Product Managers Have Way Too Much on Their Plates. It’s Time to Hire Product Ops.

October 8, 2020

It was only a matter of time. First, we saw the emergence of the sales operations function. Then, as marketing became more data-driven and strategic, they also developed their own operations role.

And now that product management has been on the scene for a good three decades or so, it has also matured to the point of warranting an operations function of its very own.

While it may have started out as more of a back office-type function, product has risen to much greater prominence—especially in product-led organizations. Because of its mission-critical role, it has been given more resources, budget and access to operational support designed to maximize success.

But what exactly is product operations? How and when should organizations add it into the mix? And what does it take to make it work?

OpenView Partner and BUILD Podcast host Blake Bartlett spoke with Christine Itwaru about these exact questions. As the Director of Product Operations at Pendo (and someone who is deeply passionate about product operations), Christine offered some great insights.

Listen to the full episode below, or scroll down to read the rest of this story.

Product ops, defined

“I think about product operations as a golden thread that weaves through multiple teams across an organization and outward to customers,” Christine said. “It’s a connective element that facilitates internal and external communication and information flow that balances business-first and customer-first mindsets to drive great business outcomes.”

Christine’s metaphor is apt since product ops really is one of the most cross-functional roles in an organization. And that’s one of the reasons Christine loves it so much. She finds its ability to cover every angle of the business gives her an exciting vantage point from which to drive tangible results.

We’ve been seeing a rise in cross-functionality across the board, inspired by the many benefits such an approach delivers to both the company and its customers. A cross-functional approach helps a company create much more holistic, seamless and friction-free experiences for customers, employees and partners.

The catch: If it’s not handled well, cross-functionality can create a lot of chaos as people try to resolve all the different perspectives into strategic action.

“The creation of the product ops role is at least in part a response to the very real pain point of product managers having way too much on their plates.”

Such chaos can be managed by focusing on the purpose of an ops function. As with sales and marketing, product ops is all about learning how to execute with more detailed processes, rigor and standards. This kind of approach is not only a more appropriate and effective way to support a mature product management role, it also provides a much-needed lifeline for over-burdened product managers.

The creation of the product ops role is at least in part a response to the very real pain point of product managers having way too much on their plates—vision, strategy, execution, team alignment, customer interaction optimization, content creation, data science integration and so on.

It’s a lot. So it just makes sense to offload some responsibilities to product ops—or at least give your product managers a partner in crime.

How Pendo does product ops: Cross-functionality in practice

Christine talks to a lot of different people about product ops, and in the course of those conversations she’s learned that there are different “flavors” of product ops depending on the industry and the point at which an organization decides to flex the product ops muscle.

For instance, one product ops group might focus on managing production issues in order to keep customers happy, while another might spend the bulk of its time managing the entire planning process.

At Pendo, Christine’s team of five has adopted the more cross-functional approach, which makes particular sense since Pendo is a product-led organization. A product cloud that provides user insight, guidance and communication for digital teams, Pendo helps product teams deliver software that users love.

Related read: What is product led growth?

Christine’s product operations group is built around people with specific skill sets including product education and enablement, technical writing and documentation, and data. The team partners closely with product managers, product marketing and the product design team, and they report—along with those groups—to the CPO.

“Our product operations team is super cross-functional,” said Christine. “We’re liaisons for the sales team when they need help getting a deal over the line, the liaison for customer success when they need help moving an at-risk customer out of the red, and we spend a lot of time just thinking about how to package all the information we get from our internal and external customers for the product team.”

Christine and her team are clearly comfortable with living the “golden thread” metaphor and moving seamlessly between different functions in an effort to inform great product decisions.

As I mentioned earlier, a lot of the tasks Christine’s team handles used to fall solely on the product manager’s shoulders. “Product managers are typically stretched very thin,” Christine said. “They have their big-picture responsibilities around vision, strategy and execution; and then they’re also expected to jump in when a customer goes into the red, generate great content for the knowledge base, and partner with the data science team to identify in-product opportunities. There’s just not enough time.”

At Pendo, product ops has stepped in to help, particularly in areas where they can amplify the product team’s impact on the organization and on customers. In addition, Christine and her team help to arm the sales and success teams (a role traditionally played by product marketing).

“It makes a lot of sense for us to take on these roles because we sit so close to the product team,” Christine explained. “We know everything that’s going on almost as intimately as they do.”

Success measurements: Still in development, but important

Because product ops is still an emerging role, the metrics and measurement frameworks are still developing. This doesn’t mean measurement isn’t important. It is.

