Should Product Managers build mission-driven products?

Natalie Yan-Chatonsky

Our world is in the midst of some seismic changes. The success of capitalism has drastically increased wealth and prosperity around the globe; but unfortunately, not equally. The gap between rich and poor is widening, and this is causing an increasing disenchantment with the model which has been so successful.

Even those that have gained the most out of capitalism are now starting to question whether it needs reform. In August this year 181 CEOs from some of America’s largest companies signed a statement which seeks to fundamentally change the way companies operate – from putting shareholders first to benefitting all ‘stakeholders’. And on the 1st December, the World Economic Forum put forth a manifesto which proposes a new form of capitalism – ‘stakeholder capitalism’ to replace the ‘shareholder capitalism’ which has caused the rise and success of so many large companies.

At the same time, a growing number of people are searching for a more purposeful existence. This is happening both at the level of the individual – where people are trying to shape their lives around their values and ideals — and at a company level. More and more companies and brands are defining their purpose and using it as a guide to how they do business. For those companies that do this well it has a positive impact on their overall business success – through enhancing their brand (and hence sales) and through a greater ability to attract and retain talented staff.

All of these changes are part of a global move towards more holistic measures of success. Measuring more than profit.

I’ve seen these changes happening from a number of different angles. As a social entrepreneur with Full Time Lives and in my Product Management consulting work for Brainmates. And it has got me thinking…

How does this affect the world of Product Management?

I think that as business and society is changing, our Products need to change too. But as I searched for people who are looking at how purpose and mission interact with Product Management I couldn’t find a clear definition. It seems mission-driven Product Management is still being defined.

To explore this further Adrienne Tan and I hosted a working group with mission-led leaders of traditional not-for-profit organisations. They included the Australian Red Cross, World Vision Australia, Northcott, RSL NSW as well as the founders of new social impact startups – Humanitix and Communiteer.

As a group we attempted to define what effective mission-driven Product Management is. Here’s what we came up with:

Mission-driven Product Management: “A Product Management discipline that seeks to generate sustainable, long-term business and social benefits”.

Mission driven product meeting

How do organisations benefit from having a mission-driven Product strategy?

Corporates and NFPs alike can build new business models that enable them to create and sustain value for all their stakeholders: customers, local communities and society at large.

In my portfolio lifestyle, I work with both big organisations that want to develop more innovative products and startups that are innovating from the ground up. Both groups are striving to find new market gaps and solutions that return value to their shareholders and customers — they now just need to expand this to include other stakeholders.

Here’s a couple of examples of mission-driven Products from two very different organisations. Both Products help their stakeholders to fulfil their human and societal aspirations:

  • Humanitix is a social impact enterprise that differentiates itself by offering 10% of the profits from its ticketing platform to charity. Humanitix enables event organisers and attendees to feel good about supporting the growth of a values-driven company, as well as charities and the causes they support.
  • Northcott is an NDIS service provider that offers a Vocational Skills Program for school leavers with a disability to enable them to be future fit and ready for work. It enables young people with a disability to develop their independence by joining the workforce. Both individuals and their families benefit by reducing the risk of the young person being socially isolated and experiencing mental health issues. The program alleviates the substantial costs to individuals and to society associated with poor employment outcomes for people with disabilities.

Higher job satisfaction

Maintaining high levels of morale, work satisfaction and wellbeing among Product Managers is difficult to sustain.

I’m seeing more and more corporate refugees who no longer feel valued by their organisations. The Financial Services Royal Commission, as well as the recent mass redundancies in many large organisations, has contributed to this. I’ve seen many Product Managers who no longer feel that their personal values align with the values of the organisation they work for. Many are searching for more fulfilling Product Management roles.

As Product Managers, a key part of our role is championing new ideas. We inform the business on new market trends, customer needs and perceptions that our businesses need to respond to. It is our job to keep our eyes out on what’s happening outside the business so our Product roadmaps can enable our companies to keep meeting changing market needs. Part of this includes understanding the impact of our Product decisions as we also have a responsibility towards the people, communities and environments we impact.

Adopting mission-driven Product Management is a way of increasing job satisfaction for your Product team. And the good news is:

You don’t have to work for a social impact startup to be a mission-driven Product Manager.

Mission-driven Product Management is just good Product Management

In the same way that financials and customer satisfaction levels for a Product are measured, Social Return on Investment (SROI) goals can also be set, measured and reported on. Your Product can show how it is making a financial, social and environmental impact.

As Product Managers, we are changemakers. Whether we have authority to lead or not, we are major influencers across our organisations, with different stakeholder groups (sometimes with conflicting needs). When market research for Product development is done well, we:

  • look at our target market’s needs
  • test our Product concepts with customers and
  • try to incorporate all of our Product stakeholders’ goals and needs

This can include other external stakeholder groups, not just shareholders and customers.

Mission-based Product Management enables you to channel your organisation’s values in more concrete ways than just communicating what your Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) strategy is.

Imagine how satisfying it would be to create Products and services that meet unmet needs, deliver commercial goals and solve social and/or environmental problems too?

The most successful Products keep evolving with their target market, continuing to meet their needs. This allows great Product Managers to leave a long-standing legacy well after they have been promoted, or even left their organisation. As innovators, entrepreneurs and leaders it’s up to us to make a positive difference through the Products we design, build and nurture.

If you are a Product leader that would like to help us explore mission-driven Product Management, please join us for our next working group on 5-7pm, 20 February, 2020.

Spots are limited so please RSVP by 13 February, 2020.

Natalie Yan-Chatonsky

Natalie Yan-Chatonsky | Author

Nat is our resident dreamer, who loves to wax lyrical on better ways of creating companies, culture and award-winning products. Nat has been working in Product since 1999, across various stages of the product lifecycle, including new product development and growing existing products and services. She worked at IBM and Yahoo! in the early days of digital, and has worked alongside numerous brands, including Cochlear, Fairfax Digital, and News Ltd. More recently she worked on the rollout of the New Payments Platform (NPP) and applies product management practices to her startup. Nat is expert at gathering customer insights and facilitating teams to generate product ideas from those customer insights. She loves helping build things that links the unmet needs of customers with design and business capability to create value, and make a positive difference in the world. When not consulting with clients, Nat loves rolling out her yoga mat or rolling on the Brazilian Jiujitsu mats.

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