What (TF) is Product Management & how does it work in charities?

Product Management is the development of something which delivers value to your organisation, by meeting the needs of your users. This value is realised through ongoing iteration and should consider the entire end to end journey of this value exchange.

Despite what many will tell you, this is not actually a role which is particularly new. Businesses across the world have been using the underlying principles for decades if not longer. From heavy engineering such as Rolls Royce or more technical R&D led organisations like Hewlett Packard — individuals with end to end responsibilities around a particular piece of kit that needs to be constantly improved, have been around for a long time.

What has changed, is the definition of the products themselves. As ‘digital’ has become more and more embedded in our lives, the pieces of kit which need managing have become less likely to be an aeroplane engine, and more likely to be a website, app or online experience.

So what are digital products in a charity?

This completely depends on the charity in question. A charity with a lot of resources and a high level of ‘digital maturity’ is likely to have a lot more digital tools that need to be managed. The largest organisations will break down their products into the specific parts of their users’ experiences. These might include:

  • Donations
  • Fundraising
  • Event Sign up
  • Event Management
  • Online communities
  • Digital Marketing
  • Online retail

As ever, smaller organisations will have less people with broader remits. As such, a product manager may be responsible for the entire website, rather than individual elements of the online experience.

It’s worth noting, that within charities, there have been product managers for a long time — often looking after a particular fundraising campaign. Whether that’s a night time walking marathon or giving up booze for January, these are often seen as contained experiences which need to be iterated to better meet their user’s needs and create value.

So what is digital product management?

Martin Eriksson, the big friendly giant of Product Management and best selling author of Product Leadership, defines the role of a product manager as sitting between UX, Technology and ‘the business’. This often quoted venn-diagram shows us his perspective:

Figure 1. Product management has been called the intersection between business, technology, and user experience (source: Martin Eriksson, 2011).

What seems to be consistent across definitions, is that Product Management in all its forms, is the ability to pull together lots of different elements so that they can work together to deliver something that matters to the organisation and its supporters.

This will mean different things in different set ups. What is often seen is that the Product Manager will direct a cross functional team of designers, UXers and developers. They will usually decide which work is prioritised and delivered, whilst normally being the person who defines when something is ‘done’.

In addition to the practical steps of managing what resource is applied to which elements, the individual will set the vision for what is being delivered and understand better than most, how it fits into the overall picture of the organisation. This means speaking to lots and lots of people, whilst maintaining your own expert opinion on what needs to be delivered next.

“To me being a product manager is about being that one person who has an overview, a vision for the future and the ability to channel the general chaos of day-to-day digital towards achieving that shared goal. This isn’t easy, in fact at times it feels like playing Whac-A-Mole inside a beehive; but it’s worth it, because we’re all here to provide the best digital experiences we can for our users.”

Becca Peters, Product Manager at Breast Cancer Care

What does a great charity digital Product Manager look like?

As with any evolving discipline, tying down a set way of doing things can be tricky. As such, if you’re looking to define what a good Product Manager looks like, you’re best of exploring behaviours over skillsets. There is no rule book so it’s as much about people’s world view as it is they’re approach

1. They have a highly evolved sense of empathy

Empathy is the ability to imagine how other people are feeling. This is different to sympathy, where you actually feel those emotions yourself. It is a skill like many others that we use at work and as such, it is something that individuals can get better at — and frequently Product Managers are some of the most expert practitioners.

This is because they are usually at the heart of competing view points, with decisions needing to be made. The best way to make these, is to understand where people are coming from and discuss the issue in their own terms, rather than apply your own perspective.

2. They are collaborative by default

Mary Parker Follett, a 1930s management consultant, thought there were 3 ways of working with differing opinions. Domination meant that one group got their way, compromise meant no one got what they wanted and integration, or the 3rd way, was when a creative solution was imagined which met everybody’s needs.

“Integration involves invention, the finding of the third way. Never let yourself be bullied by an either-or. Find a third way.”

Mary Parker Follett, 1933

Good product managers know that their job is to bring people together to find these imaginative solutions to problems for their organisation. They set the conditions to ensure a high level of psychological safety. This means everyone can contribute to the discussion, no matter what their role, expertise or experience, increasing the chance of finding the ‘third way’.

3. If in doubt, they test, learn and iterate

Often, Product Managers will be leading teams doing something for the first time. Even if not, given that our users and organisations are constantly changing, lessons need to be re-learned and conditions re-evaluated. As such, Product Managers will be constantly looking for data points which can help them understand the best solution to their problems.

These data points should be as varied as our supporters. A good Product Manager will be as comfortable pulling insights from a contextual user research interview as they will be a stream of Google Analytics data.

