Skip to content

When the tool gets in the way of the goal

The product operations equivalent of the feature factory

My brand-new client was stumped. “We signed up for this roadmapping tool, but it just doesn’t seem to be doing us any good. Can you help us make the product managers on our team update their roadmaps more frequently?”

I asked them why they wanted me to be a temporary administrator of this particular tool.

“So users can tell us what they want us to build and so stakeholders stop complaining that they don’t know what we’re working on.” But that wasn’t how they wanted to build their product, and stakeholders didn’t want to be communicated with in that way.

I have seen this sort of thing more times than I can count. Bringing on a shiny new tool, expect it to make things better, and then be disappointed that you’re paying all this money and nobody is using it. Try to solve it by putting a person “in charge” of the tool.

The tool got in the way of the goal

This might be the most common product operations mistake I see. Someone’s job becomes managing or enforcing use of the tool instead of trying to achieve a certain goal. It’s the product operations equivalent of the feature factory.

I love talking to people who have just been hired into product operations roles. But frequently when I ask them what they’re doing, the answer is “implement a roadmapping/analytics/customer research tool”. They’re mixing up the HOW (the tool) with the WHAT (improving the product manager experience). 

Nobody takes a job because they get to be the “Jira/Productboard/Pendo/fill-in-the-blank Administrator”. People take jobs because they want to contribute to a greater purpose, achieve things that they can only do as a team, and have an impact on someone’s life. 

The purpose of product operations isn’t to automate things. The purpose of product operations is to improve how the product management team uses data and collaborates across the org.

The tool was out of the way of the process

If you look at my client’s request again, they wanted me to get more people to use it. This was the second major error I’ve seen. A company picks a tool, and expects everyone’s processes to shift to easily incorporate that tool.

But employees were working without the tool before. Their habits don’t include the tool. And colleagues in different departments aren’t even thinking about the tool.

This goes for tools and processes both. John Cutler wrote about how tactics and processes, like tool implementations will change, but the operational goal should be the same:

Start with principles, and you’ll discover the right approach for the current challenge. This isn’t meant to diminish process, just noting that principles establish a strong foundation.

To change culture and habits, the tool needs to easily fit into everyone’s workflows. If the tool isn’t getting used, it’s likely because it was introduced as an extra step in people’s workflows instead of replacing a current step.

Drake meme - Prod ops feature factory - no! Clear mission, vision, and strategy - oh yeah!

Get the tool to support the goal

The best way to keep the tool from getting in the way of the goal is to invest in your product operations strategic foundation.

Just like a great product will always have a clear mission, vision, and strategy, a great product operations function will have a clear mission, vision, and strategy written down.

This document should answer:

  • What kind of product culture you’re trying to build
  • Why that’s the product culture you want
  • What are the biggest problems product managers at your company currently face
  • What order you want to address those challenges and why

When there’s a temptation to bring on a new tool, make sure it fits into the strategy first. Then make sure it fits into your current workflows. If it doesn’t, re-evaluate the solution you’ve come up with. Consider prototyping with a Google Sheet or running something manually.

Do your user research by talking to your coworkers, run experiments, prototype and test. The foundational work of product management belongs here too. And hopefully, at the end of this process, you’ll understand if you need a tool, and if so, how to implement it so everyone can use it.

Let’s draft your mission, vision, and strategy together

I’m thinking of doing a workshop or course to help people develop their product operations missions, visions, and strategy. If that’s something you’d be interested in, set up time to talk with me. I’ll happily walk through your thought process and provide feedback on a draft document.