“Product operations done right becomes a change agent within an organization,” Christine said. “However, to be truly effective, change needs to be measured. So, if you’re looking to drive really great experience and business outcomes through your product, you need to make sure there is a person or group who ensures consistent data alignment and touch points between your customers and the product team.”

The other thing you need to acknowledge when thinking about success is that change is hard. Solving problems doesn’t happen overnight. You need to lay the groundwork so that people are willing to learn and adapt as your product ops team iterates on solutions.

Christine’s team starts the process by working with product operations’s internal and external customers to identify opportunities for alleviating pain. They also meet with the CPO to review implementation plans for the next quarter, and then reverse-engineer the actions and numbers to put behind those plans.

In essence, their approach looks both backward and forward to identify ways they can positively impact the business. For instance, they might do a post-mortem on a launch that went awry in order to assess what they could have done differently in terms of internal alignment and external communication. Or, they might focus on the business objective of collecting customer feedback and determine how product ops can help increase the volume and quality of feedback.

The big question: Do you need product ops?

Every company will need product ops at some point. Just as sales and marketing scale up and require an operations function to reach maximum effectiveness, product will need the same kind of support.

This is especially true for product-led companies, but it applies to all serious software companies because even those that aren’t formally product-led still put product at the forefront of their organizations.

If everyone is going to need product operations eventually, there are two questions you need to answer: When is it the right time to implement it, and who should you hire?

To address the first question, Christine recommends answering three key questions:

  • How quickly is this company growing? Fast-growing organizations often run into challenges with maintaining internal alignment and empowering revenue teams. A product ops team that can put some process (and eventually measurement) behind solutions to these problems can be instrumental in getting you back on track.
  • How close do customers feel to your product? Do your customers understand how you’re driving change on the product? Is it clear to them how frequently (or maybe infrequently) you’re communicating with them about changes and education? If you could be doing a better job at this, it might be time for product ops.
  • Is your product manager’s day-to-day workload realistic? Finally, when you look at your product manager’s daily responsibilities alongside their quarterly or annual objectives, can you honestly say there are enough hours in the day for them to get everything done without giving up sleep? If things are falling through the cracks, and those things are important, it’s time to put some product ops resources behind them.

Once you’ve decided that the time is right to build a product ops role or team, you need to find the right person. Christine admits that this isn’t yet as easy as she’d like it to be.

Because the role is still relatively new, a LinkedIn search isn’t going to provide a long list of obvious candidates. To further complicate matters, she believes that excellent product operations can come from many different backgrounds—customer facing, customer success, technical success, data science, writing.

“Sometimes, it’s just about customer love,” she said. “When somebody has a passion to make sure customers are always happy, that’s a really good sign that person might be a good fit for your team.”

In general, Christine recommends looking for people who are natural born problem solvers who are willing to dive into the data, be flexible and—in the name of progress—fail.

Based on what we’ve already discussed about the deeply cross-functional nature of product ops, the best candidates will be very collaborative, empathetic and also comfortable with external-facing roles.

Christine also puts a lot of emphasis on the importance of being a great communicator and storyteller.

“Being able to tell a story is really critical,” she said. “You need to be persuasive and influential, and you also need to be able to back everything up with data. It’s about being able to not only lean into the data for yourself, but also being able to craft that data into a story that people can understand—a story that inspires action.”

The forecast: More product ops, more product ops tools

It’s clear that product operations is a role that will continue to grow as more companies adopt a product-led approach that elevates the product function as part of an organization’s core team. The C-suite is already looking at things this way, as evidenced by the way Pendo positions Christine’s team directly under the CPO.

In addition to an uptick in the prevalence of product ops teams across the industry, Christine predicts further evolution and expansion of the metrics and tools these teams can use to collect and analyze data and outcomes. These innovations will be necessary to empower the product ops team in meaningful ways, further cementing its mission-critical role.

Product operations is a fascinating topic with a lot of real-world applications. If you’d like to learn more, you can check out some of the pieces on the Pendo blog. Pendo has also published an ebook on the topic: How to set up product ops in your organization (and how to know if you did it right). In this download, they cover getting started, finding talent, establishing the team, reporting for duty and measuring success.

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Managing Editor<br>OpenView

Kristin joined OpenView after spending over four years at InVision managing their Inside Design publication and helping build brand love as chief storyteller, lead producer and editor. Before InVision, she co-founded the digital strategy agency Four Kitchens, spent several years in the restaurant industry as a chef, and was Editor-in-Chief of the nation’s largest college humor publication, the Texas Travesty, as an undergrad at the University of Texas at Austin.