Week notes #188

Things I did his week:

Product togetherness

We had our first Product Managers get-together to share what we are working on, insights we’ve reached and where we want to take ‘product’ at the Prince’s Trust. 

We discussed product/market fit in the youth education, training and employment space. It’s a complex space with lots of players and very little coordination. Broadly, the providers seem to fall to two camps. Commercial organisations and government provide digital offerings around employability skills and job search but don’t focus on disadvantaged young people, and charities and community organisations that focus on helping disadvantaged young people but don’t have much of a digital offer. This suggests there is a gap in the market for digital provision for disadvantaged young people, but the next question is, is there a need in the gap?

Problem discovery session

I attended a discovery session for one of our major programmes to try to uncover whether there are any barriers to the success of the programme that a digital product could help to solve.There’s more detailed work to be done to really understand the problems that young people face but I think it’s a good way to work as it gives the Product Team a clear role in supporting the organisation. 

Things I studied this week:

Nothing to see here

I didn’t study very much at all this week. Lectures were cancelled again as the lecturers are still on strike, and I didn’t get very much of my assignment done.

Things I thought about this week:

Digital transformation in charities or of charity 

Lara Burns, Digital Transformation at Scouts, tweeted from the Be More Digital conference a slide from Zoe Amar with a list of barriers and blockers to digital transformation in charities. I wasn’t there so I don’t know the context of the slide, but the list seemed to be focused on micro-level things like needing more skills, more data, pushback from colleagues and a lack of strategy. I get that these are all these things are actually barriers to charities being more digital and I can see how they reflect a sense of settling with the status quo vs. facing the future, and I think that maybe charities have always been that way inclined, responsive rather than proactive, but non-digital-ness is frog boiling, with no immediate need to respond to it’s hard for charities to justify change.

The proposed changes in charities often seem to aim for micro-level change in order to have impact at the meso-level, but ignores impact at the macro-level. Maybe this is because charities traditionally have an inward way of thinking and so apply it to the digital transformation when really it requires new ways of thinking that look outwardly from the organisation at its place in the ecosystem.

Should digital transformation thinking be about solving organisational problems? Is that how you sell it within the organisation? Is that why change programmes focus on such small things, because at least it feels achievable? 

I think, in order to be transformational, the thinking needs to be about new ways of thinking and operating in a digital age, new business models that leverage the network and scale made possible by the internet. It needs to ask bigger, outward facing questions about how the charity sector will level-up against the weaponisation of digital to increase inequalities in society.

How deep should product management thinking go?

How much do Product Managers and Teams think about the concepts that underpin their product? So, if the product is about connecting people, how much do/should they talk about what being connected to other people means, types of connection, sense of belonging and community, social graphs, etc It seems there are so many layers of understanding, not just the practices and policies level, but down into principles and philosophies, the histories of ideas, state and market influences, etc. It could be endless, but it could lead to a deeper understanding of the problems our products attempt to solve. How deep should product management thinking go?

Virtuous circle business models 

I’ve been thinking more about Amazon’s flywheel and virtuous circle business models, and how the same concepts could be applied to the charity sector. Whereas the Amazon flywheel has growth in the middle as the thing that increases as the flywheel spins I think a charity would have ‘impact’ (that’s a concept that needs expanding on later). Amazon’s flywheel is explained as starting with customer experience, the thing that if they get right brings more customers, which brings more sellers to their platform, which increases the selection of items to buy, which improves the customer experience. There are a lot of other elements such as delivery times and pricing which affect customer experience, and which Amazon controls in order to ensure the customer experience is how they want it, but it’s those main elements that drive the flywheel. 

How can this be applied to a charity?

At the Prince’s Trust we have six ‘big parts’ to what would make up our flywheel: young people, volunteers, delivery partners, referral partners, hiring businesses, and funders and donors. Currently, in a non-flywheel business model, each of these parts spins independently rather than one driving the other. The more young people we get, the more volunteers and delivery partners we need, but one doesn’t drive the other in the way that Amazon’s flywheel works. So, how can flywheel thinking be applied to a charity? When I figure it out I’ll let you know, but I feel like charities upping their game is a big part of it.

