Product management

Hello, I’m Andy Pipes and I’ve been working as a product manager here at the Co-op for nine months. During that time I’ve been helping Funeralcare rethink how we deliver our service to clients when a death has occurred.

Picture of Andy Pipes
Andy Pipes

I’m starting to take on some other responsibilities now and one is hiring more product managers to come and work with Co-op Digital on other amazing projects. This has given me chance to reflect on what kinds of product leaders might be required at a place like the Co-op.

Often, when I explain to people that I’m a digital product manager, I’m greeted with bewilderment (“Wow sounds complicated!”) or ignorance (“Oh, so you’re in IT then?”). It’s not surprising – the job title isn’t the clearest. Most people understand that products are designed, made, tested and used. But managed?

‘Product manager’ has gradually emerged in the past decade as the title to describe the person charged with fully understanding the problems that a product or service is meant to solve. But that’s not their only function.

As high-tech companies began to adopt Agile software development practices, the role of ‘product owner’ (the person responsible for making and prioritising the backlog of work in an agile team) started to be rolled into the product manager’s job profile. To complicate matters further, some organisations threw in design or technical skills into the “competencies” a typical product manager was asked to bring to the table.

It’s no wonder there are so many flavours of product manager these days. And also no surprise many of them describe themselves as “all rounders”.

The types of people who I think are perfect for product leadership roles come from all walks of life. Some might have been working as a “product manager” for some time but not have the job title to reflect it. Others may excel at an engineering, design or business positions and been asked to take on more general responsibilities. There is no one right “track” to becoming a product manager.

What’s most important is having the right mindset and attitude. (I’ve written about this before.)  When interviewing for a product manager role, I listen for people who just love to talk about real people, struggling with real problems that they want to solve. This is a good sign they’ve got a well of curiosity unlikely to run dry. And that they’ll have the energy to keep at it until the right solution is found.

These people tend to be straight talkers, too. They know business-speak or technical jargon gets in the way of understanding and empathising when explaining a user’s problems to a team whose job is to try and solve them.

The team often turns to the product manager for decisions, leadership and assurance. But it’s a fine balancing act. Keeping a multi-disciplinary team motivated and productive does not mean dictating answers. Nor does it mean an equal voice to every member of the team in every situation. Sometimes, you need to guide the discussion with a firm grasp of the “why”. Other times you’ll need to keep the team exploring new options until they get unblocked.

I’m not sure there’s a typical day in the life of a product manager. One morning you might be describing the problems a user has to a designer or developer. In the afternoon, you might be presenting a new opportunity to explore in your market to an executive. You could be called on to analyse some data that could provide evidence for a particular approach. Or sketch out for a stakeholder how you plan to tackle an upcoming theme of work. You try to keep your team energised, and motivated with clear, worthwhile goals. You talk a lot. You listen more.

Picture of Andy Pipes

What the product manager helps their team to achieve day-to-day will also depend on the type of project they’re tasked with leading. The Co-op has all sorts of projects – big and structured, all the way through to loose and lean. Large transformation programmes need product managers with strong communication skills and the ability to build solid stakeholder relationships. Service design projects like Online Wills need a clear product vision, and attention to detail and delivery. Experiments like Paperfree are in the earlier stages of development, and need its leaders to be more comfortable with some of the more nebulous problems they are trying to discover, and validate.

We need all these types of product managers for projects happening right now at the Co-op. Think you’ve got the mindset? Take a look here for all the details.

Andy Pipes
Head of product management

 

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