Product Management and the public sector..

I spent a bit of my train time this week making the most of my Kindle (which I still love – probably more than my iPad!) by dumping a 60 plus page BBC report onto it for easy reading. The report was titled The State of Product Management 2010 [PDF] and was commissioned by the Beeb to inform their new internal Product Management Development Programme.

Not surprisingly the report focuses on the role of the Product Manager in a BBC-like [digital] media environment (though the inclusion of a Huddle case study is a bit out of place if interesting) but as someone who has been doing some very lightweight thinking about this topic over the last couple of years I still found it helpful in the context of my current role.

I came to Product Management via the ‘product owner’ role in Scrum while I was at Jiva – with no real formal methodology my role evolved into something resembling a ‘proper’ Product Management role and I came to realise that an awful lot of what I had done in my career to that date had similar elements.

The idea of being the advocate for the users (the report uses consumer as a term alot – I won’t – makes me shudder! I know ‘users’ isn’t much better though..) is something I have long been passionate about. I have also come to see myself as a translator/diplomat that walks a fine line between tech teams, communications teams and policy people and works hard to bring people along on the journey using the appropriate arguments and language for each group.

The key element I think that I have failed in over the years a bit (despite thinking it is vital) is the ‘product vision’ concept that underpins the thinking in much of this document. I like to think at least that I have always worked hard on the ‘product discovery’ stage (even if I had no idea that I was doing that!) but boiling it down to an overarching ‘product vision’ (almost an elevator pitch) that all the stakeholders agree to has something I have never really managed.

I particularly found the seperation of ‘platforms’ and ‘products’ helpful in the report. I think I have been guilty in the past of getting these things too mixed up. The quote from Guardian technology chief Mike Bracken was very useful;

“..platforms allow products to be created and delivered to end users. Products are recognisably consumed by end users.”

My immediate future seems destined to be about sorting our ‘platforms’ out – because until that it done any hopes of creating engaging ‘products’ for anyone is a bit of a stretch. The future though is likely to require much more content being primarily digital in the public sector as the restrictions on communications and marketing (and in particular print and distribution) seem unlikely to go away any time soon. This means there may well be opportunities to do interesting and innovative projects online that might have simply been the classic PDF download in the past!

The Guardian Product Development process chart is very useful (see pg.23 of the report) broken down as;

Idea Generation >> Opportunity assessment >> Discovery >> Design & Development >> Learn, Launch & Review

The problem I think for organisations like mine and many others is that much/most/all of the design/development stage of the process is outsourced and often it seems like this is where with the best will in the world things go off track. As is mentioned in the report it is difficult to take an agile, iterative approach to design and development if people are working to a set price🙂 Not sure how to get beyond this if I am honest but it is something that needs thinking about.

The Business case and product definition methodologies that they outline are also very helpful. Much as I am a fan of ‘agile’ development etc it does rather assume that you have taken care of these elements before you started! Unlike Prince2 (which has its share of faults!) it does little to help you to get to the point where you actually start the development. I think it is important to understand that these ‘tools and methods’ (like the Business case and Product Definition Document) are vital to getting the ‘powers that be’ on board and giving the required support and cover to get things done. the idea of the High-fidelity prototype is also something I think really helps bring ideas to life – though I think most of my prototyping up til now has been far from ‘high-fidelity’ hopefully that will improve in the future.

Anyway I’ve babbled on for longer than I intended – take a look at the report if you are interested – it is a useful intro to the topic and has some interesting insights. Makes me wonder if the BBC Academy fancies an interloper for their new course at some point!

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