Product Operations and the 3-Legged Stool Analogy

Published Oct 7, 2021

People, processes, technologies. These three words might be familiar to you. They originate from Harold Leavitt’s 1964 paper, “Applied Organization Change in Industry.” In it, he proposes a four-part diamond model for creating change in an organization:

    • Structure: How a group of people is organized
    • Tasks: What a group of people do
    • People: Who the people are
    • Technology: What the people work with

Since the publication of that paper, “structure” and “tasks” have been consolidated down to “processes” (what people do). Therefore, the focus for modern teams is on establishing and optimizing the relationships between people, processes, and technologies. The people do the work (e.g. product managers), processes make this work more efficient (e.g. the product life cycle), and technologies help people do their tasks (e.g. Aha!) and help automate the processes (e.g. Blue Prism). 

For any product operations teams, getting the right balance between these three components is key. Imagine a three-legged stool–if one of the legs is a bit longer or a bit shorter, the whole stool will lose its balance. But how can product ops pros make use of this model in practice? Let’s explore these three components in more detail.

The people: Fostering the right skills

Product managers, project managers, product marketing managers, product owners… the list goes on. These are the people who complete the tasks described in a process, often by leveraging technology. How they do their work and what they do their work with is the important question here. Product operations teams should prioritize onboarding the right people into your business by identifying those with the right combination of competencies and interpersonal skills.

Research suggests that today’s workers should accumulate knowledge in an M-shaped skill profile where they have one or more specialties, for example improving/automating processes, implementing software, and making data-driven decisions. People with this skill profile are also known to be more adaptable than someone with a single specialty (who have an I-shaped skill profile).

While technical competencies are still in high demand, research has also found that the majority of employees feel that the biggest skill gap in their organization is interpersonal. As technology becomes increasingly automated, work will become less about how we use technology–which requires technical upskilling–and more about how we interact with (and through) technology, which requires softer skills such as the ability to collaborate effectively. 

Mature product operations teams should therefore focus on being interdependent and developing a well-functioning working relationship–both with each other and with teams throughout the business.

The processes: Setting a strong foundation

The process component of the framework mostly defines the “how.” A process (ideation, planning, launches, etc.) is the series of steps or activities that combine to deliver an intended goal. It’s important that your colleagues understand how they fit into a process–they should know what the steps or activities are in the process, what their role is, and what they need to achieve. 

For product operations, this means communicating instructions to the product team and the relevant teams across the business and training the key people involved in the process (whether they are new hires or existing employees). Also, if you are designing a process from scratch (or re-engineering an existing one), make sure to involve key stakeholders at all levels of seniority in its design and review.

When implementing new processes or improving existing ones, start by focusing on the key steps of the process since they will contribute the most to process efficiency and the intended end result. Once those are in place, you can start tweaking the finer details, exceptions, and support processes (which is particularly important in product operations teams). If you don’t implement strong processes, you can end up wasting a lot of the value delivered by technology. 

On the other hand, if you obsess too much on the process, you might end up with a good plan on paper, but without the right people or the technology to support it. Again, balance is key.

Once you’ve defined a process and begin implementing it, you can then focus on the metrics you’ll use to measure its success. Consider what you want to track and how you’ll measure them–these metrics will help you see what’s working and what isn’t, since you can use them to monitor and evaluate all the product processes that your team is involved in. Constant feedback and continuous improvement are also crucial so you can change, adapt, and evolve processes over time as necessary for your business.

The technologies: Making informed decisions

Finally, once the people and processes are in place, you should consider what technologies you’ll need to use to support them. Technologies such as Aha!, Jira, Confluence, or PowerBI provide the tools that your stakeholders will need to execute a number of key processes. You may also want to consider RPA software, such as Blue Prism, to automate some of the processes. While it is very tempting to get pulled in by the latest, newest, shiniest tool on the market, make sure to do enough due diligence and planning to ensure the technology fits into your organization and will bring the best return on investment.

Businesses tend to make huge investments in technology to gain strategic advantages, with people and processes coming in as a second thought. They then try to fit the people and processes around the new technology they have spent so much money on. The trouble is, technology alone won’t solve problems–technology is nothing without the right people working on the right objectives and following the right processes. Once you’ve clearly articulated your problem, recruited and trained team members, and defined the process requirements, then you should explore your technology options to improve the odds of success.

Bringing it all together

Maturity models are a great way to qualitatively assess people, processes, and technologies in a structured way (there are at least 10 such models in existence, so make sure you use one that makes sense for your business). Whichever model you do choose, they are incredibly useful for product operations teams in helping determine the level of maturity across people, processes, and technologies in your product org. These models also give you clear direction to help your business progress to higher levels of maturity.

As teams mature and want to make continuous improvements, consider what the biggest problems are at any given moment in time:

    • If a team is not completing tasks quickly enough, pay more attention to the interaction of process and technology and look for opportunities to automate. 
    • If a team is not efficient enough, look at the interaction of people and processes and try to figure out where they might be failing to scale. 
    • If a team is not creating new value, look at where people and technology interact and find out where they are failing to innovate.

When people interact with processes, you can scale. When people interact with technologies, you can innovate. And when processes interact with technologies, you can automate. But when you successfully manage the interactions of all three, product operations can grow and be more successful. So make sure you get the balance right, and that none of the legs on your stool are missing.