In all my time as a product manager I’ve never been in a room with one hundred other product people before. For me, that was always going to make our recent conference in Leeds full of exciting possibilities. Attendees came from across a range of government departments to share and learn from each other, with an agenda of keynote presentations, lightning talks, round table discussions and a panel session with the heads of product management at the end.
A few key themes really resonated throughout the day - both in terms of the challenges we face as product people and some of the tactics we use to manage them. There were some powerful moments that caused me to stop and reflect. These included on the topics of: working with stakeholders, solving the right problems, keeping your team focused on the outcome and enabling great teamwork..
Working with stakeholders
Keynote speaker Laura Kirsop from FutureLearn gave an insightful view on where the needs of users for their online courses (learners) and stakeholders (academics) appeared to conflict and the challenge her team got from stakeholders about a solution designed to address a major user need. They were only able to address the user need and gain support from stakeholders by developing a much deeper insight into the stakeholders, to discover what was underpinning their resistance.
Adam Shabbir’s lightning talk built upon this. He noted that one of the big benefits of using a product canvas at the Ministry of Justice, was that using it with stakeholders helped build a mutual understanding of the project and the desired outcomes, collaboratively with their stakeholders.
Solving the right problems
Dympna Kelly and Jeremy Davis from HMRC continued on the theme of working collaboratively with stakeholders but doing it much, much earlier. They are experimenting with creating policy labs to concentrate on developing the right ideas and options for ministers before policy is delivered, from a user perspective. This innovative approach hugely broadens the perception of where product teams start and finish, as well as increasing the likelihood that the right problems will be solved.
Problem solving ideas can be identified anywhere and many will be either be discovered in the product delivery teams or be directed to them. Laura Kirsop suggested that all teams should have a simple idea evaluation framework that they regularly use. That could even be as simple as asking the questions - what user need is being addressed and how will this this idea address it?
Keeping product teams on track
Rachel Woods from the DWP and Laura Kirsop explained that all of their teams create mission statements. This helps the teams understand and maintain focus on the service they are working on and the end user needs. Rachel gave a lightning talk on how to create effective mission statements.
Most of the sessions touched on building the conditions for great teamwork, whether it’s working with data scientists, figuring out how to develop civil servants into great product people or working in for profit organisations. I’ve listed below a few of the ideas that cropped up several times throughout the day:
- be great facilitators and create conditions where all team members feels safe and confident to speak up and where they will be listened to
- protect them from challenges outside the team
- people like to work and are effective working in multidisciplinary teams
- team learning time returns dividends, whether it’s an allocation of time every week or periodic sessions.
I found myself totally absorbed in the day and if you get ever get the chance to attend a cross-government event I would highly recommend that you go. If you work in a technology role in government and your community don’t get together to share ideas then why not be the one to make that happen?
As a final point, during the panel discussion at the end all our heads of product management were really keen to enable the conversations started in Leeds to continue outside the forum on an ongoing basis. So watch this space! Oh and watch this short film of the day made by our DWP colleagues.