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What should product leaders spend their time on?

A book review of Product Operations

Product operations has finally made its way into product leadership conversations. This attention can partially be attributed to the launch of Melissa Perri and Denise Tilles’ new book, Product Operations: How successful companies build better products at scale – if Melissa Perri thinks something is worth writing a book about, the community listens.

The book’s argument implies one big question: what should product leaders and product managers actually be spending their time on? The authors’ answer: once you start scaling, not product operations. They recommend hiring a separate team to handle the challenges of a growing team.

In that sense, this book feels like a sequel to Melissa’s first book, Escaping the Build Trap: How Effective Product Management Creates Real Value. In that book, she explained how product management can deliver value. In Product Operations, they explain how to free up product management and leadership time so they can actually succeed.

Is product ops the best path forward?

As they explain, being such a new discipline means a lot of people don’t understand what product ops is or why it matters. Melissa and Denise promise to lift the veil of confusion by telling a fictional story, explaining what product ops is, and sharing case studies from companies like Fidelity, Amplitude, and Stripe. They want you to see the undeniable appeal of product operations: “Once product managers, product leaders, and the C-suite fully grasp the leverage product operations brings, everyone will want it – and should want it.”

They address the counter-argument to this right at the beginning: most successful companies have created product teams without hiring product ops professionals. 

Lots of product managers are, in fact, taking on many aspects of product operations. What’s the problem with that? 

Well… they’re burning out.

Product ops is one method to solve the problem of scaling product teams, but not the only strategy you can employ. Bringing on product ops has its own challenges. Yet all the alternative ways you can solve this problem have challenges too.

Explaining product ops

In terms of introducing the audience to the world of product ops, the authors do a wonderful job. Their three pillars are clear and comprehensive:

  • Business data and insights: Collection and analysis of internal data for strategy creation and monitoring
  • Customer and market insights: Facilitation and aggregation of external research
  • Process and practices: Scaling product management value with consistent cross-functional practices and frameworks

I worry that that the “process and practices” naming makes it sound like product ops’ job is to deploy processes and define templates. While these are common methods used in product ops to achieve success, the goal of a great product ops team is never to implement a new process. The goal of the team should always be to encourage a particular behavior. The detailed write up covers this nuance, but the way the pillar is named runs the risk of people glossing over that critical information.

As for why product leaders would want product ops – they present the strategic value of product ops quite clearly. Their examples of product ops in practice showcase leaders who are driving the capacity of the organization forward. They touch on the ways in which product ops can also remove administrative burden from leadership, while making clear that those administrative tasks are only one aspect of the function. Product ops does not aim to be an assistant to a product leader or product manager.

In terms of their third promise – how to run a product ops team – it would be impossible to write a book that answers this question for every organization. Instead, they provide a variety of ideas on how to get started. These include convincing C-level executives of the value of this investment to deciding which problems to solve. They then sketch out what growth might look like, including some different topologies for product ops teams, and explain different ways to think about measuring product ops success.

Denise explained a key philosophy behind their writing:

I wanted to make sure we had something that was truly grounded in reality and had just so much actionable insights, positive case studies, case studies with lessons learned. And so I think that was sort of our guiding light, our product principle.

There will never be one guide to everything product ops

This book cannot be a step-by-step guide that tells you every detail of what to do. That’s because one cannot do product ops in a cookie-cutter manner. It needs to be customized for the organization it’s in and the culture it’s trying to build. Given those constraints, this book gets as close as most anyone can to providing tangible, clear steps towards launching a product ops function.

After the success of Melissa’s first book, eager anticipation surrounded this one. The authors managed to get a remarkable amount of information into an easy-to-read, concise format. It’s up to the reader to decide if product ops has undeniable appeal and is required for organizational scale. But there’s no question, after reading, that it has the potential to add value to many organizations.

Many thanks to my reviewers: Kedar Deshpande and Larry McKeogh. This post contains affiliate links.

Bonus: Roundtable discussion on the book

I was lucky enough to moderate a discussion with four people featured in the book: Clare Hawthorne, Gerisha Nadaraju, Adrian Leung, and Hugo Froes. We talked about how each of them got involved with the book, what they thought of it overall, and some lessons learned. Watch the whole thing: