Ask anyone in the technology world, “what is product management,” and you’ll get a fairly consistent answer. However, there are likely some variations and deviations.
Ask this same cohort to define product operations—and how it differs from product management—and that consistency begins to fade. Many lack a clear picture of product operations’ role in general. Or don’t understand how the two work together because product operations is a new and rapidly evolving discipline.
On LinkedIn, job seekers get lost in the wide range of disparate responsibilities in the job descriptions for either role.
After reading this post you will:
- Understand both product management and product operations and;
- How they work together to drive great products produced efficiently and sustainably.
What is Product Management?
There’s no shortage of answers for What is product management? In a nutshell:
Product management strategically drives the development, market launch, and continual support and improvement of its products.
In other words, product managers focus on a specific product or set of products. Product management owns the product roadmap, and their most important stakeholder is the product’s users/customers.
As product management has evolved, so has the scope and scale of the role. Currently, they do more today than ever before. The bread and butter product management tasks are prioritizing, evolving product strategy, and managing the product roadmap. Customer obsession is table stakes, but a top-notch product manager must also be adept at using data to understand how to shape the future of the product.
They rely on a growing array of tools to manage the process and ensure senior management has visibility into product’s contributions. Additionally, savvy product managers nurture external relationships to streamline communication in their spare time.
Product managers stretched thinner than ever before. As a result, there’s a real need to fill in the gaps and create consistent, repeatable processes. Enter product operations.
What is Product Operations?
Product operations has primarily grown out of the need to remove tasks from the product manager’s plate, enabling them to spend more time on high-value product tasks. However, this realization occurs in different ways depending on the setting and circumstances.
Sometimes, an organization realizes allowing product teams to choose how they work makes it harder to handle the entire portfolio. In other cases, stakeholders complain that they can’t consistently interface with product or get the information they need.
Or it could simply come with the product management teams themselves realizing they need more help and structure. Regardless of how or why, product operations emerges as the cure to these internal pain points.
Product operations is the connective tissue that holds product together. By managing systems and processes, product operations ensures timely, audience-appropriate communication. They also analyze and synthesize data, while absorbing other non-core product management tasks with an eye toward efficiency and sustainability.
While product managers own the product and focus on the needs of users, product operations owns the process itself. In addition, they own the tools and systems that support the process at every stage.
Depending on the size and maturity of the organization, a single product operations person can support multiple product teams. Meanwhile, other organizations use a one-to-one structure, matching one product ops person for each product team. Alternatively, some companies hire product operations team members to focus on data, process, or tool management.
What’s the difference? Product Operations Manager vs. Product Manager
Now that we’ve described both roles, we can compare them. First, product managers and product operations managers must have deep product knowledge. Product knowledge is obvious for a product manager, of course. However, successful product operations managers should know the product as well as possible to:
- Have the context to understand which data will be most valuable to the product manager
- Spot anomalies or differences in data that may indicate something important or emerging
- Represent product to all the other functional stakeholders in marketing, sales, finance, and support
Strategic product managers with a product operations colleague reap the biggest rewards. Especially, when that person understands the product, the customer, and the overall market dynamics.
Common Verbs for Product Managers and Product Operations Managers
Beyond product knowledge, however, the roles diverge. As illustrated below by the verbs common in product management job descriptions versus product operations.
|Product Manager verbs||Product Operations Manager verbs|
The modest overlap in verbs from both lists is more attributable to the “manager” part of the title. The product manager verbs generally involve a lot of direct action. In contrast, product operations manager verbs focus on supporting, connecting, and making operations more efficient. All of these verbs, in turn, support the product manager.
Common Questions Product Managers and Product Operations Managers Must Answer
As discussed earlier, the product manager’s primary focus is the product. However, the product operations manager concentrates on the product manager and product process. So, product managers spend their time on the who, why, and what questions, such as:
- Who uses my product? Who buys it?
- Why do they use it?
- How does the use of the product solve their pain point? What need does it meet?
- What problems can my problem solve?
- How much are my customers willing to pay?
- Are there other solutions could they use? Who are our competitors?
Product operations managers think more about how and when questions like:
- How will other teams work with the product team?
- Can we reengineer this system or process for greater efficiency?
- How do we integrate support into the signoff process earlier?
- When should we start sharing information with the marketing team for the launch?
- When do I need updates from all teams to ensure slides are ready for the following management meeting?
Product Management vs. Product Operations: How do they work together?
So, how does collaborating on a daily basis work? Of course, the collaboration varies from one organization to the next, but some common themes emerge.
Vision and strategy
Product management owns vision and strategy. Product operations implements systems and processes to help the organization realize the vision and execute that strategy.
For example, suppose the product team establishes a strategic imperative to involve customers early in product development. In that case, product operations work with account management to identify the right customers for focus groups, advisory boards, and beta testing. A by-product of this coordination is that they can work together on creating a repeatable process for these engagements. Product management then provides ongoing feedback on how product operations can iterate over time.
Systems and processes
Product operations managers like solving problems. Product management, however, is responsible for identifying and prioritizing ineffective or inefficient activities.
As a starting point, product operations uses the prioritized list. Then, product operations owns the process of building (or reengineering), maintaining, documenting, and promoting adherence to the new or refined systems and processes. Product management then provides feedback to product operations on how well things are working.
The product team, for example, may identify the need for a product roadmapping tool. Product operations determines the processes, standards, and norms around the use of that tool. And the scope includes documentation, best practices, training, and maintenance.
Product teams strive to provide internal partners with the information they need in an appropriate format and cadence. In addition, they offer ample opportunities for feedback, suggestions, and customer learning.
Not all tasks or questions require the direct involvement of the product manager. As a result, product operations managers handle many of the regular interactions with these internal parties. This buffer role frees up product management to spend their time more judiciously. And this intermediary role grows in importance when organizations have multiple product teams. In this case, stakeholders may not know which product team member they should even engage.
Stakeholders end up frustrated by the inconsistencies between one product team or team member and the next. Instead, product operations gives those stakeholders a consistent contact to normalize product interactions for better internal stakeholder relationships.
Product operations managers also anticipate which data will be most helpful to product management. They make sure it’s available and consumable by the team when needed. For example, there needs to be easy access to all customer, market, and financial data.
The product operations manager may own the collection, update, assembly, synthesis, and analysis of the data. So when the product manager is ready to plan, the information they need is ready in the format they need. It can entail creating an automated dashboard. With the dashboard, frequently consulted data is readily available in the most used slices and dices.
The product operations manager also assembles data from multiple sources. They synthesize and analyze to extract actionable insights to be shared with product. Tracking KPI performance and other critical metrics also fall within their purview.
Product Management and Product Operations in Harmony
We’ve covered the definition of each role. You know how the roles work together in each of the overlapping core areas. And the importance of product knowledge for both. The two roles work together to provide a more efficient and effective product organization.
Product operations managers are like sous chefs; they do all the cutting and chopping and measuring of the raw ingredients for the chef. However, good product operations managers go one step further, thinking about the order in which the ingredients are laid out. They consider whether the chef is right- or left-handed. And they know what that means for ingredient placement, and which pots and pans to keep within reach.
Watch a master chef cook, and the ballet is unmistakable. However, imagine what that ballet would look like if the chef kept having to stop to peel an onion, find the right saute pan, or measure out several cups of flour. It will take much longer to get the dish on the table, limiting the throughput of the kitchen.
But together, product management and product operations leverage each other’s strength to create delicious meals for hungry diners.