Product Leadership at News UK by Jo Wickremasinghe

BY JAMES GADSBY PEET ON JUNE 7, 2018

The Times and The Sun, flagship brands of News UK, are on a journey to become more product led in how they develop and maintain their digital assets. To move them forward, Jo has introduced product lifecycle thinking, shared KPIs, product portfolios, and a lean process for testing new ideas. Along the way she’s learned that you shouldn’t call yourself an owner, you need to show people, not tell them, get some air cover, and constantly be telling people about your successes.

Legacy Organisations Need to Change

The Times has been on sale for over 200 years. But with platforms like Facebook now taking large slices of their revenues, newspapers like The Times are now in a struggle to survive.

The Starting Point is a lot of JFDIs

When starting to move an organisation to be more product centric, you’ll find some common characteristics. For example, the roadmap will likely be a collection of stakeholder requirements and you’ll be often told to just get on and do it. This means there is a lack of strategy to develop digital products which meet the needs of users and generate revenue.

Move From Product Delivery to a Product Function

Many product teams find themselves in a service-like position – where they act on requirements decided elsewhere in the business. Lots of work can get done in this way – but releases are celebrated rather than truly understanding if value has been created.

Jo’s plan to break News UK out of this way of working was to build a strategy-focused product team, manage loved products, and work up a new approach to product development.

Find Which Silos you Need to sit Across

At News UK, the core functions are Technology, Editorial, Marketing and Commercial. Product sits across each of these areas and drives value for all of them.

Introduce Product Lifecycles

The product manager’s role is to look after a product lifecycle. This means working out the best way to develop or maintain a product, depending on its maturity.

Product Lifecycle Chart

Map Your Products to the Lifecycle

You need to map each of your products to the lifecycle. This then gives you the objectives and investment required for each of them – which is the start of a product strategy.

You Have to Kill Some Products

Large businesses are very bad at retiring products which no longer add value. It’s seen as easier to keep things going – and “you may as well” as it’s not costing a lot. What’s not understood though is the drain that these products place on your overall portfolio. This debt stops you from looking at new opportunities.

Shared Objectives Allow Laser-focused Roadmaps

If you want to drive change, you have to get people to agree to your overall goal. In a situation where you’re working across multiple silos or business areas, that means coming up with shared measures of success.

Moving The Sun from an editor-led requirements approach to a more product lifecycle-centric one meant some difficult conversations. The change was agreed and represented by the vision for The Sun “to be the number one news brand in the UK”.

In the digital space this meant setting a target of 45 million unique visitors per month. This target allowed every piece of work or requirement to be prioritised against the vision and goal. If it didn’t contribute, it didn’t get onto the roadmap and it didn’t get done.

Existing Product Portfolios Should Connect With Your Audience

The Sun has an entire ecosystem of products that its users want, and which drive value for the business. From gambling apps to caravan-park vouchers, each has its place. In order maximise value for all involved, you need to hook them all together in your digital experience.

Business Cases Were Made up

Traditionally at News UK, new product development was driven by business cases and exec sign off. Numbers were made up to ensure that cases were signed off and timelines never matched what happened in the real world. To move away from this, they’re now spending as little as possible to understand as quickly as possible whether an idea is going to work.

De-risk new Ideas as Quickly as Possible

If you can present lean iterative product development as de-risking new ideas then your CFOs will engage and drive for it. To do this, you need to jump from an idea to something you can test as quickly as possible. This might be a prototype or even just some sketches on a piece of paper. But whatever it is, you want to get it in front of your audience and see if they engage in the way you believe they will. If not, you pivot.

Lessons Learned:

Don’t call yourself an owner – be an orchestrator

In a large organisation, if you try to build yourself up as a “mini CEO” you will generate a lot of friction. There are people who are entrenched in their roles for years and years, adding value, and you will immediately cause problems if you try and “take” their jobs. Present yourself as someone who brings people together. Everyone understands this is needed and as such, you will be seen as someone who adds value.

Get your hands dirty

If you can show people rather than tell them, you’ll find driving progress much easier. There will have been people before you who failed because they tried to tell everyone how they should be working. Be aware of this and bring people with you by working with them rather than trying to direct them.

Be a virus

Once you have success, keep working with different people to find new successes. By moving from group to group, you’ll find lasting change across all the parts of the organisation.

Get some air cover

Before you start somewhere, understand what buy-in you’ll have from your senior team. If you don’t have the backing of someone at the board level, who understands the change you’re trying to achieve, you’ll find it much harder to push back on the JFDIs that will inevitably come your way at some point.

James Gadsby Peet

About JAMES GADSBY PEET

I've been in the digital industry for over 10 years and have worked across small and large charities, as well as my own freelance projects. I am now Director of Digital at the sector leading creative agency William Joseph. Having been at Cancer Research UK for the last four years, I have been able to work on high volume, high profile campaigns such as Race for Life, Dryathlon and the much-quoted #nomakeupselfie. In that time I helped drive forward the charity’s digital product and marketing capabilities to be some of the most respected and successful in the sector. I'm always excited to work with other organisations, share expertise and swap cat gifs. Give me a shout!

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