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.