Product Management vs. Product Operations
“Help people think less to think more.” A few years ago I was asked to speak to a group of product leaders at one of the world’s largest venture capital firms. Even though Aha! is a bootstrapped company, these VC-backed companies were eager to learn product development best practices from our team of experts.
Our team has been fortunate to learn a myriad of lessons that could benefit any organization. But what felt most relevant to talk about was that product leaders need to enable their team to do the best work possible.
The most successful organizations operate with a clear structure that allows people to achieve without distraction or dysfunction.
The team that plans, builds, and maintains the products your customers rely upon is often most in need of this kind of organizational support. Product management is demanding with many responsibilities, which is what makes it an exciting and fulfilling career. Every product manager feels like there is too much to do. Balancing administrative duties with capturing customer feedback, roadmap planning, and working closely with engineering and marketing can feel unwieldy. So you hire more people to help, which puts pressure on your workflows and tools.
Given that Aha! builds tools for product development teams, people often ask how we operationalized our approach to building products. It helps that we use our own software to plan and manage what we create. We have meticulously documented processes and information for reference and training purposes from day one. Now that our company is much larger, we set aside time to discuss process improvements in our weekly product team meetings. Documentation stays fresh and is integral to onboarding new hires. We also have a product team charter with explicit roles and responsibilities outlined.
The scenario I described is quite common. Typically it is the product manager and broader product team's responsibility to refine the product building process. The idea of a product operations person who is solely dedicated to centralizing standards and workflows might be compelling. But unless the organization is a large enterprise with many products and teams, I do not believe that product operations is needed. It can hinder more than help. Boundaries get blurred and internal confusion bubbles up.
Pushing for product excellence naturally leads to seeking new ways to better manage that work. But more is often just more — process for process’s sake helps no one.
There has been some debate in the product world about whether product operations is merely a new label for an existing need. There were some precursors, such as project management on a product team and program management. Product owners and scrum masters often help with managing processes and tooling. In most cases, product management guides the team and decides how work gets done.
Here is how we view the differences between product management and product operations:
Product managers make an impact by driving product innovation and business growth. You build the future. Your work is dynamic and multifaceted — no two days are the same. The broader product team looks to you to prioritize and plan work that will create the most value for the least effort. And your role directly contributes to making customers happy.
Product operations managers make an impact by boosting team efficiency. Your contributions are both immediate and forward-thinking — helping the product team scale by identifying blockers, creating repeatable processes, and adopting the right software. While you do not contribute to building the product itself, everyone on the product team relies on the infrastructure you create and maintain to help them do their best.
Product managers make sure the product strategy is top of mind in every stage of product development — from building the roadmap to gathering customer feedback on what was delivered. You are a nexus between engineering, leadership, marketing, and external partners.
Product operations managers strongly guide standards and the process. You identify ways to streamline internal workflows and ensure the product team has the right tech stack — including whiteboarding tools, roadmapping software, customer feedback solutions, and analytics.
Product management requires empathy for customers. It takes laser focus on business goals and a deep understanding of customer needs to deliver value to both.
Product operations requires empathy for colleagues. A keen eye for process and a passion for administrative work are crucial to helping different product teams work in a common way.
Product managers act as cross-functional leaders throughout product development. This includes the core product team and extends to a variety of stakeholders — including executives, partners, and customer-facing teams. Superb writing, listening, and communication skills are needed. Presentation and research expertise are beneficial too.
Product operations managers support all product teams and executive leadership. Similar to product management, product operations is about solving problems for others — so empathy and communication also matter. This role must be able to spot the root cause of workflow issues, tool proliferation, and team knowledge gaps. Tact and straightforward communication go a long way.
Product management is responsible for bringing products to market. It is core to the function — aligning the organization around what must be completed in order to deliver something new. Product managers are responsible for communicating launch timing and progress to internal teams, such as sales and support.
Product operations is not directly involved in how a product is brought to market. But setting processes and keeping groups aligned throughout development facilitates smoother launches.
Few product teams require a dedicated product operations person. For the most part, it is product managers who dedicate time and effort to operationalizing how the team builds products.
A forward-thinking product development model requires a holistic multi-stage process, a dedicated product team, and an organizational commitment to delivering real value. Product managers should own this unless there is a glaring reason that it is not feasible. And leaders should make it a priority to help people think less to think more. A common way of working makes it easier to track progress, stay aligned across products, and enable people to move between teams.
Every product team is different. But each one deserves world-class tools.