CPO Series: The Chief Product Officer’s Secret Weapon – Product Operations

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The following transcript has been altered for readability. 


Bhaji Illuminati: Welcome to the CPO series. This is our Fall installment in the last one of the year. We have brought this together to bring CPOs and aspiring and experts together to learn, share, and engage. Dragonboat is sponsoring the series. We are a product portfolio platform for outcome focused Chief Product Officers and teams adopted by 3,000 teams in 60 countries. The topic today is how do product ops help CPOs. Denise is the expert. She’ll be answering questions around how CPOs can leverage product operations and vice versa. So we’ll cover how they can work together to really help the business drive outcomes.

My name’s Bhaji Illuminati, I’m the Chief Marketing Officer at Dragonboat. I’m really excited to introduce Denise, who is a Chief Product Officer at Grocket and former VP of Product at Produx Labs. So let’s kick it off. Denise, I’d love for you to tell us what’s the difference that you’ve seen between good and great product ops?


Denise Tilles: That was a really smart question and I had to think about that for a second. I think with a good prod ops team, you’ve got folks that are helping stand up support around enabling the PMs. They might have a longer term view and some more immediate points of view on what the things that are most important in value add are. But from good to great, it’s I think really having that simple, easy to understand framework that you can align the prod ops team, the PMs and your stakeholders around. They will clearly understand how you and your prod ops folks are really enabling outcomes. And how you’re aligning to enable those outcomes. As well as, at the product level, the strategic level, and the company level. So I think it’s being able to tell that story with a simple framework.


Bhaji Illuminati: I love that. Storytelling is such a critical skill that a lot of people don’t necessarily think of as part of their resume.


Denise Tilles: And it’s hard. It’s a hard thing to learn, too, right?


Bhaji Illuminati: It’s a hard thing to learn. On that note, so you mentioned outcomes. So what role does product ops play in helping teams become outcome focused?


Denise Tilles: A lot of it in the beginning is about alleviating the PMs on how to get the data. I think prod ops is about making the sort of mechanics and how to get these sort of quant and qual inputs taken care of so folks can really focus on the data insights themselves as opposed to getting them the instrumenting, what tool are we using? And that helps get people closer to identifying potential outcomes and then creating that baseline of measurable outcomes. So it’s really about getting out of how we’re doing it, but why we’re doing it. That provides that bigger-picture outcome.


Bhaji Illuminati: And kind of enabling that. So they’re not necessarily doing it, but they’re bringing forth information that’s needed to make those decisions.

How can CPOs leverage product operations? How do you see them working together?


Denise Tilles: Yeah, so for CPOs to leverage product operations, I think especially if you’re new in an organization as a Chief Product Officer, the biggest piece is getting the lay of the land. Product ops is going to be a really big trusted partner in terms of helping you understand the topography of strengths and potential areas of urgency.

So you guys have probably read a lot or heard Shra Nevas at Callen Lee. He speaks a lot about prod ops. And one of the case studies we cover in the workshop that I do for Produx Labs, he talked about how he stood up a customer insight, sort of a V1 within 90 days based on existing input. So when you think about how CPOs leverage product operations, it’s about just leveraging boots on the ground to get a sense of where the opportunities are and of the biggest value or the biggest need. So that’s huge.

Christine Intouro of Pendo had commented on LinkedIn recently that a leader had shared with her that now that they have a products partner, they don’t want to work somewhere else that there isn’t one. And I hear that a lot from other CPOs that it’s really a key capability that either if it’s not there, they want to bring it or it gives them pause. If they’re considering a role that doesn’t have that, maybe the C-suite is not necessarily open to that. So it’s an enabler and I think a lot of Chief Product Officers really see this.


Bhaji Illuminati: When you’re talking to Chief Product Officers, maybe they’re kind of thinking about building out their team. What characteristics should they look for when hiring product ops?


