The role of product ops in successful distributed teams

The role of product ops in successful distributed teams

This is a joint byline by Hubert Palan, Productboard founder & CEO, and Sameer Karim, Product & Innovation leader at Slalom Consulting in San Francisco. It was first published in Forbes Tech Council.

In the past few years, an increasing number of product organizations are turning to product operations (product ops) to optimize their workflows and collaboration. Our recent survey of product managers and leaders revealed that 39% of teams now have a product ops function, and 45% of these teams with a product ops function created the role in the past year.

Similar to how many engineering, sales and marketing teams rely on operations to run smoothly, product ops can coordinate complex product functions, leaving product leaders with more time to focus on strategy and innovation.

Companies have traditionally adopted product ops to support scaling efforts. However, the recent rise of the function makes sense given the massive transition to distributed work in 2020. Product ops tackles many of the challenges that are exacerbated when teams don’t share the same physical workspace, facilitating better communication and collaboration by aligning teams across the organizations and uniting everyone behind shared processes and tools.

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Why product ops? Why now?

The challenges that product ops was built to solve — including getting stakeholder buy-in, coordinating teams across product lines, and managing customer feedback and product data — are complex enough with everyone working out of the same office. It’s no wonder, then, that 2020’s shift to distributed work and the challenges it introduced has only accelerated the function’s rise.

Getting stakeholder buy-in is also harder than ever — it is one of the biggest collaboration challenges for distributed teams. Without watercooler moments at the office and increased time spent in Zoom, simply finding time on the calendar to have critical conversations with people outside the product organization increasingly falls off the radar.

All of this, of course, can complicate the product development process. This is why so many teams are now turning to product ops and purpose-built tools for product management as a solution.

Three ways products ops can help your distributed team

As Erica Brescia, chief operating officer at GitHub, recently wrote in The Economist, “When workers are more distributed, the work itself becomes distributed — so it must be documented, visible, and doable in an asynchronous manner, by individuals working independently of one another across time zones and work environments.”

With product ops and the tools and processes they introduce, product management work becomes documented, visible and doable in an asynchronous manner. This promotes better communication and collaboration, ultimately leading to better products. Here’s how.

1. Unite everyone with processes and tools

Product ops introduces and maintains standard processes and tools — increasingly, tools purpose-built for product management that function as a system of record — that give product organizations and their stakeholders a shared language and perspective around roadmaps, communication, and customer feedback.

We found that those without product ops were more likely to struggle with basic challenges in their product org, such as “What is our product strategy?” or “How do we adjust our product vision in the market?” People with a product ops function, on the other hand, were digging into more complex challenges related to measuring the impact of the product or gathering and organizing customer feedback.

2. Create cross-organization alignment

Aligning product teams is one of the biggest pain points of the shift to remote work. Product managers need to document plans thoroughly and ensure other PMs can access them easily and, if necessary, initiate conversations about how everything gels.

Product ops can help teams overcome these challenges, acting as a bridge between specialist product teams and ensuring that everyone has insight into the holistic product management process. The role can also act as a primary point of contact for stakeholders outside the product team.

3. Capture customer context and feedback

Product ops introduces tools and structures that allow product managers to better manage, evaluate and contextualize product feedback, making it more strategically useful for product teams.

Our survey demonstrates a connection between the presence of a product ops function and the maturity of the product organization. Companies with a product ops function reported doing more product discovery, for example. This practice of talking to customers and exploring opportunities helps product teams keep their fingers on the pulse of the market. And it’s especially critical now as market demands and preferences are rapidly changing.

What’s next for product ops?

The growth of product ops reflects the next evolution of the product discipline. The sudden shift to distributed teams has merely accelerated and highlighted the importance of this new function.

Product ops promises to promote efficiency, smooth over stakeholder relations and take the hassle out of remote collaboration — all while clearing space in product teams’ calendars to focus on high-value activities like product discovery. I anticipate seeing product ops continue to gain traction, even in companies with just a small number of product managers.

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