“Data is very valuable, but isn’t helpful without qualitative research. You need to ask the right questions. You need to really understand who’s using it and what you are not fulfilling as much as what you are fulfilling.”

Marco Marandiz, Product Manager at HomeAway*

Once hypotheses have been formed, the best way to test if they are correct, is to prototype. No matter how good our analysis is, until we have something that is operating in market conditions, all our conclusions are theoretical. A good Product Manager understands this and will have a range of options for how an organisation can prove or disprove a theory as cheaply as possible.

“If a picture is worth a thousand words, a prototype is worth a thousand meetings.”

John Maeda, Global Head of Computational Design and Inclusion at Automattic*

These prototypes might be as simple as some pieces of paper stuck together, or they may be as complex as a working website. All will be significantly cheaper to build than the final version and provide enough data to make decisions quickly.

4. They influence

Like any leader, a good Product Manager will work to engage with and influence the way that other parts of the organisation work. Given the nature of digital products, many of the finer points are unlikely to be in their control. If they are going to be successful they need to understand what the rest of the organisation’s aims are, and how they can frame their work to help meet them.

This involves talking to as many people as possible whilst truly hearing their needs, concerns and drivers. Once a Product Manager is able to do this, the integration of their work with the needs of others is a simple task. When conversations don’t take place is when things start to get tricky.

“It can be very tempting to create a product in your own vision, ignoring all criticism. But the product is almost certain to be de-railed when things come to a head. You can’t get all stakeholders to agree with you, but you can make them feel listened to and communicated with. There’s a much better chance of them coming round if they can understand the ideas behind what you are doing, and are less likely to oppose what’s being built. It takes a lot of patience, but it’s always worth it.”
Ellie Budd, Product Manager at William Joseph

One of the key ways that Product Managers exert influence, is through a document called a Roadmap. This helps them to explain to others, what their priorities are, and how that fits in with the rest of the charity.

“The key thing to remember with a roadmap is that the document itself is uninteresting — it’s the process of understanding and negotiating that the team goes through, to own the problems and commit to solving them, that is its real purpose.”

Matt Walton, Chief Product Officer at FutureLearn*

5. They have the confidence to be fully transparent

Thanks to the range of digital tools at our disposal, it’s never been easier to provide a wide range of people, with an overview of what a team is delivering. Just because the tools exist, doesn’t mean that groups take advantage of them though.

In the short term, it can be much easier to be opaque about work, by keeping it to yourself. This means you get less hassle and are more likely to deliver the outcome that you think is correct.

Good Product Managers understand that if they are going to build trust with as wide a group of people as possible, they must have the confidence to open up their decision making process to question. They need to respect others’ opinions and be swayed by them. The best way to do this is to let people see exactly the decisions that are being made, the work that is happening and what is being learned.

People both inside and outside your organisation teach you so much more about your role than you ever imagine, and all that knowledge helps you to build better products for the people who need them.
Becca Peters, Product Manager at Breast Cancer Care

What benefits do Product Managers bring?

Make tricky decisions faster and better

With their ability to lead teams which test and prototype, Product Managers allow an organisation to explore multiple options for tricky problems, before making decisions. This allows you to come to stronger conclusions, faster.

Raise more funds and provide deeper impact

If you’re making better decisions, you are more likely to be meeting the needs of your users. If you are doing this better, then you will encourage more people to support you and provide more valuable services to those that your organisation exists to serve.

Drive test & learn culture

Success breeds success and once a single team starts trying things out rather than talking about decisions, you will quickly see others follow suit. None of the techniques to do this are rocket science, and can be picked up by anyone in your organisation.

Help people make mistakes

If you are constantly trying things, you are going to make a lot of mistakes. These are crucial to the lessons that must be learnt in any organisation. Most charities are not set up to reward this kind of behaviour. A strong Product Management function can drive progress in normalising this situation and illustrating its benefits.

Use a lot more post-its

Product Managers love post its. Expect to see your stationary budget jump up a few 00s.

Do you need a Product Manager?

If you’re a charity that’s looking to make digital a core part of your service and integral to your fundraising efforts, then you could do a lot worse than starting by hiring a Product Manager. Find the right person and they will help you spot exciting new opportunities whilst empowering your organisation to make the most of them.

*Quote sourced from https://productleadershipbook.com/ © 2016–2017 Richard Banfield, Martin Eriksson, and Nate Walkingshaw

Director of Digital at William Joseph — a creative agency. I’m always up for chatting about fun things and animated cat gifs www.williamjoseph.co.uk

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