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How to be a Product Advocate

Why you need a Product Person in your team.

Since joining Kainos a few weeks ago, I’ve had a number of conversations internally and with clients about the relationship between Delivery and Product; and why I as a Product Person moved over to Delivery.

‘Products at the heart of delivery’ image

My answer to that question was that, having spent over 10 years as a Product Person, and seeing the growth of Product as a ‘thing’ within the Public Sector; helping Product grow and mature, developing the community, ways of working, career pathway etc; I realised that what was missing was Product thinking at a senior level. Most Senior leaders within the Programme delivery or Transformation space come from a traditional delivery background (if not an operational one) and while many of them do now understand the value of user centric design and user needs etc; they don’t understand the benefit of a product centric approach or what value Product thinking brings.

The expansion of Product people in the Public sector has predominantly been driven by GDS and the Digital Service standards; with most organisations now knowing they need a ‘Product Manger‘ in order to pass their Service Standard Assessment. However, almost 10 years later, most organisations are still not prioritising the hiring and capability development of their Product people. In May I worked with four different teams each working to the Digital Standards and needing to pass an assessment; and in none of those teams was the role of the Product manger working in the way we intended when we creating the DDaT Product Management capability framework.

Most organisations (understandably) feel the role of the Product Manager should be an internal one, rather than one provided by a Supplier; but 9 times out of 10 the person they have allocated to the role has no experience in the role, have never worked on a product or service that was developed to the digital standards never mind having been through an assessment; and they are regularly not budgeted or allocated the project full time; often being split across too many teams or split between the Product Manager role whilst still working in Ops or Policy or whoever they have come from previously; more often than not their actually a Subject Matter Expert, not a Product Manager (which I’ve blogged about before).

As a supplier; this makes delivery so much harder. When the right Product person isn’t allocated to a project, we can quickly see a whole crop of issues emerge.

So what are the signs that Product isn’t being properly represented within a team:

  • Overall vision and strategy are unclear or not shared widely; teams aren’t clear on what they’re trying to achieve or why; this can be because the Product person is not able to clearly articulate the problem the team are there to solve or the outcomes that team are their to deliver aren’t clearly defined.
  • Roadmap doesn’t exist, is unstable or does not go beyond immediate future/ or the Scope of the project keeps expanding; often a sign that prioritisation isn’t being looked at regularly or is happening behind closed doors making planning hard to do.
  • Success measures are unclear or undefined; because the team doesn’t understand what they’re trying to achieve and often leads to the wrong work getting prioritised or outcomes not getting delivered or user needs not met.
  • Work regularly comes in over budget or doesn’t meet the business case; or the team keeps completing Discoveries and then going back to the start or struggling to get funding to progress. This can be a sign the team aren’t clear what problem they are trying to solve or that the value that the work delivers cannot be/ isn’t clearly articulated by the Product person.
  • Delivery is late/ velocity is slow. This can be a sign the team aren’t getting access to their Product person in a timely manner causing bottlenecks in stories being agreed or signed off; or that the Product person is not empowered to make decisions and is constantly waiting for sign off from more senior stakeholders.
  • Role out is delayed or messy, with operational teams frustrated or unclear on project progress; a sign that the team doesn’t have someone owning the roadmap who understands what functionality will be available when and ensuring any dependancies are clearly understand and being monitored, or a sign that there isn’t someone engaging with or communicating progress to wider stakeholders.

More often than not as a Supplier I’ve had to argue that we need to provide a Product person to work alongside/ with teams to coach/support their internal Product people in the skills and responsibilities a Product person needs to have to enable successful delivery. Where clients have been adamant they don’t want Product people from a Supplier (often for budgetary reasons), we’ve then had to look at how we sneak someone in the door; usually by adding a Business Analyst or delivery manager to the team who also has Product skills, because otherwise are ability to deliver will be negatively impacted.

When budgets are tight, the role of Product person is often the first thing project managers try to cut or reduce; prioritising the technical or project delivery skills over Product ones. As such, teams (and organisations) need to understand the skills a good product person brings; and the cost of not having someone within a team who has those skills.

  • Their role is to focus on and clarify to the team (and business) the problem the team are trying to fix.
  • Ensure a balance between user needs; business requirements and technical constraints/options.
  • Quantifying and understanding the ROI/ value a project will deliver; and ensuring that can be tracked and measured through clear success measures and metrics.
  • Being able to translate complex problems into roadmaps for delivery. Prioritising work and controlling the scope of a product or service to ensure it can be delivered in a timely and cost effective manner, with a proper role out plan that can be clearly communicated to the wider organisation.

As an assessor, I have seen more projects fail their assessments at Alpha (or even occasionally Beta) because they lack that clear understanding of the problem there trying to solve or their success measures etc; than I have because they’ve used the wrong technical stack etc. This can be very costly; and often means undress of thousands (if not millions) of pounds being written off or wasted due to delays and rework. Much more costly than investing in having a properly qualified or experienced Product people working within teams.

While Product and Delivery are often seen as very different skill sets; I recognised a few years ago the value in having more people who understand and can advocate for both the value Product thinking brings to delivery; but also how delivery can work better with Product. People who can not only understand but also champion both in order to ensure we’re delivering the right things in the right ways to meet our clients and their users needs.

Which is why I made the active decision to hop the fence and try and bring the professions closer together and build understanding in both teams and senior leaders in the need for Product and Delivery skills to be invested in and present within teams in order to support and enable good delivery, and I as really glad to see when I joined Kainos that we’re already talking about how to bring our Product and Delivery communities closer together and act for advocates to support each other; and it was in fact a chat with the Kainos Head of Product Charlene McDonald that inspired this blog.

Having someone with the title of Product Manager or Owner isn’t enough; we need people who are experienced in Product thinking and skilled in Product Management; but that isn’t all we need. We need to stop seeing the role of Product person as an important label needed you can give to anyone in the team in order to pass an assessment and understand why the role and the skills it brings are important. We need senior leaders, project managers and delivery teams who understand what value Product brings; who understand why product is important and what it could cost the team and their organisation if those product skills are not included and budgeted for properly right from the start. We need Senior Leaders to understand why it’s important to invest in their product people; giving them the time and support they need to do their job properly; rather than spreading them thin across teams with minimal training or empowerment.

We need more Product advocates.