Product management in charities and public health: how different is it?

The role of the product manager in high-entropy environments

Trilly Chatterjee’s post about the framing of the product manager’s role, particularly in the public health space, prompted me to try to pull together some of my thoughts about the role product managers play in charities. Trilly starts with the challenge of explaining what it is that product managers do, and how this seems to apply in all sectors and industries. He also highlights how product managers have “very different routines depending on the particular context of their product or service”.

Then specifically speaking about the public health environment, Trilly goes on to explain how there are many perspectives, tensions, trade-offs, processes, people, teams, departments, etc., often pulling in different directions, that all together create an environment of high entropy. In high-entropy environments, where things tend to fall out of alignment quickly and easily, a product manager’s role is to maintain alignment. They achieve this through conversations. Trilly’s point; conversations are the first best tool for reducing the entropy. Or to put it another way, keeping people talking to each other reinforces alignment between the problem and the solution.

I wonder if the product manager takes on this role purely because there aren’t other mechanisms for maintaining alignment and so preventing entropy in the system. If this is the case, then the working environment/system is a causal contributor to why the role of product management is so hard to define. In a very different environment, a small tech start-up for example, a product manager might not need to focus on conversations to as a means to maintain alignment. Different environment (low-entropy), different need (other mechanisms in place), different focus for the product manager.

The goal of the product manager in all environments

So… is product management in charities different to in the public health sector?

Public health and charity, at first glance, look like they could be quite similar. Both are about helping people and both deal with complex multi-faceted problems. But even the slightest scratch beneath the surface shows more fundamental differences than similarities.

Starting with the funding model, public health is centrally funded whilst charities usually receive their income from a diverse and often uncertain range of sources. This matters because how organisations are funded underpins how they organise and manage resources. Although no public health or third sector organisation is ever funded sufficiently to meet the demands placed on it, the funding ecosystem in which an organisation sits makes a huge difference to how the value-chain operates.

Secondly, branding and public perception. The National Health Service, under one banner, is made up of thousands of separate organisations. The charity sector consists of hundreds of thousands of organisations, all under their own brand. For all the benefits it brings, the NHS brand creates an expectation of joined-up-ness that just doesn’t exist in the charity sector. And perhaps it is this expectation of joined-up-ness in a disparate eco-system of organisations, processes and technologies that creates the environment where for a product manager to facilitate the value exchange between organisation and end user they first have to facilitate the conversations that create some kind of connectedness that allows the value chain to product something of use to the user.

From these examples it’s easy to see how the environment that the product manger’s operate in is very different. But, what the product manager is trying to achieve is very much the same.

At it’s most fundamental level product management is about facilitating the value exchange between the organisation and the customer/user/beneficiary. In some organisations the product manager focuses their effort on the sharp end of the value exchange, on the point of interface, the technology the customer interacts with to make the value exchange happen. In other organisations product managers have influence over the entire value chain, the strategy for taking organisational resources and packaging them in a way that is of value to the user. Neither of these positions, or anywhere in between, is more of less important a role, or of greater or lesser value to the organisation. How a product manager fits in the organisation is most often a factor of how the organisation arranges itself, as we’ve seen in the differences in the environments between public health and charities, than it is in the definition of the role itself.

The opportunity for product management in charities

But what about product management in charities? Product management in the charity sector is still fairly new and immature. It feels as equally misunderstood as product management is the public health sector, partly because of the lack, or misunderstanding, of definition, and partly I think, just because of how new it is.

A point I’m always keen to make when talking about product management and charities is that the product management function of an organisation doesn’t necessarily require someone with the job title ‘product manager’. Product management should be viewed more as a mindset and a skill set than it should as a job. Lots of people working in charities, with all kinds of job titles do product management work, it just isn’t framed as such. Perhaps this point of view makes defining what product managers do even more cloudy, but if we .

Charities, even the biggest of them, don’t have the high-entropy environments in the same way as the NHS. That doesn’t mean alignment is easy, it just means the differences between those people and things that should be aligned are less.

