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Nine shares lessons in creating a fully collaborative product development team

By Jodie Hopperton

INMA

Los Angeles, California, United States

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Ben Haywood, director of product at Nine (and formerly director/audience products at Fairfax), has been through quite the journey with product. Having seen completely different approaches play out within the same organisation, we spoke about his experiences and insights on the effects of each approach.  

Some background: Fairfax was an Australian newspaper group that owned leading daily titles The Age, The Australian Financial Review, and The Sydney Morning Herald, amongst others. With a career in journalism and marketing, Ben moved into a product role working on subscriptions. 

In 2018, Fairfax merged with Nine, and last year Ben took on the role of director of product at Nine. For more background on Fairfax, the merger, and their approach, check out this Q&A with INMA board members and Chief Digital and Publishing Officer Chris Janz.

Then: Closed-door operations

As with many organisations in the news industry, Fairfax was going through tough times financially and needed a reset. The company brought in consultants to help with high-level strategy for the future of the business. Drastic changes needed to happen for the company to have a good chance at surviving, let alone thriving. Ultimately this meant a serious shift towards focusing on reader revenue (if you are interested in going deeper on reader revenue, take a look at the INMA Readers First initiative led by the exceptionally knowledgeable Greg Piechota.)

With this in mind, the company set up an entirely separate unit with a different office location from the rest of the business. This unit was charged with rebuilding the product from the ground up. Ben joined the team, heading up the subscription product, which was newly key to the companys future path to success. In addition to the full-time team, a few individuals from the existing business were appointed as point people to give input to product decisions and provide on-the-ground insights. 

Why the secrecy of this unit? Fairfax felt it needed to move quickly and with focus on the future business. By having a separate unit, a smaller team was able to think and execute far more quickly without having to get buy-in from multiple stakeholders who likely wanted different things, may have been skeptical of change, and ultimately would have held up the process considerably. It also meant not having to balance building the future with the running of the existing business. The approach reminds me of a Silicon Valley mantra: Move fast and break things.  

The unveiling and subsequent relationships

The presentation of the shiny new products were made to the newsroom. However — without having spent the time to get buy-in, getting multiple views, and ultimately not having agreed what the end goal should be — the unveiling of the new products wasn’t as well received as it could have been. 

Until this point, much of the organisation had been working towards overall reach of the content, a fairly standard metric. The new path needed a shift towards readers willing to pay for content.  Editorial knew its audience well but did not have access to an agreed set of new metrics. It took time going from reach numbers to focusing on where each title really had authority with its readers, i.e. content that was unique and audiences were willing to pay for. 

The fairly abrupt change left relationships tense and “ownership” was being fought, which made it tough to get things done that left all the stakeholders happy. 

Key turning points

There were a couple of key turning points. Firstly, the editorial team hired a head of audience development. Having someone in “their” team as a point person for Ben to liaise with was ideal. Both teams felt represented and they were working to the same goals. As Ben put it, they quickly “became best mates.”

Then, after the merger with Nine, Ben’s remit expanded from leading subscription product to leading the whole product team at Nine. What could have been more of a challenge having been part of this radical change actually put him at an advantage. As he says: “My role in subscription product gave me a front row view of what was and wasn’t working, putting me in the optimal position to move quickly to reset relationships and set a new, more collaborative path forward.”

Now: A fully collaborative environment

He started the role in open conversation with peers getting a lot more involved in the product process, often explaining why things needed to happen in a certain order or in a certain way. Product decisions are no longer made in isolation. There are fortnightly alignment meetings for each product “squad,” which include not only the vertical product managers but also the horizontal (data, design, subscriptions, etc.) and relevant stakeholders — the make-up of which varies for each product. And there are monthly executive working sessions with peers to align and resolve any bumps. Ben and the chief technology officer have a view across everything, so if there are gaps or knock on dependencies, they can manage that. 

Ownership and decision making

I joke with Ben about how, in a fully collaborative environment, everyone may have great ideas, asking product to figure it out — which in itself can cause headaches. His approach is so collaborative, he doesn’t allow people to “throw ideas over the fence to leave us to figure it out; they’ve got to come in with us and look at the big picture.”

With limited resources, stakeholders need to understand that there are X number of engineers available and be part of a conversation with all the other stakeholders to understand the trade-offs of something new. This is also reflected in the way the product team presents roadmaps. The team ensures the visualisation encapsulates the relative effort of each project to demonstrate that not all things are equal (each team uses their tool of choice, usually Google slides or sheets).  

Jodie’s takeaways/TL;DR 

  • You can move quickly and get things done, but that will come at a cost of bringing people with you. The approach shouldn’t be discounted, particularly to shake things up quickly. But this will win no favours amongst colleagues, and some bridges between individuals may never be rebuilt. It is not a long-term strategy for success. 

  • You don’t have to do everything yourself or within your team. Product operates across all parts of the business, bringing them into the decision-making process with you to see things from different perspectives and get optimal results — even if it takes longer.

  • Align around one set of goals and have more specific metrics for individual areas. At Nine, each department now looks at what metrics they are working towards and therefore which levers they can individually and collaboratively pull to achieve those objectives. (NB we’ll be discussing more of this in the Product Initiative over the coming months)

  • Set timelines and be clear about when things will happen. The one thing Ben said he would change with the benefit of hindsight is making design processes tighter. It’s possible to continue to iterate afterwards, but at some point decisions need to be made.  

Dates for the diary 

Wednesday, Febuary 17: “A Practical Guide to Podcasts, Short-Form Audio, and Voice AI,” an INMA members-only Webinar for those interested in audio as a product. 

Wednesday, March 3: My next Product Initiative Webinar, “What is Product Success? A look at Key Metrics that Everyone Can Buy Into,” will tackle what is product success, taking a look at key metrics that everyone can buy into. Something that comes up a lot in product discussions is the need for shared understanding of the goals. How do company goals translate to product so that each person and department is focused on pulling the right levers within their power to meet those goals?  

Join the conversation. Sign up here or if you have a story to share, please contact me at jodie.hopperton@inma.org. If you’d like to subscribe to my bi-weekly newsletter, INMA members can do so here

About Jodie Hopperton

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