How charities create change

Charities are too ‘respectable’ to win change, by Janey Starling, is a really interesting article about the role charities play in creating change in society through campaigning and political influencing.

Campaigning might not be the best means for charities to create change anymore.

I’ve written before about how charities are stuck in the ‘squeezed middle’ between social movements and socially responsible businesses, meaning they need to justify their place in the for-good landscape. Perhaps the place of charities in the political landscape is changing too.

Starling talks about how charities should re-establish their place in the political landscape by confrontation, but charities don’t decide the rules of that game, they can only choose or not choose to play the game. Confrontation of the political system might not lead to a change in that system. Why would it? Has it ever?

So, how can charities create change? Perhaps by intervening in other systems.

Why we need to be continually learning

Drucker coined the phrase ‘knowledge worker’ in 1959. Later, he said that knowledge workers should “continue innovation as part of their work, their task and their responsibility”. He saw “innovation as the specific tool of entrepreneurs, the means by which they exploit change as an opportunity for a different business or a different service”.

Being innovative also implies the need for “continuous learning on the part of the knowledge worker,” “continuous teaching,” and prioritizing quality over quantity of output, activities which we can link with love of knowledge, love of learning, and tenacity.

Knowledge work demands continual learning. Without learning we aren’t in the position to create new knowledge that allows us and the organisations we work to keep pace with the changing world.

Can product management tackle wicked problems?

The search for scientific bases for confronting problems of social policy is bound to fail, because of the nature of these problems. They are “wicked” problems, whereas science has developed to deal with “tame” problems.

Horst W. J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber

Product management, at least as typically practiced, uses the scientific method as the basis for answering questions and establishing new knowledge.

Rittel and Webber claimed that science cannot deal with wicked problems.

So, can product management tackle wicked problems?

Not the tactical product management as we usually think of it, and not even where product management is able to act strategically, but perhaps where product management can effect systems change.

Product management that seeks certainty will never tackle wicked problems. But product management that embraces uncertainty, and works with complexity, maybe that can.

Required reading for product managers

The only thing that matters, Marc Andreessen (2007). Introducing the original concept of product market fit.

Manifesto for Agile Software Development (2001). The original document for developing software in agile ways.

The New New Product Development Game, Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka (1986). The article that moved product development from waterfall to overlapping development phases with self-organizing project teams.

Brand Man, Neil McIlroy (1931). The memo that first started to define the role a product manager might play.

More businesses should hire philosophers

Everyone hired into organisations is there to do, to produce, deliver, create outputs. No one is hired just to think. Thinking that happens has to lead to action.

What if more businesses hired people to think?

Misunderstanding the mechanics

It’s easy to misunderstand the mechanics of the internet. Easy to apply an out-of-date understanding of how things work. Easy to think that the internet works in the same way as

Sometimes, when we talk about ‘vanity metrics’, we aren’t really being vane in what we measure, measuring things that make us look like we’re successful but don’t achieve an outcome, we’re just applying old thinking to new mechanics. We’re just misunderstanding what mechanics drive what behaviour and so what is the right thing to measure.

The long tail, for example, describes a power law distribution which explains how a few things are really popular and lots of things less popular. It’s an important model for understanding how some things behave on the internet.

Network effects is another model for understanding behaviour on the internet. It tells us how the more people using a product the more useful that product becomes.

In the pre-internet world, these models didn’t apply. But now they do. Which means we need to update our understanding.

Start fast, slow down as you uncover complexity

Things always seem easier at the start, before you’ve realised how difficult they can be. This is the time to move quickly. Make progress, even if it’s in the wrong direction. Learn quickly by doing quickly. Momentum matters.

As you realise the complexities in what you are trying to do, slow down. As you discover problems, give yourself time to understand them. Learn slowly to understand deeply.

Adjust the pace of the work to the complexities.

Getting to zero information

In The New New Product Development Game, Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka talk about teams starting with “zero information”- where prior knowledge does not apply. The team is given a “broad goal or a general strategic direction” and allowed to exist in a state of ambiguity.

One of the benefits of working as a cross-functional team is that as each member shares knowledge, all the other teams members learn. And the team begins to work as a unit in developing the knowledge it needs to create the right product.

This also creates challenge for the team. Getting to zero information, to beginner’s mind, a state where the team doesn’t hold onto assumptions that cloud their judgement, is a difficult thing to achieve. Separating the knowledge that gives the team a solid grounding from the knowledge that takes the team in the wrong direction is difficult. Difficult, but important to do.

What product/market fit might look like for charities

The concept of product/market fit was created by Andy Rachleff, from Benchmark Capital, and Don Valentine, from Sequoia Capital. And then popularized by venture capitalist Marc Andreessen. This means the concept has a very specific context and history, which makes it slightly problematic for other contexts.

With that said, let’s see how the concept might be applied to a charity context.

Product/market fit means being in a good market with a product that can satisfy that market

– Marc Andreessen

In a charity setting, the dynamics of product/market fit are very different.

The market isn’t made up of customers who are or aren’t willing to pay for the product, which means that willingness can’t be used as a signal of fit. For charities, the market is three-sided with the user, the funder and the charity. A good market would be one where the people are facing a significant problem that funders want to support solutions to.

Charities tackle wicked problems. Even the most successful products are only ever a small part of solving wicked problems, which means the product can’t provide clear signals of how well it is satisfying a market need.

Product/market fit is an important concept for charity product management, but it needs a lot more work to understand it properly.

Digital trails: managing documentation for fast moving projects

Managing documentation for fast moving projects is a challenge. Different formats, different platforms, different people., different ways of working.

Maintaining a single database that links to all the documentation, in a way that makes sense for people unfamiliar with the work would be a full time job.

I like the idea of leaving digital trails. Every new document links to relevant, earlier documents. This creates a trail, a timeline of the work, where anyone starting with a recent document can find they way all the way back to the start of the project.