What is product operations?
Product operations is the set of activities required to run a product company. It includes everything from defining and designing the product, to manufacturing and delivering the product, to running the company and addressing the many critical business issues that arise.
Every company has a different structure and rhythm to its product operations. But no matter what your company’s structure or rhythm, you’ll need to understand how to run your company effectively if you want to be successful.
I’ve written earlier about the key product roles, but the purpose of this note is to highlight the critical product operations activities, and discuss how they should be managed.
Defining the Product
The first order of business is to decide what product we want to build, and then to go figure out how to build it. This is product definition, and it usually takes the form of a product spec.
The product manager, product designer and lead engineer are the key people for product definition. The product manager is the product’s advocate, defining the problem to be solved, the target customer, the key success factors, and the product’s KPI’s (Key Performance Indicators).
It is the job of the product designer to understand these target customers, and to come up with a user experience that is valuable, usable and feasible. It is the job of the lead engineer to understand the technology and the engineering constraints, and to provide estimates that the team can rely on.
The product manager and product designer should be working with the lead engineer and tech lead to identify the necessary skills and resources from your company’s product team (see below), and to ensure those people are available and ready to go when you need them.
Note that the product manager and designer are often different people. Often the product manager is also the product designer, and sometimes the product designer is also the product manager. It really depends on the particular role. In most cases, there is also some interaction between the product manager and designer.
Once the product manager and product designer have come up with a product that they believe has value and is feasible, they will need to turn the product concept into a usable, paper product spec.
The product spec should be written so that the engineering team can understand the full scope of the product, and to ensure the team has everything they need to make an informed decision about whether this product is something they can build, and if so, how long it will take them to do so.
The product manager, product designer and tech lead should review the spec prior to creating the digital version, and should ensure that there are no surprises. The product designer should review the spec and provide any necessary changes.
The lead engineer and tech lead should review the digital product spec prior to creating the engineering spec, and should ensure that there are no outstanding technical concerns.
Once the product and engineering specs are approved, the product manager and designer will need to sign off on the product spec, and the engineering team will need to create the engineering spec.3.
Once the product has been defined and the engineering is ready to begin building, the discovery phase of product operations begins.
The discovery process is not about coming up with a pretty product spec. That will come later. The discovery process is all about coming up with a product that is valuable, usable and feasible.
The engineering team will be using the spec and digital product design assets to help them come up with an implementation that is valuable, usable and feasible. But just as the product designer is not responsible for the look and feel of the user experience, the engineering team is not responsible for the implementation. They are responsible for the end result.
The discovery process involves the engineering team doing what they do best – coming up with an implementation that is valuable, usable and feasible. They will be using the skills and resources from across your company as necessary.
The product manager, designer and lead engineer should review the engineering progress frequently, and the product manager should update the product spec as necessary. The tech lead and engineering manager should review the product spec and the tech lead should update the engineering schedule as necessary.
Once the product has been defined, designed and built, it is time to deliver the product. This is product delivery, and it usually takes the form of a release to manufacturing.
The discovery process has taken a little longer than expected, and the product manager and product designer are not happy about the additional time, and they tell the tech lead they need a new release date.
The tech lead and engineering manager should review the new release dates that are requested, and should flag any critical dates that are approaching. The engineering team should feel confident in their ability to deliver when that date is.
The product designer should review the new release date with the product manager and lead engineer, and should ensure that there are no outstanding issues with the new design.
Once the new release date is approved, the tech lead and engineering manager will need to coordinate with the product manager and designer to make sure they have the necessary access to resources and staff to make the switch to the new release date.
Once the product is released, it is not the end of the world if it doesn’t sell well. The product has to get to market and once it does, the focus should be on supporting the product so that the product continues to provide the level of value that was promised.
Your company will have released several products by this point, and your operations will have improved considerably as you learn what works and what doesn’t. You’ll have identified areas of improvement and will be working to correct these issues.
Your tech lead and engineering manager should review the current operations status, and should be assessing if anything needs to be changed. The product manager and designer should review the current KPI’s, and should be identifying areas for improvement.
The company will have an operations team that will be there to help with these issues. The product manager and designer should reach out to the operations team if they have questions or need help with anything.
Hopefully you can see how important product operations is to the ongoing success of a product company. It is the foundation on which everything else depends.
If you want your company to continue to grow and thrive, you simply must get good at product operations.
The series concludes with a discussion of product marketing, as product marketing is a necessary component of product operations.
In the next article in this series, we’ll discuss the key product marketing roles.