Recently, I’ve been hearing about more and more companies building “Product Operations” functions.  This appears to be especially true of startups with high operational-complexity; particularly marketplaces.

So, what is Product Operations? Do you need it? Or, is it just another fad?

I spoke with several founders/leaders at a number of high-growth and operationally complex startups who have invested in Product Operations functions, including Uber, Thumbtack, and Zipline.

So, what is it?

The definition of “Product Operations” varies somewhat between companies but here are the main themes I hear:

  • can be part of the Product organization, but distinct from Product Managers
  • can also report into the Operations organization
  • works very closely with operational teams
  • very detail-oriented and data-driven, especially as it relates to process optimization
  • provides the bridge between the operations teams and Product Managers, solving problems and being supportive, and ensuring communication is effective

The simplistic distinction between Product Management and Product Operations seems to be as follows:

  • Product Management – “what should we build?”
  • Product Operations – “is what we’ve built working?”

So, is it a fad?

Product Operations vs Product Management

This is where my own cynicism started and where I got the first whiff of a possible fad.

To me, being very close to customers, even if internal customers, and having a great finger on the pulse of whether what you’ve built is working is a major aspect of any Product Manager’s job.  If a Product Manager is not doing that, they’re not a good Product Manager, right?

Pragmatism Rules

Everyone I spoke to agrees with me…in theory.

However, the reality is that it’s very hard to find Product Managers who have a natural affinity for what’s involved in operating a complex business “at the coal face”.  This makes sense because most Product Managers come up through the ranks of product and engineering organizations.

Although a Product Manager’s job is to understand and empathize with users, it seems it can be more pragmatic to hire people with an operational background who just more naturally “get it” and put them in a Product Operations role as the go between operation users and the product team.

Put simply, one person I spoke to said that Product Operations “makes sure operations are getting respected” by the Product organization.

What to look for

So, who makes a great Product Operations person?  Here’s a summary of what I’ve heard:

  • have an operational background (vs a product/engineering background)
  • adaptive
  • empathetic
  • data-driven
  • strong personalities willing to fight for what they think operations needs

Side effects

Are there any undesirable side-effects of introducing a Product Operations function? The consensus seems to be that two problems can occur:

  • there is some duplication of effort/ownership between the Product Management and Product Operations and therefore some potential ambiguity and politics that needs to be carefully managed.  To mitigate this, the distinction between the two functions summarized above must be made very clear to both sides.
  • the introduction of Product Operations risks Product Managers retreating further to their ivory towers, allowing them to get more divorced from the (internal) customers they serve.

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