How Product Operations Can Influence Your Company Culture

Rajesh Nerlikar November 29 2022

What makes for a great culture? After advising / coaching nearly 40 product teams and reflecting on my own time as a product manager / leader, I’ve realized that culture is a function of people, their mindset, and their behavior. Your hiring and org structure largely influence who the people are and what mindset they initially bring to the team. In this post, I’ll explain how a new function known as Product Operations can help a product-driven culture to flourish by influencing the team’s mindsets and encouraging specific behaviors.

Why do I think this new role is important? If you’re not intentional about the culture you want to create, you’ll likely end up with a cultured defined by what the strongest “influencers” in your org demonstrate as acceptable. Think of your company culture as a snowball rolling down a mountain. Whether they realize it or not, founders early on stand at the top of the mountain and start the snowball rolling in a specific direction with their habits. As the snowball grows and gathers momentum, it becomes harder (but not impossible) for it to change directions. This is why even early-stage companies need to think about the product culture they’re fostering. If that culture isn’t defined, it morphs quickly as you hire more people who come in with various ideas on how they want to do things. This creates tension and a suboptimal employee experience that can lead to a bad product, low morale, and in extreme cases, attrition and company failure. Let’s look at how Product Operations can help address this (or avoid it altogether early on).

What is Product Operations (ProdOps)?

ProdOps is an emerging function focused on how a scaled product team operates, including product managers, designers, user researchers, and analysts. The function is analogous to Sales Ops, a common role on large go-to-market teams. I’d argue that the role of ProdOps is to create a product-driven culture, especially when it comes to how ideas turn into software. That culture can be broken down into 5 key mindsets, each with types of behavior that ProdOps can encourage.

Mindset 1: User Centricity

How often does the team put the user at the center of their work? Example behavior:

  • Interviewing users / customers consistently to better understand their needs and wants or how they make decisions (ex discovery calls or usability tests)
  • Analyzing product usage data to better understand user behavior, feature adoption, segmentation and patterns

Mindset 2: Scalability

SaaS companies can't grow and attract investors if they're not capital efficient (think of the hockey stick graph you'd want for revenue per employee). Example behavior:

  • Identifying a single product solution that can serve the needs of many customers / users
  • Scaling internal operations using technology (ex internal products)

Mindset 3: Efficiency

No one on the product team wants to reinvent the wheel when doing their work.  Example behavior:

  • Using templates such as product briefs and roadmaps to shorten the time it takes for each team to create artifacts
  • Optimizing the product development process through regular retrospectives
  • Identifying ways to communicate product decisions and information effectively (ex a weekly product newsletter instead of a weekly product status meeting)
  • Streamlining product documentation (release notes, knowledge base, etc)

Mindset 4: Outcome-Oriented

Many product teams operate in a feature factory. Here are some behaviors ProdOps can foster to ensure the team's output is connected to a meaningful business and user outcome.

  • Ensuring the customer / user outcomes are clearly communicated and understood
  • Aligning on product or company goals before starting product development efforts
  • Measuring and reporting the impact of product releases against goals / OKRs

Mindset 5: Cross-Team Collaboration

Product decisions affect all teams, so there should be healthy internal collaboration to ensure alignment and awareness. Example behavior:

  • Working with other teams such as design and engineering to properly understand the context of a user’s desired outcome and the set of competing solutions
  • Optimizing how solutions are brainstormed and prioritized for product delivery
  • Defining the cadence, goals and attendees for meetings to make key product decisions like prioritization and feature scoping
  • Supporting go-to-market (GTM) efforts between product, marketing and sales (ex new feature or product launch)
  • Making it easy to collaborate with the right stakeholders at the right time

What Does ProdOps Do?

To be clear, it’s not often that the Product Operations team itself is demonstrating these behaviors - instead, their goal is to make it easy for the product team to build habits around these behaviors. Let's look at some examples of what the ProdOps team might do to encourage the right behavior with each of the 5 mindsets discussed above:

  • User Centricity: schedule and facilitate a weekly session where team members share new insights they've learned about users from qualitative or quantitative research
  • Scalability: establish a step in the new product or feature development process to talk to 5 - 8 customers or users to confirm the proposed solution will work for all of them
  • Efficiency: create and maintain deliverable templates such as a persona document or product review meeting deck so each team doesn't have to spend time creating these from scratch
  • Outcome-oriented: ensure the team is meeting regularly to discuss the impact of recent product releases on KPIs / KRs and documenting the next steps based on those results
  • Cross-Team Collaboration: share best practices across teams for go-to-market collaboration between product, sales, marketing and customer success

These responsibilities initially fall on the Head of Product or product executive, but it gets harder for that one person to manage all this as the team grows. This is why the role of Product Operations is becoming more common. 

