G2X Media’s President, Susan Sharer, had the opportunity to connect with Larry Bafundo, Director of Product Management with Ad Hoc and one of the G2X Change Agent Awardees, those 36 leaders identified as disrupting the federal landscape.
What is Product Management and How is it Different from Project Management?
Product management is a discipline for building the right things based on business goals, user needs and constraints.
Product and project management are sometimes conflated, but are different disciplines with their own unique skill sets and approaches. One key difference is how we define their success. Products are measured by the outcomes they enable, such as how a new digital application impacts Healthcare enrollment rates, whereas projects are measured by the output they deliver given time, budget, and scope. Another difference is that products are meant to evolve based on user feedback, whereas projects have a distinct start and end. This means products require a long-term vision and dedicated product teams to support them, whereas projects are typically focused on shorter-term outputs, like the next deliverable or milestone in a plan.
What is a “Product Mindset” and Why is it Important for Government?
A product mindset is about starting with the problem, rather than the solution, and shaping ideas based on evidence, rather than assumptions. It’s a structured approach to problem solving that is aimed at reducing risk, while maximizing value for people and organizations. A product mindset is especially important in Government today for two main reasons:
- First, the Government works on things that matter. Millions of people depend on Government digital services, and when they fail, this not only undermines the public’s trust in Government, but puts real people at risk. Given everything at stake with digital service delivery, people deserve the right things, not just technology that meets requirements.
- Second, the public’s expectations of Government are changing. Today, people manage most aspects of their lives online, from banking to travel. Why should they expect anything less from Government digital services? In order to meet the public’s rising expectations, Government will need to adopt more product-driven ways of working that emphasize value and learning from users, rather than managing against a plan.
What Does this Mean for how Government Builds Teams?
Effective digital service delivery requires multiple disciplines like product management, visual and interaction design, user research and testing, and engineering, to name a few. This is because “building the right thing” means delivering solutions that work both on and off the screen, meaning they are desirable for users, technically feasible, and viable at scale.
Getting this right involves different disciplines coming together and working from start to finish to explore problems and shape solutions from various vantage points. At Ad Hoc we refer to these groups as cross-functional teams and have found that they allow for the best ideas to emerge faster and with greater confidence than if these disciplines worked in isolation across siloed research, design, and engineering phases. In a cross-functional setting, all members of the team work together from start to finish, which means engineers participate in user research and designers work with engineers to test and refine ideas. All of this promotes greater collaboration and knowledge-sharing among the team and ensures that the products they build are more responsive to people’s needs
How does Government Become More Responsive to These Ideas?
We do need to recognize that these are new ideas for much of Government. As a result, we need to meet people where they are and adapt techniques that originated in the private sector, so they can be more effectively applied to Government. For example the idea of “failing fast”, which originated in Silicon Valley as a way of minimizing investment, might appeal to a startup, but is less relevant to a risk averse Government agency.
Even still, there is much to draw on from the private sector, which is why we’re seeing so many agencies invest in disciplines like product management and human-centered design, today. However, leveraging these techniques to their full effect will take time, as well as cultural change. The key is to start small, build trust, and continually demonstrate that new ways of working are worth investing in.
Advice on Being a Change Agent
For most of my career in gov-tech, as a Federal employee at 18F and now as a contractor at Ad Hoc, it’s never been about bringing all of the great ideas to a client or agency. Instead, it’s been about supporting and empowering others, especially the public servants who understand their mission space better than anyone, so they can be successful and enable real change. That’s also how we see ourselves as product managers at Ad Hoc, as coaches that help make our partners better through working with us, and stewards of their ideas.
Change agents are everywhere within Government, they just need support.
About Larry Bafundo
Larry is the Director of Product at Ad Hoc, where he leads a team of over 40 product managers to build the right things, in the right ways. Prior to Ad Hoc he worked at 18F, a consultancy within the federal government, and at Code for America, a technology nonprofit. He’s also consulted with Fortune 500 companies and worked with IDEO on a variety of projects, including the design of a new voting system for Los Angeles County.