Traditionally, an organisation’s value-chain applied ‘engineering thinking’. Engineering thinking is based on the assumption that a problem can be understood upfront, a solution defined, developed and then delivered, resulting in no more problem. And if you’re building simple solutions to tame, well-understood problems, that approach fits. But then the world got more connected (blame to internet if you like) and the problems became more complex, and so engineering thinking ceased to be the best way to solve problems. But many charities continue to apply this thinking to the products and services they provide.

Nowadays, more organisations are applying ‘design thinking’ to how they approach solving problems. Design thinking recognises wicked problems and says that the best way to even start to solve highly complex problems is to experiment, use prototypes, get feedback, understand what effect your solution had on the problem, then try again and again, learning more each time. None of this can be done upfront and then delivered, it can only be done in real-time with real people in real life situations. Increasingly we’re seeing charities adopt design thinking approaches to problems.

What does this have to do with product management? These more complex problems require more advanced means of managing in order to reach a solution. This is where the modern product manager steps in. Their role is, as Trilly says, to facilitate alignment, or as I’ve written before, to interface, integrate and iterate. Importantly, managing alignment between the people within an organisation is done in service of managing the alignment between the problem and the solution. That is any product managers ultimate goal; to ensure the solution solves the problem.

Whereas a product manager in the vast public health system might only work across a thin slice of the value chain, product mangers have increasing scope in charities to work across the entire value chain. They can mange the interface between the charity and service users and supporters, usually using technology to provide the value exchange mechanism. They can manage the integration within the organisation, vertically between strategy and the logistics of delivery, and horizontally between different teams. They can manage the iterating of the solution to apply that design thinking approach to solving complex problems.

Charities need good product management because charities face increasingly complex problems.

Weeknotes #260

What I did this week (and didn’t do):

What do I require?

I spent a lot of time working on (and even more time thinking about) what some people might call requirements. I regularly get my thoughts tied up in knots trying to understand what we mean by ‘requirements’, ‘goals’, ‘objectives’, etc., but using ‘This is what we want to achieve’ and ‘These are the things we’re going to try’ seems much less ambiguous, so I tried . The problem I have, especially with ambiguous jargon but in general when defining or explaining anything, is the coastline problem. That is, how the problem looks depends on your measure. A circle drawn with only four big straight lines looks a lot like a square, but a circle drawn with a thousand small lines looks pretty circular. So, a requirement or goal specified at one level looks very different from another level. And then levels of what? My bottom-up answer would be, ‘levels of abstraction from the user behaviour’, but that opens up a whole load of other questions.

Why do charities use the innovation processes that they do?

I submitted my draft literature review and research methodology. I had originally thought that my research should be able how charities are using innovation processes, but I’ve realised I’m much more interested in why they are using them the ways they are. This creates more of a challenge as it requires qualitative interviews, but I just need to get out of my comfort zone and get on with it.

Embedding a theory of change in your learning

I signed-up for NPC Labs user research session on theory of change (which I’m interested in) and learning (which I’m really interested in). I’m not sure why, but I’m really looking forward to it.

Swimming with seals

I’ve went swimming in the sea almost every day this week. The best one was around sunset and I was alone on the beach. As I lay floating in the water a seal surfaced, looked at me for a few seconds, I looked at it, and then it swam away.

Didn’t get feedback

Listening to One Knight In Product with Teresa Torres made me realise that I haven’t done any of the discovery work I set myself for July. So, if anyone reads this and wants to do me a favour: sign-up for my charity product management emails and tell me what you think about them.

What I read this week:

Mobile traffic to charity websites is rising…

…but only a third of charities pass Google’s ‘Core Web Vitals’Mobile traffic to charity websites is rising, but only a third of charities pass Google’s ‘Core Web Vitals’

Why? Because it depends how you measure. And if you’re in the business of measuring and judging websites in order to rank them in search results then maybe you want some level of influence over how websites send you signals that you can judge them by.

Why? Because it’s easier to focus on frontend/visible aspects of technology and think that if the website is responsive then it must be optimised for mobile, which isn’t the case but many website platforms don’t get that stuff right by default.

