Particularly for “legacy” news organizations, like newspapers, that have evolved and calcified an organizational structure from an earlier era, it can be challenging to find the right fit for product management.
Product people cross a lot of traditional silos — their responsibilities involve editorial strategy, business and revenue success, marketing and subscriptions, and technology. In an organization where those were separate departments, product managers will have to build some bridges and break down some walls to get things done right.
The participants at our thought leader summit surfaced several good points of advice about how to help product people work effectively across the entire organization.
Create cross-functional teams. When taking on a redesign of a website, launching a print section, or developing a new mobile app — your news organization has many internal stakeholders to involve. Your challenge is to have broad involvement, so the end result is on target, but not to bog down with too many people involved in every decision. Summit participants said that teams with representation from all types of stakeholders can be effective at getting this done. When doing this, two things are particularly important: 1) Delegates to the team should have authority to make decisions, not having to go back to their department for signoff on everything, and 2) Team members need to put the project and the users first, not defend their department’s turf. “You want everybody to be fiercely loyal to the team and to the [user’s] problem that you’re trying to solve,” said Ben French, vice president of product at The New York Times. “That loyalty is often in great contradiction to loyalty to their department.”
It helps greatly for the product people to have frequent, casual contact with the newsroom. This creates familiarity, trust and understanding — the basis for collaborating and succeeding on big projects down the road.
Link product managers to the newsroom. Editorial independence is an important value in newsrooms, and journalists may be wary or at least confused about what a product manager is up to. Several people at our summit said it helps greatly for the product people to have frequent, casual contact with the newsroom. This creates familiarity, trust and understanding — the basis for collaborating and succeeding on big projects down the road.
“You really can’t underestimate the value of having the product team sitting with the newsroom,” said Jennifer Hicks, executive digital editor of The Wall Street Journal. “Physical proximity is extremely important. You pick up things, you hear things, you learn things — new ideas, new problems, new solutions. So we’ve done that at the Journal.”
“I’m in the Time & Life building, we are literally maybe 30 floors, and I think every group I work with is on a different floor, and you have to take different elevator banks — it takes 10 minutes to get from place to place,” said Aleksander Mielczarek, senior product manager for Time Digital. ”We’re actually moving to the Freedom Tower site, and we (print, digital, product, business development, etc.) are all on the same floor. Big, open-concept. I cannot tell you the excitement both teams have around that.”
Breana Jones, digital product manager at Fox News Channel, explained how valuable it has been for her to simply be present in daily news meetings, to overhear what is being covered and even anticipate product-related needs that could tell a story better for readers.
Develop and share “user stories” with the staff. One challenge for product managers is to help the reporters, editors, producers, marketers, and others carrying out the day-to-day activities of news align their work with the grand product strategy. One way to do this is, first use research to understand and define key segments of your audience, and then to project those abstract ideas onto fictional personas with a specific faces and names. This way the education beat reporter can think of “Sally the Soccer Mom” and her short list of concerns, passions, and news habits, when deciding how to cover the local school district today. The personas align the day-to-day news decisions with the user needs and behaviors that your news product is trying to satisfy.
By making sure everyone knows whenever a suggestion that came from editorial was actually implemented, it helps to prove that your tech team is actually listening and responding.
Encourage staff to suggest product insights by crediting those who do so. When BuzzFeed launches a new product or feature sparked by a staffer’s idea, its announcement credits the people who originally suggested it, said Chris Tindal, senior product lead at BuzzFeed. He explained: “Usually that means an email from a product manager to all of editorial saying something like ‘The headline fields of the CMS are now expandable for when you put a lot of text in there. This was the great idea of [editor’s name], and was implemented by [developer’s name].’” This improves relationships and future communication between editorial people and tech people. “A lot of the time people feel like their suggestions won’t be listened to or acted upon,” Tindal said. “By making sure everyone knows whenever a suggestion that came from editorial was actually implemented, it helps to prove that your tech team is actually listening and responding.”
Great product managers distribute the “why” not just the “what.” Another way to say this is, product managers should resist the temptation to see themselves as Steve Jobs, a “solo genius” model where one person takes in all the information, forms the grand strategy in their own head, and issues directives across the organization.
That model has several weaknesses, explained Matt LeMay, a veteran product manager for several technology and media companies who gave a keynote talk at our summit.
For one, there was only one Steve Jobs and you are not him. Your attempt to play the solo genius will likely fail, be divisive, or at least miss the opportunity to tie together insight and energy across the organization. For another, the solo genius becomes a bottleneck for decision making — where progress is slowed while everyone in the organization has to wait for confirmation or direction from the solo genius.
The entire organization is more innovative and nimble if the product manager focuses on evangelizing and educating everyone not just ‘what’ to do, but ‘why.’
But most importantly, the entire organization is more innovative and nimble if the product manager focuses on evangelizing and educating everyone not just “what” to do, but “why.” Sharing the strategy, the roadmap, the plan and the rationale, empowers everyone to carry it out better and to add their own quick decisions and creative flourishes around the edges.
Lauren Shea, product director at the Boston Globe, added that it’s not the role of the product manager to define the vision, but rather to propose and integrate ideas. Control shouldn’t rest with one person.
Next we’ll discuss how a product manager should distribute involvement and get buy-in across the whole organization.