Denise Tilles: Yeah. Well, I always think about the roles. They’re kind of very different. And if you can find a person that does both, so you think about the more data, analytical type of person and then someone who’s got more process in community practice, if you can find one person, awesome, chances are that’s a purple squirrel, you’re not going to find them. So those are two very different roles. But if you’re thinking about someone to get prod ops off the ground and sort stand up the function, I would go with someone that’s more focused on the process and methods. And in that role, I would suggest someone who’s got great empathy off the chart EQ, emotional quotient, uncanny ability to sniff out the areas of greatest need, that person’s an influencer.

And with that storytelling, they can paint the vision of the future state. They can say we’re here today, here’s where we will be. Also if you have focused on a roadmap and what we will and what we won’t do, they’re able to share back that “Not a priority right now, but we hear you,” and people feel good about that. They don’t feel sort of shut down. So this person is a great person that focuses on winning hearts and minds on behalf of the product team and the Chief Product Officer. So that would be a characteristic I think for a first hire. But they’re definitely data driven as well and focused and really see the value there. So that would be one aspect.

The other one would be more of a data person. And that’s is someone who’s really got a great facility with instrumentation of data analytics, understands can get in there, maybe write some code to extract, but can also do the storytelling part. And that’s a challenging piece I think with PMs that they may have trouble pulling the data, but then what does that mean and how do we share that back to the organization, why we’re focusing on something?


Bhaji Illuminati: Do you see that there’s a common path to product ops? Are they coming through product management? Are they coming from operations? What’s some of the common kind of pathway to get there?


Denise Tilles: Well, in a short word, no, there’s not a single common path.

You probably have seen this, but I see folks on the data side. SEO analysts even who have moved from that aspect. And that’s a kind of helpful skill too, that have moved towards data analysis and storytelling. And the products teams that I’ve built, I have found folks that way and found they’ve made a really good leap there. UX researchers thinking about the more qualitative aspect of product ops, customer support, a lot of good people from there. And PMs as well. I love seeing PMs that want to move over to that and really have a passion for making the product manager experience even better and helping elevate the speed and quality of decision-making.


Bhaji Illuminati: Yeah, okay. Interesting. And then you mentioned that a lot of soft skills around storytelling are really valuable for successful product ops. How from both perspectives, from an interviewing perspective on the Chief Product Officer side and then from a product ops perspective, how do you see those skills coming across in interviews? Is there a good way to prove that you have them or make sure that people have them?


Denise Tilles: Right. That’s a really good question. I guess I would ask if I was on the interviewing side, tell me about a time that you were able to change the mind of a stakeholder with the decision you’d made. And then you’re sort looking for the emotional connection, not someone necessarily saying, here’s how we’re doing it. We did it, we told them we had to do it this way and they weren’t happy, but they did it. You know, don’t want to hear that. You want to understand how they had the soft skills to help convince, and you get people on board with that. So that would be one way I would try to assess that way from the interviewee side. How do you share that in terms of making sure that your interviewer can tell? Is that what you’re saying?


Bhaji Illuminati: Yeah, so if there’s people here that are looking to get into product ops to really impress a Chief Product Officer that they might be interviewing with kind of coming forth with those skills.


Denise Tilles: Right. I think it’s about being able to get into a situation and show your thought process in terms of discovery in a sense of where the needs are, the highest needs, and then how you got to the point of the quick wins that you wanted to have as proof points. So I think that helps them envision, oh, this person can of hit the ground running and understands how to focus through all of the noise and get to some wind so we can make the case and hopefully hire some more folks later on.


Bhaji Illuminati: And then you touched on this a little bit earlier. So when we’re talking about a team of one, how do you make an impact? How do you get some of those quick wins?


Denise Tilles: And I think you need to be hyper focused because you can’t do everything. You’ve got to figure out where can you really have the most impact right away? And you also have to, I think, understand from your own sanity point of view, what can you control and what can you let go of? Hugo and I were chatting about this the other day. It’s like you kind of have to have a sense of here’s what I’m going to focus, these are the things I’m not doing. I have to make sure that people understand that. I think if you try to boil the ocean, you won’t win. So you really got to hone in on the biggest area of need and hopefully opportunity towards outcomes.

