The Two Sides of Product Operations
October 4, 2022

The Two Sides of Product Operations

by Brian de Haaff

Just how necessary is product operations? The answer to this question depends on your definition of product ops. Many folks think of product ops as a specific function or role. But if you broaden your thinking about what product ops does (and who does it), you may find a new perspective that can enrich your product development practice.

Product operations centers around enabling teams to create better customer experiences. If everyone in the organization can adopt this way of thinking, more value is delivered to all.

Product development is dynamic work. And it is a great responsibility and honor to oversee a product from strategy to launch and beyond. That is why I felt compelled to share my thinking about product ops in a recent blog post. It was a reaction to what I saw as a trending topic in product circles — the idea that product ops is a crucial investment for scaling product development in any company. But from my perspective, building out a dedicated group is often not helpful.

Yet I do know there are times that a dedicated product ops manager or team is needed. Our Product Success team works closely with quite a few organizations like this. Typically these are very large enterprises with many product managers who oversee a complex portfolio of products. There is already a clear company strategy and product vision — easily understood and accessible to all the teams who are responsible for carrying it out — and the company is focused on streamlining product development processes.

However I stand by my assertion that rolling out a product ops function is not necessary in most cases. Too often the decision is a reaction to deeper problems that one person or team cannot really fix. Product ops alone cannot help an organization scale product development. And it will never solve foundational issues that need to be addressed at the executive level — dysfunction, weak strategy, or unrealistic promises.

So how do you know when you are ready for that extra ops layer? Before rushing to add a standalone function, be ruthless about why you think it is needed in the first place.

A more sustainable path forward is to ingrain an ops style of thinking into the entire product team. Here are some common challenges that your team might be facing — and how to work together in an operational way to solve them:

When chaos rules

If functional groups have separate goals and processes, coming together can be challenging. Encourage folks to make their workflows and plans transparent — openly discuss points of friction or redundancy. Work together to define team processes, repeatable templates, and shared documentation. This is particularly important when teams depend on one another. This is common in environments where there is a platform team, for example. A clear understanding of how work moves from product to engineering to shipped for every product becomes key to everyone's success.

When functions are siloed

Every team speaks its own language. That can be beneficial — but you still need to understand each other. Determine how and when to share important information. Productive standups and team meetings require an agenda and agreement on what needs to be solved. When the thought of breaking down siloes feels like a giant ask, start small. Even simply having some key points of discussion and desired goals for the meeting can help move things along.

When tools are inadequate

Does each team use a different tool to manage their day-to-day work? When product and engineering have their own backlogs and feature boards, no wonder things become hard to find and out of sync. Ideally, you use one software to form plans, define and prioritize features, capture feedback from customers, and track the details of the work. The best tools turn your daily work and data into visualizations you can use to gain insights and build better products.

When accountability is weak

It is easy to get distracted by the daily grind — checking off tasks and closing tickets just to get things off your plate. Lazy problem-solving and lack of engagement tend to spread quickly. As a team, you have to ask yourselves — why are we doing what we do? Reconnect with your vision and purpose. Bring curiosity to your daily work. One of the best ways to boost accountability is by linking measurable outcomes to every goal and initiative. When you know what the team needs to accomplish, you can better guide yourself towards meaningful work.

When communication is poor

As the team grows, you have to stay hyper-focused on the fundamentals. Even in an organization with consistent workflows, healthy communication, and shared tools, new team members need support to get up to speed. That means making it easy for them to understand team values, terminology, roles and responsibilities, and workflows. Adding people to the team is also a great opportunity to review and streamline how you get great work done.

Establishing and nurturing a holistic product development practice requires everyone's participation. We are all responsible for working together to achieve excellence and efficiency.

Let's say you have already addressed the above challenges and encouraged the entire team to adopt an operational mindset — but you decide that you still need to roll out a dedicated product ops team. The good news is that you now have a whole team with an efficiency mindset who wants to standardize how they work and interact. When everyone feels accountable for how you are delivering value to customers, it is not only the team that benefits — the product and company do as well.

Product development software that your entire team will love. Try Aha! free for 30 days.

Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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