Why? Because not all ‘Jobs To Be Done’ can or should be done on mobile devices (and with mobile behaviours). Sometimes, friction, intentional or unintentional, is good for getting people to stop and think. Convenience isn’t everything.

Why not? If your user research shows that the people that need your services find you through organic search results, need a highly-performant online experience, and only have mobile phones. The points is; do what your users need you to do, not what a search engine says.

Digital adoption within the NHS

Shock treatment: can the pandemic turn the NHS digital?, asks whether the NHS can maintain the level and pace of digital transformation that came about as a result of the pandemic, and also raises the ‘fix the plumbing or fund the future’ investment question, which I think is very closely connected. These are the questions facing every sector and organisation. Charities included. I feel like the answer is obvious; yes and no. Do organisations realise how important digital transformation is for them? Yes, at least a bit more than they did. Will organisations maintain the pace of change we saw from the pandemic? No, not without the huge external pressure making digital an existential question.

Decoupling time spent from value produced

James Plunkett’s article on the four-day week was shared around Twitter this week. It talks about the Iceland experiment and how it resulted in increased productivity, and more interestingly, predicts that, based on the historical data trend of reducing working hours, the four day working week will be generally adopted in the early 2030’s. If that’s the case, we might have a few more decades to go before society is ready to make the shift to decoupling the value we produce from the time we spend doing it. Stuart said it best, “Being at work never equated to doing work“.

What I thought about:

A diamond and a tree

Speaking of how we judge value, I had an interesting conversion about why different jobs are paid different amounts and how the job market values uniqueness of skill over what the role achieves. My analogy was ‘a diamond and a tree’. A diamond is considered to have high value because of how rare it is. Trees aren’t considered all that valuable but have an important impact on the environment and life (being able to breath, mostly). Maybe we’ve got our values round the wrong way.

Accepting responsibility

There’s lots said about blame culture and how toxic it is but I hardly ever see anything about the flip side; responsibility culture (if it’s even a thing). I think taking responsibility is one of those underlying amorphous parts of a product managers job. Obviously, everyone should take responsibility for their actions, but product managers are often the ones to be most aware of the trade-offs that exist when decisions are made (even if not actually making the decision), and that knowledge comes with responsibility. Taking responsibility for knowledge, not just actions, is an interesting responsibility to take.

Do charities need innovation?

Does any organisation, in fact? An amalgamation of ideas from a conversation on Twitter, Ann Mei Chang, and some of the stuff I’ve been thinking about for my dissertation takes my thinking towards this: If the problem is unknown and the solution is unknown, then innovation is an approach, a mindset, a skillset, a method that can help to make both known. If the problem is known and/or the solution is known, then innovation isn’t needed.

Health Help Now should have been a bot

Health Help Now is the NHS’s new website that helps people diagnose symptoms and select the appropriate service to get help, e.g. Pharmacy, GP, A & E.

Given that it uses simple logic to take the visitor through steps to reach a limited number of conclusions it could easily be a bot as well as/instead of a website. Then people could access the service using Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, SnapChat, etc.

How many people will get help from the extra £1bn for Mental Services?

The main story in the news today is the extra £1bn a year that the NHS is to receive for Mental Health services by 2020.

A quick look at the numbers:

  • UK Population: 64,100,000
  • 1 in 4 people suffer from mental health issues: 16,025,000
  • A quarter of those receive treatment from the NHS: 4,006,250
  • The NHS spends £92bn a year on Mental Health.
  • That’s a spend £22,964,118 per person.
  • An additional £1bn spent will mean an additional 43,546 more people receive treatment (at the same spend per person).
  • That’s a total of 4,049,796 people receiving treatment each year.
  • And a total of 11,975,204 not receiving treatment each year.

This raises a few questions for me:

  • Is almost £23 million pounds per person per year the right amount to be spending on treatment? Is it really cost effective?
  • What about the almost twelve million people still not receiving an treatment?
  • If spending £92bn enables the NHS to treat 6.25% of the population, and the additional £1bn takes that up to 6.32%, then treating the entire 25% of the population that are affected by mental health issues would cost a total of £368bn a year.  Is £1bn really enough?