So I think it’s about as much saying no as it is of what we will do. And it’s so tempting to want to help everybody and they’re so happy you’re here. On the other hand, folks also kind of project what they perceive as product ops. I have seen folks perceive it as a grab bag of an associate pm someone who’ll run project management. So it’s also an education process as well of what products is and what it isn’t.


Bhaji Illuminati: Yeah. And there’s the band of they’re just process people or they help enable outcomes or what value can they provide within the organization. So there’s a lot of conversation around that. I mean, where do you think they set or is it a combination of both?


Denise Tilles: I mean there is value in methods and process. I don’t know that that’s completely what its prod ops is about. Melissa Perry and I are writing a book about prod ops and it’s really framed around these three pillars. So business and data insights, the quant, customer market research, the qualitative and then process and practices. That could be governance, that could be operating model, community of practice, but it’s one aspect of it. And I think to boil down product operations to processes, kind of really distilling it in an oversimplified way. And maybe folks that do that may not have worked with product ops or have seen product ops in a good way.

So I think it’s about understanding where the success stories have been. And we’ve certainly seen a lot of that in the industry. Christine at Pendo, building that out at Pendo and then being a champion for product ops across the industry as well. So I think it’s about having an open mind. So definitely don’t see it as process for process sake, but that’s a whole other webinar.


Bhaji Illuminati: Big discussion. Tell us more about your book.


Denise Tilles: Yes, yes, yes, yes. So Melissa and I are co-authoring this and it’s going really well. We will definitely have it out in 2023. And it’s really about, we wanted to focus on actionable advice. I’ve read a lot of great product books that paint the picture of what great can look like, but it’s so theoretical. It’s like, well I don’t really know how to actualize this. It was really important to us that it’s geared to be super practical. We wanted to focus on the actionable advice. We have case studies with orgs in a variety of maturity phases and scale. So that was really important as well to be able to show different archetypes of products, teams and challenges so that people reading it can sort of find some identification with different lessons learned and whatnot. So super excited about that.


Bhaji Illuminati: We had a question from the audience around which tools product operations should be looking for.


Denise Tilles: Oh gosh, it depends on what you’re trying to solve for. And I’m a big believer in tools. I’m also a big believer that they’re an enabler and you need to understand the use case and of what you’re trying to solve for when you’re considering a tool. So if you’re looking to get a more holistic portfolio view, something like Dragonboat, amazing. I will say, I’m a big fan in the lowest fidelity possible. And it could be a Google sheet.

So if it’s customer support and product and of enabling that flywheel rather than getting an Aha or some sort of feedback loop, try it out in a very simple way and understand where the challenges are.

Is it about having sure everybody understands the service level agreement, so to speak? If you give us input, how quickly are we getting back to you on yes, we’re using that? No, we couldn’t find a trend with that. We’re going to hang onto it, but also what do you want from this? Is it more about bugs? We want to keep that, bugs are important, but the feedback loop is a little bit different in terms of what we’re hearing from customers.

So I’m a big fan of understanding first what you’re trying to solve for, do it in a very low fidelity way and then I think that helps inform what your needs are in terms of tools.


Bhaji Illuminati: Yeah. I’m curious, there’s the term opinionated software. How much do you think the tool helps create and drive the framework versus the framework should be established prior to rolling a tool out?


Denise Tilles: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think it should be a bit of both because you can anticipate what the tool may help enable, but with certain software tools, they’ve seen so many different use cases. It may sort of be a, oh, I hadn’t thought about that. So I see it as sort of a blend. You should definitely have a point of view what you want to get towards, but be open to the other use cases that you’re learning about if you’re trialing it or implementing it. So that’s a good question.


