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What is Product Operations? The four pillars you need to understand deeply

This article was originally posted on Mind the Product on June 23, 2023.

The best leaders approach product operatrions with a product mindset. And, as with a product, you need to understand what is in and out of scope to define your solutions. This four-part framework defines what is product operations. It helps me structure and assess how an organization is working together. I use this as a lens through which I conduct my user research, ideate, and experiment with solutions.

At the highest level, product operations, or product ops, are all the things that help product managers work more efficiently. As a result, product ops ends up defining product culture. Whether an organization’s product ops are run by a dedicated team or are one of the responsibilities of product management, great product ops enable a strong understanding of the product and allow teams to communicate that out.

I break product ops down into four key areas: using data; understanding users; team ownership; and cross-departmental communication. These areas are a variation on Melissa Perri’s framework from Escaping the Build Trap, which Marty Cagan summarizes excellently. I differ from them because I don’t believe tools and processes are a pillar of product ops. Instead, I see tools and processes as the way you improve the pillars of product ops.

The four pillars of product operations: Using data, understanding users, team ownership, cross-departmental communications.

Pillar 1: Using data

Analytics tools allow product managers to measure the success of their products and find opportunities for improvement. They also play a powerful role in helping teams speak the same language.

I once worked at a company whose product development team invested heavily into setting up a beautiful analytics suite. We had a tool that could tell us about conversion rates, we knew what actions users were taking in our apps, and it was fantastic. The only issue was that other departments used a different tool for their data and counted user visits slightly differently. So every time a product manager cited a conversion rate to a non-product person, they had to specify how that conversion was calculated. On top of that, each team defined steps in the conversion funnel independently. I spent my time pulling up data in each tool, comparing them, and trying to debug or explain the gaps. Eventually, we set up a small task force to try and reconcile the issues so we could all be on the same page.

Effective product ops increase trust in the data. It improves access to and use of analytics tools to drive quantitative insights. This might include making it easier for a PM to create a dashboard, creating clear company-wide definitions around certain metrics, or providing resources to introduce best practices around test design and measurement.

Pillar 2: Understanding users

Good product managers know they should talk to customers. But it’s hard. Connecting with users requires a lot of logistics and coordination just to set up the meeting, never mind document and share the findings. Great product ops automates away the busy work from customer interviews and improves how the team documents, categorizes, and shares learnings from these interviews.

A client of mine was struggling to create a shared understanding of their users. I did several things to assist them: first, I automated user recruiting through a chatbot and through an email automation tool. This means that PMs don’t need to recruit or schedule time with customers. Second, I worked with them to create an interview snapshot template that lives in their team wiki. This means that at the end of the interview they know exactly where to write down what they learned in an easily consumable format. Finally, I helped them create places where they can go to find all this information – recordings, snapshots, broader user research reports – so that everyone on the team can view these artifacts in the same place. Through these tools and processes, the team is slowly creating a shared understanding of their users’ needs and use cases. Over time they will develop shared language around how they talk about their customers.

This goes beyond just setting up interviews and repositories. The team should be thinking about different ways to get customer feedback from sales and customer support back to the product team. The data should be categorized and labeled so that as future projects emerge the PMs are well-equipped to search through past research for insights. The best product ops teams understand that creating this shared language isn’t just for the product development team. Stakeholders should have access to our user research and insights too. Democratizing user research across the entire company improves everyone’s work.

Pillar 3: Team ownership

Effective product ops also needs shared ownership across product management, engineering, and design. Gone are the days where product decides what to build, design figures out what it looks like, and engineering makes it. All three roles need to have a say in the direction of the product to have the best results. This takes more deliberate action than ever in today’s remote world.

I look for a few things to determine if there is strong team ownership. First, does everyone on the team feel invested in the problem that they’re trying to solve? The key is bringing the whole team into the entire product process. When thinking about product ops, find tools and processes to enhance that collaboration. Engage the team in finding solutions to challenges – everyone should care about improving how they work together, not just the operations people.

One of the moments where I knew that I had gotten this piece of the puzzle right as a product manager was when I shared a feature idea with my team. One of the QA engineers looked at me after I had talked it through. “That’s a cool-looking button and all, but you had said we were trying to solve a particular problem. This just moves that problem to a different screen.” We went back to the drawing board and worked together to come up with a more effective solution. All the small rituals we had developed as part of our product ops processes created a strong sense of ownership in every role.

Another way to measure team ownership is in terms of the amount of time a product manager spends managing work. Whether they’re working on PRDs, stories, tickets, or requirements, a product manager on a team with high levels of team ownership spends less time detailing every last element. They know that the rest of the group is listening and has a shared understanding of what they’re building and why. The team should be able to self-organize around targets, and the result is the PM does not need to be a micromanager or project manager.

Pillar 4: Cross-departmental communication

A product culture with strong communication allows stakeholders to feel more invested in the success of the product and smooths away conflict. It reduces status updates and busywork for the product managers. Reducing jargon allows everyone to be on the same page.

Effective cross-departmental communication doesn’t appear overnight. At one of my previous companies, we sought to improve our communication with an initial pilot. We assembled a cross-departmental team to plan and execute a feature that would require a complicated rollout. The team kept each other in the loop throughout, from reviewing customer quotes, to defining success metrics, to developing training materials for staff in the field. The team formed a shared language around the end-to-end process and goals. This led to a smoother go-to-market motion for the big launch and helped everyone feel less stress throughout the process.

Product managers hosting back-to-back meetings is not a sustainable or scalable communication method. Especially not on all-remote teams. Product ops can enhance asynchronous communication and make sure everyone understands the product development process. As communication improves, it becomes easier to align on a product roadmap, create an intake process for new ideas, and execute a go-to-market process with fewer surprises.

How does your organization measure against the pillars?

Use this four-part framework to score your organization in each key area. It will help you create a roadmap for your product ops investments. By conducting this type of assessment you’ll have a clear picture of which areas are holding your team back from making better decisions. You’ll be able to get the most value from everyone’s time.

As one area gets better, it will often drive improvements elsewhere. The best product ops leaders cycle through the change management process, finding small experiments to run, making incremental changes, and then iterating to the next.

Many thanks to Erica Ruiz for all her assistance in crafting this article.