Product Operations vs. Product Management

Two illustrated people representing product operations and product management, surrounded by documents and symbols.

7-minute read

In this article, we define product operations, explain how they differ from product management, and demonstrate how product operations provide integral support to product teams.

Product operations, like product management, are vital to helping product teams get strong products out the door and into customers’ hands. However, the role of product operations can vary from company to company. Defining roles and specifying how product operations managers support product managers can help teams function effectively.

Ready to dive in and learn how product operations differ from product management? Keep reading or use the links below to explore the section that most interests you.

What is Product Management?

Product managers are responsible for delivering products that resonate in their markets. Product managers work closely with engineering, development, sales, and marketing teams to guide products from concept to launch. Their responsibilities involve managing the product life cycle, continually leveraging data and insights to improve products after launch, and ensuring that products meet customers’ needs and exceed their expectations while helping the company meet business goals.

Product managers have many irons in the fire and must manage many intersecting tools, datasets, and processes to make a product successful. That’s a lot of work for one person, and that’s where product operations come in.

What are Product Operations?

Product operations, or product ops, use tools, data, and benchmarks to ensure everyone works toward the same goals. Product operations managers are typically the team members tasked with managing product operations, improving efficiency and driving collaboration within product teams. This role is a relatively new concept, but many product teams now believe that product operations are necessary for a high-performing team.

Product operations managers focus on the behind-the-scenes work of the product. Their responsibilities may include:

  • Gathering, cleaning, and analyzing data from customer and market research; learning tools and optimizing them for the product team’s use.
    Setting and enforcing processes to ensure that work is moving smoothly.
    Communicate by sharing updates regularly with disparate teams or facilitate communication between other teams.
    Documenting processes, procedures, and protocols to ensure adherence.

Product Operations vs. Product Management – What’s the Difference?

Product operations evolved from, but are distinct from, product management. In an organization with product managers and product operations managers, the product manager uses insights about the customer and market to share a product’s long-term vision and strategy. The product operations manager lives in the details of data analysis and process management to help the product manager shape that vision and execute the strategy.

The Impact of Product Operations

Product operations support product team and organizational goals in several ways. By taking on responsibilities that may otherwise fall to the wayside for a busy product manager, product operations’ use of data and focus on customer and market research can more effectively represent the customer to the product team. Focusing on process and organization can reduce time to market, and communication can smooth the development process and reduce technical debt. Product goals should support organizational objectives such as increasing market share, improving customer retention, and driving revenue.

Both roles should have product knowledge and relevant product management skills, but successful product operations managers have some unique responsibilities.

How do Product Operations and Product Management Work Together?

Product managers and product operations managers have many common goals and responsibilities. Although the day-to-day will look different in different companies, here are some core ways that product team members can work together.

Data Analysis

Product managers need fresh data and insights to understand their customers and broader market conditions and make strategic product decisions. Product operations managers support them by spearheading data collection, cleaning, analysis, and retention. They might also collaborate with other teams, such as marketing, sales and finance to bring together disparate data to tell a compelling story about the product. Monitoring KPIs and automating reporting helps to ensure that product teams have relevant and timely data.

Example: Product operations managers might manage the quarterly collection of user feedback data. They could then clean that data, complete the analysis, and convert it into a visual format (such as an automated dashboard). The product manager could use the dashboard data to glean insights about the user’s experience with the product.

Here is how product operations managers and product managers might delegate data analysis tasks:

Product Operations Managers:

Product Managers:

  • Interpret meaning from data, including trends and anomalies in the data.
  • Prioritize products and features based on market research.
  • Adapt product strategies and timelines.

Strategy

Product management typically leads a product’s vision and strategy and ensures that the product vision aligns with the company’s goals. Product operations managers develop systems and processes to help the product team achieve that vision and execute the product strategy.

Example: A company might strategically shift from selling to enterprise customers to targeting individual buyers for their product. To make that shift, the product team needs to ensure products meet the new audience’s needs. Product operations might work with external teams to find appropriate customers in that new target group to gather feedback or beta test new products. In this case, product operations can do the leg work organizationally to get product management the information they need to make good product decisions.

Here is how product operations managers and product managers might delegate product strategy responsibilities:

Product Operations Managers:

  • Document internal information and protocols.
  • Learn and optimize tools for the wider team’s use.
  • Develop and adapt processes based on team needs and feedback.