Bhaji Illuminati: Yeah, I always love that term opinionated software, love and hate it.


Denise Tilles: Yeah.


Bhaji Illuminati: Okay. So Yasmin asked with other supporting functions emerging such as research ops, design ops, how would you describe the nuance between them and how do you manage the potential overlap?


Denise Tilles: We actually added some content around this in the workshop that I do with Produx Labs because it’s almost like battle of the ops? Because every team has this, I see it as a really great opportunity to of have this super friends council. So everyone has a perspective. However, I think it’s important to have a charter and help people understand of “Yeah, here’s what we own and here’s what might kind of overlap. Here’s what we own, this is where we might overlap.” But being very candid and intentional about that. I think otherwise there can be little fiefdoms that start building. So that’s how I would consider managing potential overlap.

So you’ve got engineering ops, you’ve got design ops, marketing ops, sales ops. I’ve seen some companies that may have had design ops or eng ops and they want to sort of compress that into product ops as an overall operations, which is great. And I have worked with some clients that have that all in SEP as separate functions and keep them that way. So it really depends on how you want to do that. But I think long as you’re clear with the teams, the internal teams and also your stakeholders about who does what when it’s great. If we can all have an opportunity to sort of speed and lubricate us getting towards better outcomes, I’m all for it.


Bhaji Illuminati: Do you see typically those ops functions sitting on the same team or within the cross-functional areas?


Denise Tilles: Really cross functional, unless it’s like that situation I mentioned where it’s like we had this ops but we’re expanding it and we’re calling it product ops, but otherwise they typically are sitting within those functions. That’s interesting. It would be an interesting ops group. Have you ever seen that?


Bhaji Illuminati: I’ve heard about potentially having the operations team as a shared services. However, I don’t see that as frequently. Typically we see them nestled within the teams. I like your super friends council though. That’s a fun way to put it. Super operational friends councils.


Denise Tilles: Exactly. Fighting for good.


Bhaji Illuminati: Okay, so CTB asked a question. A big part of product ops is understanding the P&L of a product as well as different data points related to a product that inform where strategy should be focused. When looking at product costs, how do you suggest approaching shared costs such as sales and marketing that often have individuals that are meant to be working across multiple products or portfolios? Good question.


Denise Tilles: Yeah, that’s very specific. Looking at product costs, how do you suggest approaching shared costs such as sales and marketing that have individuals that are meant to be working?

I guess it would be an allocation. That’s how I would consider that if you’re sort of breaking it out that way. But you’re right, P&L is a huge piece of it and I think that’s where products can really add a lot of value in terms of thinking about what bets are we making and how do we actually measure that? Are we actually focused on those bets? I worked with some companies like, oh this is our focus this, everyone gets a strategy and then you start doing an R&D allocation of people like, “Oh, we’re not working on that.” So that can be a big aspect of the P&L within product, a single product, their portfolio and sale and marketing I think would be similar as well, just to understand where that’s happening.


Bhaji Illuminati: Okay. Should the product ops people be agnostic in terms of the product they are working on a horizontal team across the product organization? Or should they be sitting within the prod domain? For example, product ops for payments and product ops for finance, et cetera?


Denise Tilles: It’s funny, I’ve worked with a company who introduced product ops pretty early on and then I came in to work with them as a maturity assessment. Where are you guys at? What’s going well? What could we be working, what’s our roadmap look like? And they have gone from dedicated to shared to dedicated to shared. Really there are benefits to both. I think you can be embedded so to speak, but still be part of the prod ops team. And I think that there’s real value there in terms of sharing lessons learned, sharing experiences, best practices. I’m not a huge stickler.

Things must be the same in every team, but if there are great ways to work, making sure everybody understands this has really worked well for this team. But if you’re kind of in each vertical and not necessarily working and of operating within a shared model, that could be hard to propagate well. So I’m a fan of a blend, but I’ve seen different versions. I think Stripe has a pretty unique one. But yeah, that’s my point of view on that.


