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

 

Helping Funeralcare rethink how we deliver our at-need funeral service

Hello. I’m Andy Pipes. I joined the new CoopDigital team in February as a product manager. Product managers design and build digital services that help Co-op customers, members and colleagues solve real problems.

CoopDigital is helping the Funeralcare business rethink how we deliver our at-need funeral service. The funeral business is a care service at its heart. It’s a traditional industry. It’s safe to say the internet age hasn’t really influenced its practices and delivery mechanisms.

The Co-op is the UK’s largest funeral business, arranging 90,000 funerals each year. We look after families in real distress. We play a key part in helping communities deal with loss.

I’m proud to have met and and work with some wonderful colleagues from around the funeral business. They do an amazing job caring for our clients, despite having to fill in lots of paperwork and struggle with technology that can sometimes get in the way rather than help them do their jobs.

CoopDigital is working to design a whole new service for everyone involved in Funeralcare. One designed to make these processes simpler. Do more on behalf of colleagues. Communicate better with clients. And we’re designing it alongside funeral directors, ambulance staff, call handlers, and funeral home managers.

This is Robert Maclachlan. Robert’s the new National Operations Director for Funeralcare. He’s been in the post just a bit longer than I have. His vision for a new operation for Funeralcare couldn’t be clearer: Give time back to Funeral Directors to spend with clients.

Meet Hayley. She’s one of dozens of funeral directors the CoopDigital  team has met as part of our ongoing research. Hayley can spend six hours sorting out admin for every funeral she organises. Filling in forms. Checking on vehicles. Ringing round to find the right coffin, flowers.Confirming who’s officiating, who’s driving, who’s bearing the coffin.

Picture of Hayley a funeral director holding lots of paperwork

In Hayley’s hands is her “system”. It’s a plastic folder full of all the paper forms she’ll fill in for each funeral. It works for her. We’ve met other colleagues with similar home-grown systems. But every piece of information buried on paper in that folder is a piece of information a digital service could act on.

So there are some big problems we want to solve. Above all, we want to create one simple to use system so colleagues can organise a funeral from the first call right to the last detail.  Designed to accommodate the fact that every funeral that our colleagues conduct is unique.

The CoopDigital team practices ‘user-centered design’. This means we listen to and observe the people who will use the service. Our research team visits our colleagues in the field constantly to make sure we’re able to empathise with their concerns and challenge our assumptions about how we’d solve their problems. Three Funeralcare employees work full-time with our designers, researchers and developers in Manchester. An analyst from the Funeralcare IT team has joined us, so that we can introduce user-centred design and agile delivery to the in-house technology squad over time. We’re working together every day to help get the service just right.

Week by week we tackle a different area to work on, from receiving the first call announcing a death, through taking the deceased into our care, to booking transport, ordering coffins, and sending confirmation details to clients right the way through to creating an invoice and tracking payment.

On the walls of our workspace, we build out a picture of the emerging service. For each development period (a ‘Sprint’), we start with a clear picture of the user needs we’re focusing on. Then we sketch out a “flow” of the goals we’re expecting those users to be able to achieve after we’ve done that week. For instance, in the first week, we wanted someone receiving a call about a death to be able to log the most important details easily, and retrieve them later. Beneath the flow diagram, we list a few things that we’re most interested in learning as we test the service with colleagues in the field.

When we’ve built a small part of the service we take it out and test it in our funeral homes to see what the people who will end up using it think. If something’s not working we go back and change it and we’ll keep doing this until we get it just right.

We’re now 17 weeks into our journey. Here’s what we’ve made so far.

First Call service that logs the important details about a death, and alerts an ambulance team to take the deceased into our care.

Funeral Arrangement service that helps Funeral Directors capture all the clients’ decisions, plays back costs to the client, and keeps everybody updated about all the things that are still to be completed.

A hearse booking system, staff diary and staff assignment service.

A coffin stock control system, and a way for clients to browse the existing coffin range.

An audit system that works towards complete transparency about every important action in the service; a clear chain of care and traceability.

Various dashboards to show important “health check” measures for the business. Like busy times of the day for calls, and the % of contacts who are still waiting for an arrangement visit to take place.

Since we work fast, test often and iterate constantly, we understand that what we produce might not be right first time. Some of the areas of the service I am screenshotting above have been revised five or six times during the process.

But already we’re seeing how the service we’ve built will save time, do helpful things on behalf of colleagues, and present Funeralcare staff with useful  information in a way they haven’t seen before.

As we start to trial the service alongside the existing process in a real funeral home over the summer, we’ll see what’s working best, what still needs tightening up, and where we need to really focus next.

I’ll report back on where we take the service over the coming months.

A side note

If you’re interested in doing work like ours, please get in touch. We’re hiring more product managers, designers and developers to join our growing, dedicated team.

Andy Pipes

Working with the Members’ Council

On Sunday, I was happy to have an opportunity to discuss our digital strategy with the Members’ Council. The best way to bring that to life was to show some of the things we’re working on for Funeralcare and wills.

Andy Pipes, one of our product managers, showed members the alphas we’ve built. These are early versions of digital products. We test them with stakeholders and get feedback to shape how they develop.

Andy talked through the team’s work on arranging a funeral and preparing a will. Making these services easier and clearer helps customers and colleagues to know what is happening and to keep in touch. We’ll be sharing more about these alphas on the blog this week and next.

What the Member Council told us

We’re on the right track. Council members liked the clarity, tone of voice and sense of engagement with customers.

They asked great questions and tested out some of our thinking on:

  • the alpha products
  • our place in the market
  • our plans for helping members to communicate
  • our approach to managing and using data

Some members were concerned about the experience visually impaired or dyslexic people might have when they use our prototypes. They were pleased to hear that we’re working with Leonie Watson, chair of the British Computer Association of the Blind, to make sure we do the right thing.

Engaging with members

We’ll be working with the Council as we go on developing our digital services. I’m looking forward to Council members getting more involved and helping us to keep our focus on delivering what’s right.

Thank you to those who jumped straight in with an offer to help test our beta products. You’ll be hearing more from us as they start to develop. In the meantime, we’ll be sharing what we’re doing through this blog.

On Friday, we’ll start to publish a weekly newsletter. It will let you know about some of the things that are happening in digital businesses elsewhere and why they’re important for the Co-op and our members.

Mike Bracken
Chief Digital Officer