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Product Teams Framework for Forum Network Technology

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Guest Post by Jon Stahl, Communications Director, Philanthropy Northwest

You know that feeling you get when someone lays out a framework that explains a whole set of your experiences and intuitions all at once and gives you unexpected insights into your work? (I'm sure there's a long German word for that, but it eludes me right now.)

In any case, that was the frisson that went up my spine when Sam Dorman first told me about his work building "digital product teams" with the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). He recently wrote a fabulous article about it for Greenpeace's Mobilisation Lab, and there are strong parallels to a project near and dear to my own work as one of the participating regional associations on the Forum's Drupal-Salesforce Platform.

The gist of the product teams approach is recognizing that great technology is essential to delivering our programs and creating the impact we want to have in the world. Each key technology system is treated as a "product" and managed by a team comprised of both technology people and "domain experts" who bring in-the-trenches programmatic and business process knowledge. Most importantly, though, products are resourced and managed on a permanent, ongoing basis, not as one-time, "big-bang" initiatives.

Product manager conducts the team

As I pondered the wisdom of the product team framework, it occurred to me that the Forum's Drupal-Salesforce Platform is a real-life example of this played out at scale in our network. With Val Rozansky, the Forum’s Director of Knowledge Services, serving as our "product chief," we have put together two distinct (but partially overlapping) product teams — one for Salesforce and one for Drupal — and we are treating these as long-running products in which we are continually investing and constantly delivering incremental improvements.

At the more granular level of an individual regional network, here at Philanthropy Northwest, we have been applying large portions of this approach internally as well. As our communications director, I play the role of "division chief" for the products team as a whole, and serve as the "product owner" for our website. Kelley Bevans, our communications + database manager is, not surprisingly, the "product owner" for our database systems. We constantly coordinate with and delegate key chunks of content production and editing work to our product teams, i.e. our program and back-office colleagues.

Because Salesforce and Drupal are both so user-friendly (most of the time!), it is generally very easy for us to empower our colleagues with the tools they need to be effective communicators and managers of information, allowing us to focus more of our energy on strategy, improving the capability of the systems, and solving problems when they arise.

We’ve been up and running on the platform for over a year now, and we’ve realized many benefits, both tangible and intangible. Because we’ve built a product that serves and scales to many organizations, we’ve only paid a fraction of what it would cost to build these features on our own. Because we manage the platform as a product, with continuous investment over time, we have avoided huge ups and downs in our technology spending, which makes it much easier to budget for technology as the operational cost it is, rather than as an occasional “big bang” capital cost. More importantly, we have been able to receive a constant stream of improvements grounded in our experience using the tools every day.

In the end, the product team approach is a powerful philosophy, grounded in great practices from Silicon Valley that helps us excel, remain nimble, and avoid bottlenecks, both at an organizational level and as a network. The Forum and its regional partners are always happy to share what they’ve learned through this approach as they’ve done through presentations about the project at Dreamforce, DrupalCon, and other conferences. If you’d like to learn more about the Forum Network Drupal-Salesforce Platform and how this collaboration is structured for success, feel free to contact our “product chief” Val Rozansky.

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