Most companies can tell when they should bring in a product manager. With product ops, it’s a whole different story.
Not every team needs a product operations specialist. And most companies simply don’t know what this role should cover or whether they’re ready to hire someone in this position or not.
While the two roles easily get confused, each one has its own distinct duties and product elements. Nevertheless, product operations is a supporting function. Its role is to keep an eye on day-to-day product tasks and ensure product managers stay in line with the overall goals a business has.
This guide covers when you should consider adding a product operations specialist to your team and how to differentiate the two roles.
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The easiest way to differentiate between the two product roles is by looking at the evolution of your product and business.
You’d first hire a product manager to guide the future development of your product, telling you exactly which features you need to build next and what processes should be employed in the meantime.
Once you scale, you can bring on a product ops manager to aid this entire process by focusing on what’s being built in the present.
Let’s get into the details of each role and their differences.
Product managers work closer to the customer, grasping their needs and matching them up with the company’s own business objectives. Their main goal is to ensure the product and its new features can satisfy customer demands and move the company closer toward its goals.
Simply put, they’re in charge of driving the strategy and vision behind a product and making it come to life.
Product operations is the intersection of product management and operations. The role has evolved as organizations have become more outcome-focused.
Chris Butler, co-founder of the Product Ops Alliance, formalizes and describes this role as “product managing the product management experience.”
While this is a new field, the role aims to take product efforts one step further by moving processes faster and removing friction. Product ops leaders are involved in diverse activities and work cross-functionally throughout the product life cycle. They’re in charge of driving alignment for the organization and helping product managers focus on the things that matter the most to them.
Product managers are future-oriented, orchestrating what needs to be built next.
A product manager’s tasks are highly strategic and can spread across multiple disciplines. Sure, every product manager’s day can look different depending on the company they work for, the product and its complexity, available resources, timelines, etc.
But generally, product managers have six core duties:
Product managers touch every part of the product development lifecycle during their work. They’re in charge of managing both internal and external stakeholders, establishing the product strategy, and executing a long-term vision. The final goal? Making sure that both the business and its customers can succeed.
Product operations managers build and oversee the systems, processes, and tooling that support a product manager’s work.
According to The Product Ops Alliance, there are five key areas product ops specialists will influence:
As per these pillars, product operations managers (and their teams) will most likely work on tasks such as:
The goal of product operations is to enable outcome-focused teams by providing them with a consistent and reliable foundation. This includes delivering a high-quality product, ensuring data integrity, and supporting other teams in their work on the product.
To achieve this goal, product operations need to be aligned with both strategy and tactics. This means they need to understand what needs to be done and why it needs to be done for development teams to meet their goals.
Yes, and that will often be the case.
The two roles aren’t interchangeable. So you’ll never have a prod ops manager without a product manager first (if you do, it means you probably have someone else as the de facto product lead without holding the formal title; a founder or technical lead, for example).
In fact, building a product operations team likely only makes sense for larger product organizations. The first handful of hires on a product team is most often going to be product managers who can do strategy as well as execution.
Following this, typically, is some structured management of the team, with a lead product manager and ICs who report to them. From here, the team will start adding roles like product ops. Of course, these are generalizations that apply to most companies, but individual cases will vary.
For smaller businesses, folks doing product management default to handling product ops job duties. The absence of a dedicated product ops person means product managers often have to learn product ops themselves and own the processes that the former would in complex organizations.
In this situation, product managers do a scaled-down version of what a dedicated product ops manager would do. That’s also why bigger companies that can afford to start a product ops team resort to the change. Product managers can focus on the strategy while product ops gets full freedom over process development, the tool stack, and data.
The short answer is yes.
But as already mentioned, smaller organizations may not be able to afford starting a product ops team from their first years in business. So starting from one product manager and scaling naturally is your best option.
What about companies where a product ops role makes sense?
If you're thinking about adding a product operations team member to your company, here are three reasons you should:
The product manager.
Product managers are fully responsible for creating and managing roadmaps, but they often struggle with how to define and communicate their plans. They try to make roadmaps as detailed as possible, but they also want them to be simple enough that anyone can understand them. They want their teams to be excited about their work, but they also want to prioritize what's most important.
That’s where product ops comes in.
Product ops team members might be tasked with gathering the insight and data needed to help product managers prioritize features and make decisions for their roadmaps. While your product ops team never owns the product roadmap, they can still be involved in creating roadmaps for internal tools, projects, and even your entire portfolio.
As a result, product managers in complex teams will most often rely on product ops to move their roadmap planning and execution forward.
Product managers and product ops leaders should work together.
Product managers should understand how important each feature is and prioritize based on what will have the biggest impact on your business overall. Your product operations team can help with this. They’ll ensure that new features don't cause problems with existing functionality or lead to unexpected costs when incorporated into production environments.
The two roles can also work together on roadmap planning. Product managers should share their ideas for improving processes or automating tasks with product operations specialists so they can collaborate to develop solutions that make sense for both parties.
Finally, the two need to communicate proactively about a project’s status. Product managers should keep product ops team members informed about upcoming changes so they can prepare accordingly — whether by updating documentation, providing training materials, or creating new tools.
We hope this guide has clarified the product manager vs. product ops debate. Depending on what stage you’re at, you can either hold off hiring for a product operations leader or make the first steps towards creating your own product ops team.