What is product management & how does it work in charities? Part 2

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In our previous article we looked at the basic responsibilities of a product manager. Here, we’ll look in a bit more depth about how an excellent product manager spends their day and how they work.

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. If you’re looking to define what a good product manager looks like, you’re best off exploring behaviours over skill sets. There is no rulebook, so it’s as much about people’s worldview as it is their 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 no different from any other that we use at work and, as such,  it is something that individuals can get better at. Product managers are some of the most expert practitioners of empathy.

This is because they are usually at the heart of competing viewpoints and need to make decisions. The best way to make these decisions 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

A 1930s management consultant called Mary Parker Follett thought there were 3 ways of working with differing opinions. 1. Domination meant that one group got their way 2. compromise meant no one got what they wanted, and 3. integration, the third way, meant that everybody’s needs were met through an imagined creative solution.

“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 constantly look for data points that 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 of our conclusions are theoretical. A good product manager understands this and will have a range of options as to 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 the way other parts of the organisation work and then influence them. 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 the aims of the organisation completely so that they can frame their work to help meet those objectives.

 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. Things start to get tricky if those conversations don’t take place.

“It can be very tempting to create a product in your own vision, ignoring all criticism. But the product is almost certain to be derailed 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 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.

Sometimes, certainly in the short term, it can be much easier to be opaque about work. 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 a group of people as wide as possible, they must have the confidence to open up their decision making process to question. They need to respect the opinions of others 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 that 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 then you’re more likely to be meeting the needs of your users. If you are doing this better, you’ll 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 needed to do this are rocket science. They 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, you should be thinking about 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

James Gadsby Peet is Director of Digital at William Joseph — a creative agency specialising in branding and digital for humans in the charity, education, health and social enterprise industries. He also runs the Product Tank London meetup, part of the world’s biggest Product Manage network, Mind The Product.

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James is the Director of Digital at the well respected brand and digital agency William Joseph. Clients include national charities, universities, arts organisations and social enterprises - who they help to achieve their goals through digital and design thinking. Before joining William Joseph, James headed up the Digital Services team at CRUK and before that worked at Battersea Dogs & Cats Home and the Variety Club. He is always excited to work with other organisations, share expertise and swap cat gifs.