses software tools to skim data from product users: which features are used the most (and how), the challenges that customers face, and how “sticky” the product is in the users’ daily workflow.
Feedback is another crucial look into the customer experience — companies need to keep users happy so they don’t just use the product, but recommend it to others. The product ops team obtains customer feedback through surveys, reviews, interviews, NPS, support tickets, and other forms of market research. They also create systems to organize and act on this feedback. With the help of product ops, product managers keep customers top-of-mind without getting bogged down in the logistics of data.
Lastly, product ops administers all experiments run by the product team, making sure that each experiment follows a consistent protocol and won’t interfere with other preexisting experiments. Product ops will also unpack the data from these experiments and share insights with product managers.
Processes and Resources
Another key role of product operations is creating, sharing, and refining the processes that power the wider product team. It’s their job to identify tasks that are time-consuming and repetitive, then develop more efficient, standardized ways of completing them.
These tasks may include product research and testing, planning releases, data analysis, and product roadmapping. Product ops may also develop the product team onboarding process for new hires. Additionally, they handle company-wide product education and training, which is essential for keeping marketing, sales, and customer service teams up-to-speed on the product’s capabilities.
Once these processes are established, product operations documents these processes and shares them as resources that product managers can easily reference. Thorough documentation is key for an aligned team, establishing a single source of truth for each internal process. Resources take the form of templates, how-to guides, and lists of best practices. They may be stored in a company wiki, internal knowledge base, and/or cloud storage.
Of course, no single process is set in stone. As teams, company structure, business goals, and industry technologies change, so will internal processes. Within the product org, it’s on product ops to update the documentation accordingly.
To support its processes, a product team leverages several software tools. A company’s arsenal of preferred tools is called a “tech stack.” As a company scales, these tools can number in the dozens and quickly become untameable without an owner.
Product operations is responsible for selecting, implementing, and managing the product team’s tech stack. They also train product managers on proper use, write guides, and create best practices for each tool.
Again, with product operations handling the more low-level duties of the product team, product managers can devote their efforts to perfecting the product itself.
Cross-Team Communication and Alignment
Last on this list (but definitely not least on this list), product operations works to keep the product team aligned with other orgs within the company. By advocating for the users’ needs and sharing product value, insights, and goals, product ops helps the entire business stay focused on its products.
Almost every team in a company needs to work closely with the product team. Namely, marketing and sales teams need to understand the product to sell it, and may request customer feedback or trends to include in their materials. Engineering needs the product specs to actually build the product, and the service team can leverage customer feedback and data to support users.
To achieve this, product ops creates educational materials to update the rest of the company about the product. They also share product-related data, resources, and ideas with teams outside of product, and receive important communications from other teams. This collaborative work is critical to prevent a siloed culture within the business.
Ultimately, communication and alignment between the product team and other teams keep a business competitive. When the product team shares its knowledge and resources, it helps other teams acquire new users and support existing ones, resulting in faster growth and more goals met.
Product Operations vs. Product Management
Now that we’ve unpacked the role of product operations, it helps to distinguish between product ops and the closely related product management role. While these two work in tandem, product managers and product operations managers have different responsibilities.
Essentially, a product manager develops the product by factoring in business objectives and customer needs, whereas a product operations manager supports the product manager by equipping them with relevant data and processes. Put a different way, product managers generally own the high-level, long-term responsibilities while product operations managers own the low-level, day-to-day responsibilities.
Here are some examples of how product management and operations collaborate:
- Product ops collects, sorts, and organizes product data, then works with product management to extract insights. Product management then uses these insights to guide product development.
- Product ops and product management may come up with ideas for experiments together. Product ops will execute these experiments and share results with product management.
- Product management creates and implements tools and processes that are used by product management. Product managers may also provide feedback about these processes to product ops to help improve them.
- As product management develops the product, product operations promotes changes in the product to the rest of the company.
Note that product-centric companies need product managers, but not all companies need or can support product operations. The product ops role is more often seen in larger businesses with many internal assets.
Product Operations: Keeping the Product Team Running Smoothly
If your business is scaling rapidly and encountering growing pains on the product team, product operations could be the solution to accommodate the team’s expanding needs. Without it, healthy growth may not be achievable.
All company teams need clearly defined processes, carefully picked tools, and efficient communications with other teams, and product is no different. Sorting all this out is a full-time job in and of itself, so consider bringing product ops into the mix. Given the growing popularity of this role in recent years, your business definitely won’t be the only one.