Operations has a long history as a poorly-defined role best described as “bringing it all together.”
A systems-based responsibility that started in the Industrial Revolution to make factories run on time, Operations has worked its way into every aspect of the business.
In the last decade, we’ve watched the rise of Sales Operations, Marketing Operations, Revenue Operations, Product Operations, and People Operations – each a sub-function dedicated to merging the organization’s goals with reality.
And we’ve watched familiar functions, like Customer Success, integrate back into the Product and Revenue teams using Operations tools, systems, and models.
Meanwhile, traditional Operations, Business Operations, and the murky role of “Business Development” have stayed the course, always focused on bringing it all together so that the product meets reality to create profit.
What does it take in 2023 to be an excellent Operations leader? Let’s explore the function, challenges, best practices, and where the ever-changing role might be headed.
What Exactly is Operations?
It’s people, process, and product operations.
Historically, the Chief Executive Officer set the strategy, and the Chief Operations Officer made the strategy happen.
People were managed by their leadership. As HR evolved, this became a partnership. Cross-functional teams were developed to bring the functions together even more.
Process traditionally developed within each business function. Making it all work across functions is the source of a century of Dilbert comics, movies, and memes.
Product Operations – the jobs of creating, selling, supporting, and improving the product – was scattered to every function. As the Product Manager role emerged, this became their overwhelming job and a very different skill set than what’s needed to create a great product.
But there aren’t three unique efforts: people, process, and product operations represent a closely interconnected system that makes up a business.
That’s what people, process, and product operations are traditionally in the COO’s domain: Operations is the system that brings it all together.
So what’s going on with all these sub-disciplines?
The Many Faces of Operations
Now that we’ve defined “Operations” as “bringing it all together”, let’s take a quick look at the new sub-disciplines.
- Sales Operations: All the activities that help a sales organization sell more. Strategy, planning, budgeting, actual sales work, delivery, and working with other teams.
- Marketing Operations: All the activities that help a marketing organization market more. Strategy, planning, actual marketing work, delivery, and working with other teams.
- Revenue Operations: Sales + Marketing + Customer Success… Operations
- People Operations: All the activities that help an HR organization. You get the idea.
- Product Operations: The role of Product used to be “create great products”. The rest of the business’s job was to finance, deliver, and support them. But with skyrocketing customer acquisition costs, leading companies recognized that the Product Manager role was really two unique disciplines: creating great products and introducing them to reality.
The pattern is clear. Every new operations sub-discipline is nothing more than using Operations best practices to make the specific business function actually function.
Modern Operations Challenges
So everyone’s on the Operations Express. Best practices usually reserved for the COO’s domain are finding homes everywhere, from Customer Success to Sales to Product.
Problem solved, right?
Workforce dynamics are shifting fast. The world seemed to change overnight to distributed work. Teams, partners, and customers can work anywhere in the world at any time. People expect more flexibility and more purpose in their work. The classic models for management – offices, meetings, shared culture – are being replaced.
New technology creates complexity and risk. We love technology at Extelli, but it’s not without downsides. Something as simple as implementing a new internal scheduling tool can create all kinds of chaos. Adding more isn’t always good, especially when business functions aren’t connecting. But taking away systems can be just as messy, especially when you don’t understand everything depending on that system.
Supply chains are fragile. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about physical goods, labor, services, or SaaS. The global supply chain is more unstable than it has been since the end of World War II. Systems dependent on on-demand, just-in-time, or lean systems and concepts struggle to adjust without wasting huge budgets on insurance.
The market for substitute products is now endless. Customers are intolerant of failure, especially if they feel their questions can never be answered by your team. Acquiring customers is historically expensive. And, in a seeming paradox, happy customers are intensely loyal.
This all means that everything about your offering, from the product design, to how it’s built, to how it’s sold and supported, to how you’re bringing customer feedback to improve the product, is now an Operations function.
The good news? Operations Leaders were made for this moment.
What a Great Operations Leader Provides
They bring it all together.
Every business starts with people. This includes your team and cross-functional team, partners, and customers. Great Operations leaders put the person at the center of everything they do.
Imagine Product, Sales, Marketing, and Customer Success working so well together that you think they’re all one team inside one function.
Operations leaders are experts at creating great cross-functional teams.
Great work with a bad process isn’t scalable. But implementing processes is hard. People are sometimes resistant. And situations change, demanding a change in process.
This is where Operations leaders shine. By introducing processes that empower people while holding them accountable, the leader can scale a high-performing team to 10x or even 100x the performance of a standard team.
Processes include onboarding and ongoing training, reporting practices, and technology that enables team success. But process isn’t defined by technology; technology supports a process.
It’s great to unify cross-functional teams around scalable processes, but all that is pointless if it’s not built for and into the product. This is what product operations really is: the people and process that make your product a profitable reality.
From development to deployment, support to analytics, sourcing to revenue, product operations create an interface between your latest product and the customers who pay for it.
People, then process, then product operations. People come first, but it wastes effort without process and product operations. That’s what a system is. That is what Operations create.
Enabling Operations in 2023
The principles of Operations – people, process, product operations – remain the same. It’s the tools that have changed.
Enabling scalable Operations in 2023 demands collaboration. Within your teams. With your partners. With your customers, who are actually your most important partners.
Truly successful Operations leaders know that to bring it all together, they must create easy ways for all these groups to collaborate. Everyone needs the current best practice at their fingertips. Documenting reality has to be point-and-click simple. Teaching content is vital; learning from your students (read: customers) is just as vital.
Extelli is the nimble knowledge manager for Operations leaders.
We’re built from Day 1, by operations professionals, for operations professionals. So that your people know your processes to support great product operations. And so that your customers become your most valuable resource for improving your product daily.
Join the Conversation
Extelli lives in the world we’re discussing here, and we would love for you to join the conversation. Check out our post about this topic on LinkedIn.