It is official. Product operations is a thing. A quick Google search will pull up a long list of articles singing the praises of everything product operations has to offer, from making product managers more efficient to data collection and synthesis.
When I first took on product operations at GitLab, there wasn’t a lot of definition or guidance on the topic. I understood what product operations meant because I’d been “doing it” as an inseparable part of my product management and product leadership roles for some years. But I’d never had the opportunity to focus solely on product operations.
As excited as I was, I was also nervous. GitLab was accelerating toward an IPO and both the product management team and the product were in hyper growth mode. And, to boot, the all-remote, cross-functional teams were in motion, sync and async, day and night, all around the globe. So, I reached out to peers who had already started their product operations journey and leveraged the perspective, progress, and learnings they generously shared. And, in doing so, I realized everyone was doing it a bit differently.
Now, two and a half years later, product operations is a thing at GitLab. And the most common question I get from peers reaching out to me is: How can I set up product operations for success at my organization?
To answer this question, I will assume we all want to be product-led and customer-centered, and “success” would be product operations helping us get there. I’ll also assume we agree with the sentiment that’s evolved defining product operations responsibility to fall into these core areas: tools, data, experimentation, strategy, and trusted advisor.
While there is no one formula, I will share three keys that opened doors for product operations to make an impact and grow with GitLab.
1. Empower product operations as its own function, with an equal seat alongside other value-driving functions
At GitLab, we run product operations as an independent function under the product umbrella. The direct line of responsibility to the head of all product ensures product operations has awareness, alignment, and accountability to the macro needs of the product and the business. This also allows product operations to maintain a broad and unbiased view, as well as the right level of influence, to develop strategies/tactics serving the product and the business without favor toward any particular group. This Silicon Valley Product Group article by Marty Cagan provides more helpful context on the why of this approach.
2. Make product operations a people-first operation
Before product operations can deliver on efficiencies and tools that are useful for the product and the business, product operations must understand all of its internal customers. The first year product operations took shape at GitLab, much of my energy was focused on building relationships, not only with product team members but across the whole organization. Becoming a trusted advisor runs deeper than just delivering data, it’s about sensing pain and building bridges. A product operations team that leads with empathy will elevate the organization rather than just serve the organization.
3. Drive adoption of product operations strategies by providing opportunities for team ownership
At GitLab, everyone can contribute. Leveraging this mindset for product operations led to more impactful and better-designed iterations to the problems we were trying to solve. By collaborating with various team members across the organization to improve and implement the shared frameworks in the product system, we not only ensure better multi-dimensional solutions but also boost alignment and acceptance of the solutions as well. This approach also inspires team ownership of flexible workflows rather than a perception that product operations is the “enforcer” of rigid processes.
These three keys become more challenging to forge if they aren’t introduced to an organization early on. Even if not immediately feasible, it’s helpful to carve space for the philosophy upfront and start small to demonstrate the value of the approach as you build the foundation for product operations. In future posts, I will share strategies and tactics for each of these keys as well as answer the second most common question I get: What is a “product system”?
In the meantime, feel free to learn more about what product operations drives at GitLab and the product management resources we maintain in our Product Handbook.
Cover image by Elena Mozhvilo on Unsplash
“Want to be successful in product operations? Empower product operations as its own function, with an equal seat alongside other value-driving functions. This is just one of three tips we share to get you started.” – Farnoosh Seifoddini
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