The Real Challenge With Product Operations
I started writing "versus" posts nearly 10 years ago. There were few product management resources out there at the time and lots of confusion about the function. Pitting two topics was the perfect way to distill my thoughts and compare in depth. I thought at some point we might run out of topics — but the questions keep coming. Recently I wrote a blog post about the differences between product management and product operations. The latter seems to be trending in product circles, but I am not sure why.
Product operations and product management serve very different purposes — I believe one does not have a place as a standalone role in most organizations.
Product operations only makes sense when you have a massive portfolio that necessitates serious oversight and standardization of processes, workflows, and tools. Yet increasingly I see people touting "ProdOps" as a crucial investment for scaling product development in any company.
When I took a look at a few job postings for open product operations manager roles (some from meaningful product-oriented organizations), the range of responsibilities was a bit dizzying in scope. Clean up documentation, consolidate customer feedback, organize workflow tools, report on KPIs, schedule roadmap planning sessions, own product launch readiness, and optimize the employee onboarding process.
My personal favorite job responsibility in the role described above? “Be an evangelist for the product team and positively help shape the enterprise product culture.” I just kept thinking that all of this describes what the most successful product managers do.
The problem with a product operations role is that it is an administrative function. It does not build products, but at its best it makes building products more efficient and enjoyable for those who do.
Yes, product management is a complex function with more to do than time allows. And I realize that many product managers are passionate about the potential of a product-specific ops role. (I also read the threads online about product operations “saving” teams and enabling companies to scale.) Why would you not be thrilled that someone is there to do all the things that you are too busy or do not want to do?
In almost every organization I know, the duties ascribed to a product operations person should belong to product managers. It is nearly impossible to separate the day-to-day operational work from the customer, market, and internal team understanding. The best insights often are a result of curiosity and discovery — sitting in on customer calls, organizing the backlog to prioritize what comes next, figuring out the best way to track progress, and continually improving how the team collaborates. Move all of that to an operations person and you miss out on many of the most important aspects of building a lovable product.
Rather than rush to hire someone to do all of the administrative tasks, why not take a look at what is driving you to that conclusion?
It might be uncomfortable to probe. But the reality is you probably already know what you will find. Stronger leadership, clear goals, more training, restructuring the team, evaluating where people are spending time, and maybe hiring more experienced product managers — the growing pains that most product groups experience are rarely solved by adding an ops person. Besides, as well-intentioned and helpful as many of these folks may be, operations typically has very little decision-making authority.
Product managers prioritize where to invest next based on what will bring the most value to all involved. Strategic thinking forces you to confront what is most important. That is the job. Those who say that product operations is poised to become the “backbone” of fast-paced product development are being obtuse.
Your product is a reflection of the team that builds it. Operationalizing product development is a critical part of a product manager’s role. Codifying how the team works together and streamlining processes is an opportunity to improve your product at the same time. Why would you want to hand that off to someone else?
The most efficient product teams use purpose-built product development software.