Decoding product operations

In product landscape, the concept of the 'Product Operations' function has become more and more popular. Top companies like OpenAI, Stripe, and Uber all have this function in their product teams.

But what exactly is Product Operations? Is it just a buzzword in the corporate world, or does it hold tangible benefits for your organisation?

Today, we dive into the heart of Product Operations. We'll explore its key components and by the end of this article, you should have a better understanding of what product ops is (and is not), what this role is responsible for, and why it is beneficial.

Product operations: more than just a support role

Product Operations is about streamlining and optimising the product management process. It focuses on enhancing the efficiency and effectiveness of product teams by providing them with the tools, data, and processes they need to succeed. This function acts as a bridge between various teams – connecting product management, engineering, marketing, and sales – ensuring that everyone is aligned and moving towards a common goal.

Melissa Perri and Denise Tilles describe Product Operations as a function designed to enable product managers to concentrate more on strategic work rather than being bogged down by operational tasks.

“You fell in love with building products for a reason, but sometimes the day-to-day reality is a little different than you imagined. Instead of dreaming up big ideas, talking to customers, and crafting a strategy, you're drowning in spreadsheets and roadmap updates and you're spending your days basically putting out fires.”

They also highlight that product operations (or product ops), is an emerging discipline designed to help product teams operate as effectively as possible. The role builds a foundation of excellence through metrics, infrastructure, business processes, best practices, budgeting, and reporting.

According to Perri, Product ops is similar to a backstage crew in theatre, preparing the stage for product managers to succeed. ‍

Denise Tilles describes Product Operations by highlighting its role in supporting and streamlining the work of product managers. She outlines Product Ops as a function that enhances the efficiency and quality of decision-making within a company.

“Product Ops should not necessarily reinvent the wheel but rather connect existing teams, like data science or business intelligence teams, through a product-focused lens.”

Key responsibilities

The role of product operations can often be perplexing. Denise Tilles, speaking on Lenny's podcast, clarifies it by categorizing the responsibilities of product ops into three main pillars.

Business and data insights

This area focuses on the quantitative aspects of product management. It involves ensuring that product managers have access to key engagement and revenue data, as well as other crucial quantitative insights, to make informed and smart decisions.

Customer market insights

This pillar centres on the qualitative side of product management. It encompasses activities such as identifying and communicating with customers, gathering diverse customer feedback, and synthesising this information to provide comprehensive market insights.

Process and practices

This area is about the methodologies and processes involved in product development and management. It includes establishing and refining the processes and practices that help the business operate more effectively in the way they build and manage products.

The definition of a product ops role can vary slightly. Let’s review how it could be split differently. For example, Mind the product breaks down product ops into four key areas: using data; understanding users; team ownership; and cross-departmental communication.

What are the advantages of having a product operations function?

‍The main advantage of product ops is relieving product managers of operational burdens, enabling them to focus on strategic initiatives.

According to Melissa Perri, Product Ops enables product managers to focus more on strategic work rather than being overloaded with operational tasks. By building a Product Ops team, companies can create shared systems and infrastructure, thereby allowing product managers to concentrate the majority of their time on strategic aspects of product management.

This shift increases overall productivity and strategic focus. Product Ops supports skilled product managers and leaders, helping them perform their roles better, rather than replacing essential product management skills or decision-making responsibilities.

Denise Tilles' notes that Product Ops helps product managers focus on what they were actually hired for, namely the strategic work. This approach allows product managers to dedicate more time and energy to high-level strategic initiatives rather than getting bogged down in operational details.

Product Ops supports go-to-market strategies and facilitates efficient communication and coordination between different teams, such as sales and product teams. This helps in breaking down silos within the organization and improving overall collaboration and efficiency.

When should you hire product ops?

It all comes down to the following situations:

The scale and complexity of the organization

when organisations grow and their product management processes become more complex, they need to streamline these processes and ensure efficiency.

Need for strategic focus in product management

when product managers become overly burdened with operational tasks, and it hinders their ability to focus on strategic work.

Cross-functional collaboration and efficiency

If there are collaboration challenges between different departments (product management, sales, and marketing) and they need to break down silos.

Data and insight management needs

the increasing need for managing and interpreting business and customer data effectively to inform product decisions.‍

Product ops in action

For instance, at Uber, Blake Samic established a product ops function to streamline processes and ensure effective communication across teams. At Stripe, product ops played a pivotal role in scaling their product management practices, focusing on data and insights to drive strategic decisions.

Similarly, at OpenAI, the product ops team works closely with product managers, providing them with essential data and insights, and ensuring processes are aligned with company goals. These examples illustrate the tangible impact of product ops in enhancing the overall efficiency and strategic focus of product teams.

Through this exploration, the role of product operations in the contemporary tech landscape is highlighted as an integral part of successful product management, underscoring its growing importance and relevance in the industry.

At Stripe, Product Operations builds the connective tissue between product and user-facing teams, increasing leverage, so that Stripe can ultimately deliver more value to more users, faster.

Responsibilities of product ops at Stripe

  • Drive top company priority user betas, launches, and global rollouts (in partnership with product marketing, user operations, account management, product training, and others)
  • Own product launch readiness to ensure that user-facing teams are ready with the information and processes required to support new products
  • Collect, quantify & prioritize product-related challenges to be considered by product and engineering in future development. Uplevel the understanding of how the product is being used in the real world
  • Develop novel processes & tools and share your thought leadership on how to run efficient betas and launches at Stripe
  • Identify and actively build connections with relevant subject matter experts across the company to surface insights, to get them excited about what your team is building, and to pave the way for smoother future rollouts
  • Build partnerships, design feedback loops, and create coordination points with regional go-to-market and product teams

Final thoughts

Far from being a mere buzzword or a support function, Product Operations emerges as a pivotal element that can drive tangible benefits for organizations. It stands as a testament to the evolution of product management practices, aiming to enhance productivity, foster innovation, and streamline the path from strategic vision to execution.

Understanding Product Operations is not just about acknowledging its existence but recognizing its critical contribution to aligning teams, optimizing processes, and leveraging data for informed decision-making. It enables product managers to reclaim their strategic roles, free from the quagmire of operational tasks, and focus on what truly matters: delivering value to customers and driving the product forward.

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