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Harness the Power of Product Ops

February 25, 2022

8 minute read

As companies shift away from timeline roadmaps towards outcome-based decision making, product managers are coming to rely on product operations to give them the tools and data they need to make the best decisions, reducing the risk that their next product launch will fail.

What is Product Ops?

Product operations is the business function that provides tools, data, and processes to enable product teams to work effectively and bring the right solutions to market. It’s a function that has matured in recent years and is seen as a key component of product-led growth in companies with a strong focus on product management.

One of the earliest questions about product management in a small company is “when do I need to hire a product manager?”. As the company grows, the answer to the next question is “when do I need product ops?” is usually presaged by some obvious signs. Let’s examine a few of them.

Product Ops

Data-driven decision-making vs CEO’s demands

Is senior management making the product decisions? To move quickly in a changing market, product managers need to be guided by data as they prioritize their work. In the absence of data-driven decision-making, teams can become conflicted and base their decisions on opinions, often listening to the loudest voice in the room (the HiPPO or highest-paid person’s opinion). In the absence of evidence, the roadmap turns into a list of features decided upon by senior management. Some of these decisions will be right, but some will be wrong – and that introduces an undesirable element of risk. 

Signs to look out for

  • Conflicting views on the next priority
  • Lots of development, but missed objectives
  • Always working on the latest idea (or a bad case of shiny object syndrome)

Actions to take

  • Ensure there is access to objective data sources (i.e. product analytics, CRM data, GA, etc)
  • Identify signals and insights which require deeper understanding
  • Use discovery and validation techniques to investigate further and reach conclusions about potential solutions

With conclusions drawn from objective data, the best decisions are more obvious, and it’s easier for teams to push back on opinions that have low merit. The role of product ops is to learn about the kind of questions product management are likely to ask and identify the best sources of data to answer those questions. This might involve implementing a product analytics tool or creating reports that provide clear guidance.

Product Discovery vs Product Development  

Are the teams becoming delivery-led and skipping product discovery? Growth may stall when technical teams are in the driving seat. Large and messy backlogs can develop if there isn’t a discovery process to filter the right ideas through to development in a controlled manner.

Signs to look out for

  • Large, messy backlog
  • Unexpected (and potentially unwanted) features being released
  • References to product management being a “bottleneck”

Actions to take

  • Separate strategy from execution, with a product backlog and a development backlog in separate places
  • Include UX, development and business stakeholders as ideas are validated and tested
  • Ensure that the highest priority ideas are specced first, and give development clear guidance on which ideas are important for them to include in their planning

With a pipeline of ideas progressing through this process, everyone is aware of what’s coming in the coming weeks, and prioritization of the backlog is much easier. Product operations is well placed to select and implement a product management tool like ProdPad that enables the product management process and helps product managers to find the value in a messy backlog.

Infrequent releases vs short iterations

Are there lots of ideas but no action? In any competitive market, quick reaction times are key to solving customer problems. The longer it takes to solve a problem, the more likely that a competitor will disrupt your place in the market. Reducing the time between insight and action is a strong measure of success for any product team – but it’s not always easy for larger, more established teams. 

Signs to look out for

  • A feeling that the product team isn’t listening to the market (spoiler, they probably are, but can’t react quickly enough)
  • Lack of clarity on how to turn insights into action
  • Lots of ideas, little execution

Actions to take

  • Define a standard discovery, development, and measurement process that all ideas can follow
  • Ensure that ideas are broken down into executable chunks before being developed
  • Work lean! Use an MVP to prove (or disprove) hypotheses before assigning expensive development resources

It’s a cliché but still true – the more shots you take, the more likely you are to hit the net. Rather than planning huge releases with big product changes, lean experimentation allows product managers to learn what works in a short amount of time, so they can adapt as they learn. But managing the experimentation process can be time-consuming and involves measuring outcomes – and this is where product ops is uniquely positioned to help, both with experiment design and with success measurement.

Product Ops and product management process

Are there lots of teams working in different ways and using different processes? When lots of product teams work in isolation, a lack of standardization quickly develops, especially when they’re allowed to choose their own tool stack or way of working. We’ve all seen “combined” roadmaps that look like ransom notes, with different formats, fonts, and levels of details in evidence. 

The phrase “black box” is often applied to product management. Product teams can feel distant from the rest of the business, with other functions feeling out of the loop with what’s going on, or how decisions are made.

Signs to look out for

  • Every team uses a different set of spreadsheets or document templates
  • Stakeholders don’t understand what’s being done and why
  • Product management has to field lots of questions about when changes will be done

Actions to take

  • Define a standard prioritization framework that works for everyone.
  • Harmonize the business around a single set of tools and/or document templates
  • Ensure every stakeholder has access to an up-to-date roadmap

Taking the time to understand the needs of multiple teams requires the dedication and neutrality of someone who is focused on achieving company goals, rather than the goals of an individual product team. That’s where the product ops function comes in.

Lack of alignment on company vision

Is there no clarity on why decisions are made? Alignment is impossible if there is no clarity on the company vision and current objectives from the top of the business. Even if vision and objectives are defined, they still need to be communicated in a way that everyone can understand.

Signs to look out for

  • Customer-facing teams are unaware of why decisions are made
  • Competing priorities with teams fighting for resources & investment
  • Progress is slow and split across many different product areas

Actions to take

  • Provide a single source of truth for all product management research, accessible by all stakeholders
  • Implement an outcome-focused roadmap tied back to business objectives

By ensuring that all team members have access to the roadmap and the ability to self-serve information when they have questions, a product operations team can reduce friction across the business and encourage team collaboration (and therefore better outcomes).

A disconnect between product and customers

Are the sales and service teams acting as gatekeepers for their customers? Product-market fit, that sweet spot where the product so completely solves its users’ problems that buying it is a no-brainer, is virtually impossible to achieve when the product team is disconnected from customers.  This can happen in large companies where sales and services teams act as gatekeepers for their customers and create a barrier between those who are focused on building new products and the users that they serve. It means innovation is reduced and progress stalls.

Signs to look out for

  • No feedback coming directly from customers
  • No feedback provided by customer-facing teams
  • Low adoption of new features

Actions to take

  • Implement a multi-channel feedback process, accessible to users and potential users
  • Centralize the research function and ensure research is accessible to all teams, regardless of which team initiated the research

Include marketing teams in the upcoming roadmap, so they can prepare product launches based on the product teams’ view of what problems are being solved.

Once again, the product ops function comes to the rescue by implementing the tools and process changes needed to encourage feedback from customers and centralize it in a single repository for continuous discovery.

Are you ready to get started? Why not check out How ProdPad Fits with Product Ops.

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