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What is product operations and why it might be important for you
If your business is growing fast, it might be time to hire a product operations manager. Melany Bascome tells us how the role works at Hotjar.
Last updated18 Nov 2022
Scaling up a product—and a business—has its challenges. Products expand their features, product management teams get bigger, and systems and processes become more complex. The solution to ensure a smooth flow without harsh growing pains? A product operations manager.
In this article, Hotjar's own Melany Bascome explains what the product operations role is and how it supports business growth while improving the product management team's productivity.
Let's start with the foundations, shall we?
What is the role of product operations?
While you might have heard of the marketing or sales operations roles, the product operations manager seems more obscure. In short, this role supports one or more product management teams, streamlining operations and working proactively to find the team's bottlenecks and other pain points.
It's a role that helps product managers work more efficiently and effectively by analyzing all processes and structures to ensure they're aligned.
As a one-person team, Melany overlooks one tribe within the tech department, consisting of three groups. No pressure!
No day is the same, and the role of a product operations manager and its challenges vary greatly depending on the business industry and team size, for example. To understand this role, let's look into Melany's daily tasks.
What does a product operations manager do?
A product operations manager is focused on finding and solving problems within operational tasks. Melany says:
I usually start the day looking at my projects and the tasks I have for the week.
I meet with the Director of the tribe and talk about the challenges we see, prioritizing projects based on monthly or quarterly needs. I also meet with my Lead weekly to discuss progress. From there, I'll organize tasks to achieve our goals.
It's a role that involves communicating messages across many people, getting feedback, and making iterations in several operational processes. "I need to ensure the team is aligned and knows what the timeline looks like, for example. I rely on a lot of people," Melany says.
Although she most often works with product managers, Melany's proposed operational changes might affect product designers and engineers, too. It's also worth pointing out that product operations also supports vendors, looking into their requirements and getting buy-in from different stakeholders.
But wait: how is the product operations manager different from the product manager?
Although many tasks might sound similar—and in fact, many product ops will fall on a product manager's desk if the role isn't present at the company—the key difference is that product ops doesn't necessarily have a product to deliver.
"I don't have customers waiting for a product update," Melany says. "I have processes that need updating—I have more freedom to play with what solutions I can put out there. And while a product manager relies on a squad—engineers, designers; they work as a team—one person is enough to work on product ops. I rely on many stakeholders, but I can make faster decisions without impacting the products."
Why is product ops an important role?
The popularity of aproduct operations role is on the rise, and its importance is primarily due to the ability to remove burdens from the product manager's to-do list. Melany explains:
Product managers should focus on delivering an amazing product and working with designers to ideate and find solutions to big problems.
PMs shouldn't be thinking about process building, communicating messages across the company, and cleaning data, for example. "If they also have to do that, we're talking about two roles, right?" she asks.
Product operations supports the efficiency and efficacy of product management teams, freeing them from operational problem-solving tasks to focus on building incredible products. "It's a role that allows product managers to focus on what really matters," Melany says.
However, the benefits of implementing the role go further.
Benefits of implementing a product operations manager role
Not only will product managers have more time to focus on product building and customer feedback, but the business will also benefit from implementing a product ops role.
Melany mentions the following gains:
Clear communication beyond the product ops and product management teams
More collaboration within the squads
Increased focus on customers
Faster delivery of product solutions
Overall, it's a role that can make the whole company more agile in terms of operation and management. "It's what glues different roles together," Melany summarizes.
3 tips for up-and-coming product operation managers
Over 1.5 years into the role, we asked Melany to share her learnings and recommendations for future product operation managers. Take note:
1. Frame changes as experiments
Melany found it challenging to get buy-in across the company when framing solutions as the only option. "It's hard changing processes, because people are used to this or that," she says. After all, we're creatures of habit, right?
"When you frame the change like an experiment, you get a more powerful and open response. 'We are trying this for this amount of time, and if this doesn't work, we will try that,'" she suggests.
Bonus tip: always explain why. Then, not only are you presenting solutions as experiments, but you also give valid reasons why you're experimenting in the first place.
2. Be proactive
Melany advises people to be proactive. "Don't assume people are thinking: Oh, I'm waiting for Mel to solve this problem," she says. Instead, go and find the problems that need solving—they're not going to come to you.
"Be proactive every day. If you see a broken process or a bottleneck, find new ways to fix it. Just don't expect people to come and ask for help. It might not happen."
3. Be patient
"I think I rely more on people than people rely on me," Melany laughs, adding patience as another crucial skill in product operation roles.
"When you have to work with the stakeholders, you need to wait for their reply. You have to have a lot of patience to sell solutions, and sell them well." It might also take time to get new processes and changes approved and ready to go—not to mention buy-in from the rest of the team.
Bonus tip: finding allies is essential. "Find a partner that can contribute to whatever you're trying to fix. And with that partner, try to get a lot of people into your idea," Melany explains. This will make transition into new processes easier—and widely accepted.
What if you encounter resistance?
Resistance and defensiveness are natural reactions to change. If that happens, reframe the issue to make the problem—and its solution—more apparent to the team. "I always try to have more than one solution to whatever I'm trying to solve. I'm going to try this first, and then if it doesn't work, we'll move on to something different," Melany says.
If resistance arises, reframe the problem, make it explicit, clear the reasons why, and find a partner to advocate for you.
Product operations: the skill set
Communication is key to ensuring that this role—and many others—go smoothly.
"I'm very explicit in my message: I need this by this time, and this is why. Then, I'll remind the team and make sure everyone knows what is expected from them to unblock me," Melany summarizes. However, as a product operations manager, you'll also need:
Project management skills
There might be a lot going on at once, and large projects like onboarding new tools might take a lot of time. Project management skills help balance these tasks.
A product driven mindset
As Melany puts it, the operations person should think of their solutions like an MVP. "We put in a lot of work around solutions to make sure we have a bigger impact and build something better. Then, we test it. From there, we can improve it."
When dealing with possible solutions that have never been done, it's critical to think outside the box. "So you have to go out there and be creative: if I try this, what will it look like?" Melany says.
Are you convinced? Let's look into the right time to advocate for a product operations role.
How should I advocate for this role in my company?
If you or your product managers have too many operational tasks to handle, or if the business is growing fast, it might be time to advocate for a product operations person. Melany suggests gathering data to back up your claim:
How much time are you spending on product management tasks?
What tasks are taking you away from product management?
How efficient are the squads?
What's the time gap between ideas and delivery?
How much time is spent on customer feedback and analysis?
Is the team focusing enough time on discovery and ideation?
Get your report ready—and hopefully, someone can be a fit. In addition, make sure you include why a product operations manager can support your product team.
And finally: have fun!
Every business will have its own context within product operations—even if the challenges can be similar. "At the end of the day, we all have similar issues, but different approaches, different clients, different customers, different products…" Melany explains.
"But it's a fun role," she says. "You might need some experience and a certain skill set, but it's not rocket science. You can learn on the go, and I'm telling you: I learn every day on the go. I'm not saying it is easy—but it's not hard, either."
Are you ready to give it a try?
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