https://dfedigital.blog.gov.uk/2020/01/09/product-manager-peer-support/

How product managers in DfE support each other

Postits laid out on a desk

For the product managers in DfE our weekly product meetup is rapidly becoming everyone’s favourite meeting. Here’s what makes them so special - and why growing a community of practice is so worthwhile.

Being a product manager can be hard work

Product managers are usually the only one of their kind in a team, often considered a generalist in an environment where it’s all about specialist expertise. Sometimes we don’t even have a team. Being able to talk about the specific challenges the role brings with others who understand is invaluable.

The community is there to support you

The product community meetups (which now happen in both our London and Manchester offices) began with just a couple of regular attendees and a ‘lean coffee’ format. This is where there's no agenda, and everyone jots down a couple of things they’d like to discuss. We all vote by drawing dots next to the topic we want to talk about. Recent topics at the London meetups have included:

  • product roadmaps and other planning techniques
  • what to share in your first show and tell
  • how to coach new product managers

Develop and learn through product crits and peer reviews

Recently we’ve used a couple of meetups for product critiques (or ‘crits’). This is where a product manager can share a piece of work in progress with others to get feedback and iterate it. It’s often used by designers, where early designs or copy for a feature might be shared. But how does this approach work for product managers who don’t typically produce ‘pieces of work’?

How a recent product crit helped me

I’m the product manager for the Teaching Vacancies service, a national search and listing service on GOV.UK, which enables schools to advertise teaching roles for free. I recently took advantage of our weekly product manager meetup to share a plan for a piece of exploratory user research and analysis. Through the research, we wanted to understand more about how the process of applying for a teaching job worked, both for teachers and hiring staff.

Our plan contained lots of questions - things like ‘How do schools most commonly receive applications for jobs?’ - and activities we thought would help us answer them (user research, surveys, market analysis, etc.) However, I felt our plan lacked focus, and we risked biting off more than we could chew.

When I invited my fellow product managers to critique the plan, I got a flurry of honest, and engaged questions for example:

  • how would this work help us realise our vision?
  • what do we want to be able to do or understand as a result of the work?

Focus on the problems users experience, nothing else

What the product crit helped me do was think more about what questions it would actually be most valuable to answer for us as a service. As a result, we re-framed and simplified our central discovery question to 'what are the biggest problems with applying - and receiving applications for - a teaching job, and how might we help?' This enabled us to filter out things that were simply ‘interesting’, and instead focus on digging deeper where there were clear problems for users.

Other product managers have taken this approach further and brought colleagues together to review their product roadmap before an assessment against the GOV.UK service standard. This is not an easy thing to do: it can feel quite exposing and like ‘tough love’. You need to trust your colleagues and be prepared to return to the drawing board.

The value of diverse perspectives

A group of 5 DfE product managers smiling at the camera while sitting down at a table during their product crit meeting

One of the things I value about our product manager community is the variety of different experiences and backgrounds we have between us.

Product management is one of those roles that works at the intersection of technology, user experience and business, so it’s not surprising that we come in different shapes and sizes.

Some of us have a strong technical skills, having come from a development background, while others have moved from a policy-focused role. My own background is in digital content and marketing. Add to this the fact we’re working in quite different contexts within DfE - some of us are managing live services, while others are working on bringing a product mindset to policy teams so they can shape policy in a user-centred way.

As our community grows, we’re finding more ways to support each other - from inviting peers to share their experience in team meetings or lunch and learn-style events, to job shadowing and coaching.

Look out for more from the DfE product community over the coming months.

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