Product Managers:

  • Develop and maintain product roadmaps and other documentation.
  • Adhere to protocols set by product operations managers.
  • Leverage optimized tools to build products and monitor progress through the product life cycle.

Communication

Product teams should strive to provide relevant and timely updates to collaborator teams in formats and cadences that are appropriate for those teams. However, managing that level of communication can take a lot of work for one product manager. Product operations managers leverage their product knowledge, organization, and communication skills to implement plans to share relevant, timely updates with appropriate parties. Just as important, they maintain those communication plans over time. Product operations managers can field questions between different teams, and they provide a consistent point of contact for the product team.

Example: Product launches require coordination between many teams, including product development, marketing, and sales. Product operations managers can coordinate all those teams to speak with one voice and stay aware of shifting timelines and priorities. Those terms are secure because they can go to the product ops manager with questions or concerns.

Here is how product operations managers and product managers might share communication responsibilities:

Product Operations Managers:

  • Communicate critical information and updates between product, development, engineering, sales, and marketing teams.
  • Create a unified front with the product manager for executive and stakeholder communication.

Product Managers:

Tools and Processes

Product teams complete their daily work using many project management tools, ticketing systems, and processes. They might also establish which teams must be informed of or sign off on major initiatives.

Product operations are responsible for building systems and processes and ensuring that teams use them. Specific tasks might include using tools to conduct testing and research. In turn, product teams can provide product ops with feedback on what’s working and what can be improved, and product ops make those improvements or vet other tech solutions. Additionally, product operations might be responsible for optimizing tools to fit users’ needs, such as by creating templates or custom configurations within software.

Example: A product team may need a process to help with feature prioritization. Product operations are responsible for determining the use cases for feature prioritization, creating a solution that fulfills that need, documenting and training the team on how to use the solution, and ensuring that the process is adhered to and maintained over time.

Here are examples of how product operations managers and product managers might leverage tools and processes:

Product Operations Managers:

  • Analyze data to effectively represent the customer’s voice.
  • Coordinate within product teams to test new products and features.

Product Managers:

  • Integrate feedback into product design and development.
  • Ensure that tested and validated features adhere to quality standards, regulations, and customer expectations.

Do You Need Product Operations if You Have a Product Manager?

Product operations managers take on many responsibilities that would otherwise fall to the product manager. Breaking these into separate roles allows product operations managers to investigate the data, tools, and processes that help product teams run smoothly. Here are some factors to consider when deciding if your company needs a product operations manager:

  • Company and Product Team Size: As companies scale, the volume of product management work increases. Additionally, having multiple products or product lines can increase the complexity of product management. A dedicated product ops manager can streamline logistical and process work and reduce the product manager’s workload.
  • Product Complexity: For companies with complex products that rely on complex integrations or operate in heavily regulated industries, product operations managers can focus on navigating these intricate relationships and regulations. A dedicated ops team member can focus on the detailed work required to excel in these spaces without sacrificing the product manager’s strategic vision.

Product operations and product management are two sides of the same coin. These complementary skills and responsibilities help a product team function more effectively. Therefore, product operations managers and product managers should be collaborative, not competitive.

What is the Product Operations Career Path?

Product operations team members often enter their roles with a background in product. At the very least, product ops candidates should have data analysis and critical thinking skills, product knowledge to support their team, and strong organization and communication skills. Common product ops roles include:

  • Product data analyst
  • Product operations specialist
  • Product operations manager
  • Product operations director

Product managers and marketers may be interested in transitioning into product operations. If you want to make the switch to product operations, strengthen your analytical and project management skills, as that is the primary function that product operations serve on product teams. However, strong product knowledge from past roles is an asset that any prospective product operations manager can bring to the table. The job application and interview process remain largely the same for product operations managers as for other product roles.

Author

  • Pragmatic Editorial Team

    The Pragmatic Editorial Team comprises a diverse team of writers, researchers, and subject matter experts. We are trained to share Pragmatic Institute’s insights and useful information to guide product, data, and design professionals on their career development journeys. Pragmatic Institute is the global leader in Product, Data, and Design training and certification programs for working professionals. Since 1993, we’ve issued over 250,000 product management and product marketing certifications to professionals at companies around the globe. For questions or inquiries, please contact [email protected].

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