How can it be applied to achieving good in society?

The problem is that in our society there are forces that benefit from increasing inequality, and those forces apply flywheel thinking to further their aims. When armies of Twitter bots promote anti-climate-change messages they affect the motivations of people going about their lives without them even knowing about it and contribute to maintaining a status quo of focusing on short-term economic thinking. Public opinion is one of the elements of the climate change flywheel, so the more it spins in the direction that undermines taking action, the less people take action. Charities aren’t yet digitally mature enough to a) even recognise the weaponisation of digital in society, and b) act in flywheel ways that would interrupt public opinion and cause it to spin in the other direction. So, how can flywheel thinking be applied to achieving good in society? When I figure it out I’ll let you know, but I feel like charities upping their game is a big part of it.

Things people I follow on Twitter were saying week:

Remote working, save us

The increasing spread of the Coronavirus has resulted in lots of charities hurriedly putting their business continuity plans into action, which essentially means figuring out how more of their people can work remotely. The NCVO tweeted their guide, and lots of people are tweeted their tips on how to work from home better, starting with Nissa Ramsay saying things like “Find a good online ex video, buy a WiFi extender plug, and plan video call space where people can’t see your bed/washing hanging up”, and continuing with Ross suggesting “sorting out your ergonomics: make your chair comfy, get a decent mouse & external keyboard if that helps and finding a community on Twitter or Slack team to chat”.

This is interesting to me on a personal level as I increase my remote-working/digital-nomad-ness, and from a ‘complex systems affecting things in unexpected ways’ point of view. Steve Johnson talks about how English coffee houses played an important role in sparking The Enlightenment, and I wonder if the Coronavirus will be instrumental in changing how we work in more digital ways. 

What do 200 charity professionals think the biggest issue facing the sector is?”

Wayne Murray, strategy director at the fundraising agency Audience, tweeted about the results of a survey with two hundred charity professionals. It revealed that the three biggest issues facing the charity sector are relevance, short-termism, and lack of collaboration. It was also interesting to note that many senior leaders submitted their responses to the survey privately, perhaps indicating that they don’t want to be seen to criticise the state of the sector whilst perhaps also being aware that they contribute to the problem. The survey results raise all kinds of questions about how charities can become more relevant to people, government, businesses and to society; whether charities are able to shift from the responsive nature of traditional charity to a proactive future-facing approach that resolves the short term focus issue; and how charities might work towards an ecosystem model that supports collaborative efforts to tackle issues. It also calls into question how we might go about making a change in a complex system like the charity sector and whether these issues can be affected directly or should be approached obliquely to allow for change to emerge. 

Never finish anything

Ben Holliday tweeted a link to his blog post Some thoughts on how to read for work, and the 80:20 principle. I completely agree with the principle of doing just enough to get the most value out of something and not having to finish it. I hardly ever finish anything.

Do you feel lucky?

Jason Yip, senior agile coach at Spotify, tweeted a quote from James Clear, “The way to attract good luck is to be reliable in a valuable area. The more you repeatedly deliver value, the more people seek you out for that value. Your reputation is a magnet. Once you become known for something, relevant opportunities come to you.” It expresses a pattern I’ve seen and used (and intend to keep using) in my role within organisations.

Thinkers and doers

A catalogue of things that are stopping change” by James Reeve and Rose Mortada talks about some of the conflict in government between policy and delivery. “These are very human problems which will be present in any large organisation.”, they say, and it’s easy to see how the problems of individual incentives over team incentives, making decisions with incomplete information, and friction between groups of people with different ideas and values can be found occurring in any sector. I think these conflicts, and so so many more, are a sign of the times. Our society is going through a massive change as we come out of industrial revolution thinking and we’re going to see more clashes between the old and the new.

This week’s quote 

International Women’s Day

“A diverse system is more stable and less vulnerable to external shock than a uniform system with little diversity”

Donella H. Meadows