It’s there in your head – time to put it on paper
This article was originally posted on Christine Itwaru’s substack, The Product Heart on October 12, 2023. If you aren’t already a subscriber, you should definitely subscribe!
Chris Compston was part of a new product ops team that quickly identified some low-hanging fruit. There were 15 product teams and 18 product requirement document templates. Cleaning that up would be a great first win.
His team consolidated everyone to one template. I connected with him about this experience. He reflected:
“We were satisfying everyone while pleasing no one. It was a huge challenge and the effort and time it took was probably triple what we predicted. The teams did not suddenly become more efficient (what a surprise!) and certainly were no more effective than previously. Customers would have noticed no change in the value they were looking for, the business felt no change on the bottom line.”
They were hoping for fireworks and instead it fizzled. He realized that they weren’t strategic partners to their product team, but had just been reacting with small-scale tactical changes. The team shifted their approach when identifying the next opportunity. Their first step was asking better questions, like how to streamline documentation, improve collaboration, and get more value into the customers’ hands.
These questions and the solutions that emerged from them began to shift product culture. As he described it, they “forced strong discussion that moved us from a ‘throw it over the wall’ waterfall mentality, to truly collaborative product teams focused on customer outcomes and aligned to the business.” In other words, the product ops team became strategic partners to their leadership team.
Become a value multiplier
Christine Itwaru shared on Lenny’s Podcast how product ops can add strategic value to the organization:
“You need to be able to articulate the value to somebody who’s heading up, essentially, businesses and saying, ‘Here’s what this role is going to drive for you at the end of the day.’ The very mature product ops orgs end up having people that are strategic advisors to a product leader. Once you can show that this is what you’ll also get as a result of me and this other person or me and this team doing [product ops], it ends up being an easier conversation.”
Back to Chris. He’s since become a product operations consultant and now approaches all his work with strategic partnership as the goal.
“My approach to any engagement is to communicate early the value this type of partnership can bring. That being the value to the customer and the business. What difference are you going to make to the organization, its customers and how can you impact the business on the bottom line?”
I recently wrote about how to tell if you’re a strategic partner. Now it’s time to talk about how to become one. The fastest way to get there is to build out a product ops strategy stack. Defining the five components of the stack for your organization and continuing to adjust and align them over time sets the foundation for a strong product ops function.
Build your product ops strategy stack
The elements of a strong product ops foundation are the same as in product management – I always refer to Ravi Metha’s product strategy stack when looking at these elements. They lay out five elements of product strategy to help explain the difference between mission, strategy, roadmaps, and goals.
Ravi explains the connection between the five layers well:
“Importantly, each layer of the stack builds on the previous layer…. We cannot have a company strategy without knowing our company’s mission. We cannot have product goals without knowing our product strategy. Given this relationship between the layers, Product Strategy serves a critical role—it is the connective tissue between the objectives of the company and the product delivery work of the product team.”
By clearly defining your stack, you’re making the boundaries of what you will and will not do explicit. Looking back to the example above, having a framework to say “no” and focus in on value-add work instead would can help tremendously.
Below I break down the five layers of the product strategy stack with a product ops specific interpretation. While at the abstract level the stack remains the same as product strategy, each element can be interpreted specifically for product ops.
Vision or mission
What is the product culture you’re trying to build? Work with product leadership to clearly define what great product management work should look like at your company. Look at your company strategy and figure out what product habits are most important to make that succeed. Perhaps you need a more execution-focused team, or a team that is absolutely amazing at discovery. Maybe you want a lot of consistency across every team, or are comfortable with each PM doing things their own way. Just don’t set out to be great at everything – a strong product ops mission should prioritize certain cultural elements over others.
What is the overall product strategy you’re supporting? Product ops strategy should be focused on prioritizing the capabilities that the product strategy needs in order to succeed. Make the product strategy explicit to drive alignment with the product ops strategy you develop. An example: if the product strategy focuses on optimization of current user flows, then the product ops strategy should include making sure that data quality and experimentation infrastructure are able to support that kind of work.
Product ops strategy
As the heart of the product ops strategy stack, the core strategy itself is the largest and most difficult element to build out. It’s the layer most likely to change as the pieces around it shift, and most likely to force the other layers to adjust as it evolves.
How will you turn your vision into a reality? Every strategy is a hypothesis about how the mission will be accomplished. Your product ops strategy should map out a high-level path that explains how and why you will take a particular approach to achieving that mission. Cycle back and forth between the organization strategy and the product ops strategy, because it is likely that as one becomes more clear, it will force the other to shift and vice-versa.
How does the product ops function fit into the overall division of labor? There is no single right way to structure how your product ops team gets work done. For example, some product ops teams use a “staff augmentation” model, where the ops person embeds on the team to help supercharge individual PMs. Others will try to build more shared processes and tools to increase consistency. One quick way to start defining your organization strategy is to define your product ops operating model. This can be a shorthand way to explain how the company plans to deliver product ops value.
What user problems do you need to solve to achieve that strategy? A roadmap focuses on the user problems that are standing between you and your vision. The strategy you’ve defined helps you set which problems you’re going to tackle first. Each problem you successfully solve then (in)validates your strategy, helping you know whether to stay the course or pivot.
How will you know that your strategy is working to achieve your vision? Your goals help you measure whether you’re making progress on your mission. They should confirm that the roadmap is advancing the strategy, and that the strategy is advancing the mission. A good guideline for product ops goals is that they should be focused on whether the product management organization is becoming more effective. If your goals are all around launching tools and getting adoption of tools and processes, you may need to lift your head up to look a little broader.
The most important part is to get started
Crafting your first product ops strategy stack is an investment in having a more focused future. Chris and the Product Ops team realized, through this experience, that having a clearer documentation strategy would’ve been hugely beneficial. You will be able to focus more on what matters if you set up your strategy in advance as well.
Another reason to build it out sooner rather than later is that it should be a tool through which you learn and experiment. You may discover one part of your strategy that doesn’t contribute as much to your goals as you thought it would. The sooner you learn this, the sooner you can adjust.
This kind of adjusting is what Chris Butler, Group Product Manager at Google, calls aligning the product spine.
“I’ve often said that ‘strategy is now’. There isn’t a difference between tactical and strategic decision making in my mind. You ideally need to apply the high-level strategies to every decision. This is a key part of the product spine. There is a very important aspect that the strategy should be applied fractally down the levels of abstraction from very high level to middle level (like roadmaps, OKRs, etc.) and lowest level (backlog). If you can’t chain these things together, there is a break that will cause problems in the execution of the strategy.
As you go through this exercise, walk up and down the stack to ensure there’s alignment between each component. Every layer should connect to the other layers in a logical, cohesive fashion. If something doesn’t flow quite right, that’s a sign that the alignment is off and you will need to make adjustments. Eventually, the whole stack will click together, with each element supporting the others.
The best strategies come via collaboration
The majority of my failures setting strategy have been in cases where I tried to do it alone. This has led to a lack of buy-in, nearsighted focus, illogical jumps in reasoning, and a general shortage of good ideas. The more I’ve collaborated on strategic exercises in the past, the better my results have been.Don’t try to do this alone. Collaborate with your product leadership, colleagues, and users. The more people you involve in your process, the better the outcomes will be. If you want an outside perspective on how to build out your stack, this will be a core component of the upcoming Product Ops Impact Accelerator and I’d love for you to join us to build out a great stack for 2024.