The Goals of a ProdOps Team

A Product Operations team’s goals could fall into a couple of categories:

  1. Sentimental. For example, they might send a quarterly survey to the company (especially product, design and engineering) to understand how well employees feel the organization exhibits these 5 mindsets. For example, they might ask a question like "On a scale of 1 - 5, how user-centric is our company?" and monitor the trends over time. If you’re wondering whether mindset can shift, my experience is definitely yes.  I’ve seen teams becoming more user-centric after they glean powerful insights from just a few user research interviews. The more they can center cross-functional meetings around what they’re hearing from users, the more this user-centric mindset shifts across the organization.
  2. Behavioral. For example, they might track the percentage of meetings where a key user insight is discussed or used to ground a new feature idea. They might also track how often the team is reviewing their OKRs and making adjustments to the roadmap as a result of metrics being off track from goals.

Given this is an operational role, it doesn't make sense for the ProdOps team to use the same OKRs as the product team. For example, it’s not their job to drive user growth or retention. As an analogy, think of the operations manager at a car factory. She isn’t accountable for whether a new model hits its sales goal; she simply focuses on producing a high-quality car at a pace the company or market demands. Similarly, ProdOps should be supporting the product development team to increase the chances they’re building what matters.

In this way, ProdOps' goals are leading indicators of the product or company goals. For example, suppose ProdOps creates checkpoints in the development process to consider whether a product or feature would scale neatly to many customers or users. If they did that, it’d be more likely that the product will hit its goals as there wouldn’t be a need to build a new solution for each customer the company meets.

Do I Need a ProdOps Team?

There are a few clues you can use to determine whether you might need to start a ProdOps team:

  1. You / the team find yourselves spending a lot more time on the process of building what matters than actually making product decisions or shipping 
  2. Your product team is now 5-8 people, and there are a similar number of engineering teams working with PMs and designers
  3. You have more than one product in the portfolio and making allocation and prioritization decisions is complex
  4. You’re ready to level up your roadmapping game (ex create a template so stakeholders know what to expect or create a regular cadence and process for updating roadmaps and communicating changes)
  5. Product managers are spending a lot of their time choosing tools on a team-by-team basis for tasks like user interview scheduling and product usage analysis
  6. Your team and / or stakeholders see there’s a lack of shared principles of frameworks to collaborate on and communicate priorities
  7. You or the team don’t feel they’re collaborating across functions (ex product / design / engineering or product / sales / marketing) and as a result there’s a disjointed user or buyer experience

Side note: Even if none of these are happening, it's important to note that just because you don't have a Product Operations team doesn't mean the product team's operations aren't being defined. Your culture comes to life with every process you introduce or tweak, every template you create and use, every communication you send to stakeholders and every meeting you have (or don't have) to make or share product decisions. Think hard about the mindset and behavior your team demonstrates, even if you don't have a ProdOps team. 

Building a ProdOps Team

If any of the above is happening, you might need to consider whether it’s time to start a ProdOps team, and who to hire first. In the same way I rarely recommend hiring a Chief Product Officer as the company's first product hire, I would strongly consider hiring some individual contributors before hiring a ProdOps executive. This way, you have someone who's ready to roll their sleeves up and do the work to establish a solid operational foundation (many execs are focused on managing a team vs doing the work themselves).

For example, you might hire a product / data analyst if you feel the more pressing need is to create an outcome-oriented culture. This person could help the team refine their OKRs / product KPIs, build dashboards to track progress, and answer key questions by analyzing the data. Alternatively, you might need a process-oriented person to streamline how roadmapping should work or implement tools to make better product decisions. Former PMs or Scrum Masters make for ideal candidates for this type of role.

Of course, the current org structure will be a major factor in deciding who to hire. If there is a product executive in place, this new hire could report to them as the first ProdOps hire. If there isn't a product executive in place, consider whether you might find a Head of Product who can wear the Product Operations hat in addition to other product executive responsibilities like vision, strategy, hiring and mentoring.  

Closing Thoughts

Think back to your most recent major product release. Where did the idea originate from? How was it prioritized? How did you ship the change - all at once, or in phases? Were all the right teams in the loop for a successful go-to-market launch? Were the results of this release shared with relevant stakeholders?

The answers to all of these questions fall into the domain of Product Operations, so you can see how the impact of ProdOps on an organization’s culture can be profound. This is especially important as your product development team scales. Imagine the unintentional culture that forms when no one is talking to users because it’s not a norm, or when collaborating on the right solution for users is irrelevant because feature requests are handed down from the exec team or a customer. As the company grows, these bad habits are amplified, especially when execs reinforce them. Consider whether ProdOps can help counter them.

Given Product Operations is such a new function in tech, it’s worth talking to others who have experience and lessons learned. If you’d like to discuss what we’re doing with and hearing from our clients or how to think about ProdOps at your company, please request a call.

Written by Rajesh Nerlikar

Rajesh is a co-founder of Prodify and Principal Product Advisor / Coach. He is currently the VP of Product at Regrow. Prior to that, he was the Director of Workplace Products at Morningstar, a Senior PM at HelloWallet (which was acquired by Morningstar) and a PM at Opower (which went public in 2014).

Get New Content