Since the role of a product manager can span so many activities, from tactical methods to strategic planning, some of which are highly technical, and others considerably less so, it’s a difficult role to quantify. It also offers an interesting dynamic when it comes to working with other departments. Many product managers act as the CEO's representative and report directly to them about all things at the product level. Others are more strategic.
It’s a vital role that provides a lot of business savvy and creative nous to achieve quality product creation and delivery. We caught up with Stuart Jones, Head of Product at Newsquest to get his take on exactly how Product Managers work with other departments.
Stuart’s product adventure began when he was at Channel 4, acting as Operational Manager and looking after the internal hosting team and developers while managing Channel4.com and E4.com into a product area. Following this, Stuart became Product Manager at The Telegraph, looking after their iPad edition, before moving to StepStone and Nando’s in senior product capacities, and now finally taking his current role as Head of Product for NewsQuest.
Great collaboration means great work
One of the most interesting points to come up in our conversation with Stuart was the emphasis placed on collaboration. While there are certainly obstacles for product managers when it comes to working with other departments, Stuart noted that a great working environment hinges on close collaboration and the ability to effectively communicate between departments.
“There is good collaboration here. It was one of the few places that I've joined where there's an initial inertia towards building close working relationships. We've got a very close collaboration with developers and every ticket we raise, every idea we have, every bug we spot, we'll have dialogue before we get into the actual nuts and bolts.”
Stuart went on to describe how the use of small core groups for each department can enable a smoother process:
“To try and make holistic changes to a core product, like our CMS, means we could impact 1,500+ people. We must make sure that we get the right product mentality for everybody. That poses challenges. The way around that is to have core groups who are responsible for translating that message to their local teams.”
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How the print world is different from Digital
While we’re all aware that the rise of the digital age has had a huge impact on business and marketing, it was interesting to get Stuart’s take on the differences between the role of a product manager in the print and digital worlds. Particularly, he noted the differences in mentality between the two, and the need to communicate differently when working with people in one sphere compared to the other.
“The newspaper industry nowadays is a blend of those who understand digital and those who understand print. Whilst at times this can be a challenge this does also create opportunities. Thinking digitally for print and vice versa allows for a unique perspective on how you tackle design and product challenges.”
When dealing with such disparate worlds, the key naturally lies in understanding the differences between them and approaching departments accordingly. Finding the right balance in your approach to different areas is also key. As Stuart points out, “What you have to try and do is understand the drivers behind different departments. For example, online advertising makes considerable revenue and you could make a case that it's more important to focus on the Advertising and Advertising Technology teams’ requirements than the Content Editors, but if I did that we'd lose our USP, which is locally sourced and interesting content. It's the skill of Product Management to balance the multiple disciplines within an organisation.”
Product is made for relationships
We were keen to dig a little deeper into this and look at the importance of relationships for a product manager across all areas of the business, and not just marketing or engineering departments.
“To get a great product you need to have great relationships,” Stuart told us. “Especially if that product is the backbone of what your company does, and you are responsible for its direction, then you need to build and sustain close working relationships across the business.”
It’s easy to think forging great relationships hinges on making everyone happy, however, Stuart highlighted the desire to please everyone as one of the greatest obstacles due to the traps it leads you to:
“It's easy to get into is the trap of trying to appease too many people. There are a lot of difficult conversations to have in Product Management which are too often avoided.
In my product experience, I’ve seen avoidance techniques that hide behind the likes of technology or marketing nuance, but I’ve found some of the most rewarding conversations are those which question the motivations behind a decision. Sometimes product managers need to accept that not every good idea has a quantifiable rationale, I don’t believe it’s acceptable to argue everything through analytics and statistics.”
Beyond this, he was quick to point out another vital relationship that must not be overlooked. “It's not just about understanding the user but about understanding the job that is looking to be done by them. The key is not making assumptions about why people do certain things.”
Traits of a Product Manager
So, what makes a great Product Manager? The answer might surprise you, for while it is a skilled discipline what makes a person excel in the role it has as much to do with personality as it does technical skill and knowledge. This, perhaps, should not come as a surprise given the importance of forging and managing effective relationships between departments.
“The skill of Product Management, I believe, is to truly understand the business you represent, which includes understanding different disciplines and departments. If you bring in three or four people together from different sectors who are trying to defend their own interests, the challenge for the Product Manager then is to try and disseminate that into a logical path to move forward with.”
Stuart went on to note the importance of a clear strategy and buy-in:
“Sometimes it can feel like it’s a case of ‘how do I put a strategy together that's going to appease so many people?’ I think the real skill to that is making sure you get buy-in. Without having buy-in from the stakeholders to execute a roadmap, it's incredibly difficult to actually succeed in your product position.”
Product Roadmaps and Project Plans are very different
The final point Stuart raised concerned the importance of getting everyone on the same page, working to the same plan. In fact, he stressed the importance of understanding the difference between a ‘plan’ for a product and the way that that plan is delivered.
“One challenge is to try and convince people their product and the feature they're after is going to move forward when we can't give them specific dates when that's going to happen.”
This is another difference in mentality that can prove problematic when it comes to working with various departments. “It’s a really difficult challenge for everybody in any organization to try and adopt that mentality that this isn't a project plan. This is a product roadmap,” Stuart told us. “The two are very different. Dates will come, and we can make estimates but if that changes, then it changes and not because of a lack of foresight or planning but because it’s agile and responding to an ever-changing market and customer feedback.”
Thank you to Stuart of NewsQuest for speaking to us regarding how he works with the other departments in his company. It was a great insight into the Product Operations at NewsQuest. Would you be interested in taking part in the Thought Leadership series? Contact us here.
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