Bhaji Illuminati: And probably to topic of this webinar, it’s a little harder to have that alignment between product ops and the Chief Product Officer when they’re embedded within the specific domains.


Denise Tilles: That’s a good point too actually. I would assume in those models that I’ve seen there still is sort of a director and they’re working closely with the Chief Product Officer but like I said, I like everyone to have that similar point of view and sharing out pain points and sharing out successes that can be sort of spread across.


Bhaji Illuminati: Okay, so Vladimir asked one of the outcomes owned by our product ops people is transparency in our progress with OKRs. What does awesome looks like in keeping the progress in check both within the product team and at the company-wide level?


Denise Tilles: Yeah, I think products has a real opportunity to shine here because I’ve seen so many companies where you go in and it’s like, oh we have them. Are you monitoring them? They’re not a set it and forget it. You really have to tend and care to them. So I think that’s an opportunity where products can shine in terms of creating the forums to review them, creating the cadence and making sure people understand every month, every quarter we’re going to be getting together to look at this.

And then what does that mean if we’re not hitting them personally? Worked in organizations like, “Well we’re just going to change.” Maybe there’s something between that. But prod ops keeps us on track. Product operations keeps us honest and makes sure that we’re sort of eyes on the prize and if something has changed markedly with the strategy, they’re also proactively going back and “Here’s what we were measuring, what do we need to do to tweak this?”

So I say prod op’s role is creating the forum, maintaining the sort of review points and then understanding and making sure we’re holding folks accountable to this key results in terms of something that’s actually measurable. I’ve seen OKR set up where improvement but can’t necessarily measure it. So I think that products can help keep product teams honest as well.


Bhaji Illuminati: Yeah, and that’s for any operations function or any department within the whole organization, not just prod ops.


Denise Tilles: Exactly. Alicia, I see that you just asked about the new book when it will be released. 2023. I wish I could say more. First half, second half, I can’t. But 2023, for sure.


Bhaji Illuminati: Okay, perfect. Time for one more. What are common attributes of product ops implementations you’ve observed that helped organizations?


Denise Tilles: Good question. Not trying to do everything at once. It’s simple. It sounds so simple, but you get in, you’re like … You want to do it all and you can’t hold yourself back. You want to do it, hold yourself back, go in there, do a little discovery, understand the biggest need. Know that you’re not going to have a complete roadmap, but just find two quick wins that you can get.

And that’s where I’ve seen folks being able to of build it up as opposed to going wide and shallow, go focused and deep and get those wins. So I think that’s where I’ve seen a lot of companies add it and then make the case to start adding another products person and then building out the company versus, well we don’t quite get what this is because you guys said you would do this, this, and this, and we haven’t seen it yet. So managing expectations, underpromising and overdelivering.


Bhaji Illuminati: And having those small wins to celebrate.


Denise Tilles: Yeah, exactly, exactly.


Bhaji Illuminati: Okay, well with that, we’re coming up on time. Denise, thank you so much for your time. That was really, really interesting. Lots of great questions. Lastly, this completes our CPO series for the year. We put all of our content on the website, dragonboat.io/CPOseries. So come tune in, see what previous experts have talked about. Thank you all so much for joining. We encourage you to check out Dragonboat and how we can help you kind of merge those opinions in the software with some of the framework and the practice that you’re bringing in. Denise, thank you so much for joining us as always, and we loved learning from you.

Power your team with Dragonboat

Product operations was developed to enable an effective, outcome-focused product organization. Think of them as the chief enabler of the product organization. So how can CPOs leverage product operations to maximize outcomes? Hear from Grocket CPO Denise Tilles as she covers all about how product operations and Chief Product Officers can work together.

In this webinar, Denise covers how to:

  • How great CPOs leverage product operations
  • How to hire product operations
  • Best CPO tools and practices
  • How product operations enables outcome driven organizations


Picture of Denise Tilles

Denise Tilles

CPO, Grocket

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