'Find the Sweet Spot Between Data-Driven Process and Gut Feeling' - A Blueprint for Product Development

Share |

"I train [media] leaders to become more effective. Part of that involves product strategy—product culture and product thinking."


In her talk last week at our BIMS event titled Can Product Culture Save the Information Industry?, Anita Zielina, director of news innovation and leadership at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY and a former chief product officer of NZZ (newspaper) in Zurich, spoke about the urgency of business media developing user-centric products.

"Over the last 1 or 2 years product has become the topic of conversation for media companies," she said. "Actually, it's not that new—connecting the importance of product with business success."

She showed us a Procter & Gamble memo from 1930 which talked about brand teams and people who constantly think about the customer. "Are we building what the customer wants?" Zielina asked. "Are we fulfilling their needs?"

While most industry people agree with Zielina's assessment about the importance of product development, the question becomes where are publishers going to find the right talent for this? It might have to be in-house or through training programs.

Digiday Research surveyed 134 publisher executives to ask what specific talent management roles they're finding hardest to fill and recruit for. A majority (58%) said product developers and product managers. The second most important was data analysts (53%), while programmers (46%) came in third, followed by journalists (44%).

So it's not easy to make this transition. Here are the questions that Zielina said you need to ask:

  • Who decides what product is being built?
  • Do you have dedicated product teams?
  • How do you build things?
  • Do you include customer feedback?
  • Why do you build what you build?
  • What is your ultimate goal?
  • When do you build your product?
  • Do you want to be first or do you want to be later in the game and see the mistakes that others have made? (Interestingly, Sean Griffey, Industry Dive CEO, said later that day that he chooses the latter.)
  • How do you measure success?

"If you don't know what your goals are, then it's hard to get people to build it a certain way," Zielina said.

She emphasized that the shift to product represents a big change for publishers. They've had to go from lonely wolves—siloed departments—to unsiloed collaboration and inter-departmental teams, and from a culture of print perfectionism to a culture of product fast failure. They've also gone from a command and control leadership style to a coaching and delegating one.

"These days, you have to rely on people in your teams to be smarter than you," she told us. "And that's a tough thing. And embracing failure is easier said than done. We like to win and are not so excited about failure. But the culture of failure empowers your team to experiment. If you don't, you're not going to have creativity in the room. Experimentation includes failure, and organizations need to live with that. There is no digital product development that doesn't have unexpected turbulences. But it also allows for agility."

Here are the challenges that Zielina sees ahead:

1. Find and train the right talent to develop your leaders. "All of us compete for the same people," she said. "Where are we going to get our people and how can we make our organization look most attractive?

2. Give product leaders responsibilities and resources. If someone is going to be put in charge, she or he needs to be given a budget and a team, and run the meetings.

3. Find the sweet spot between data-driven process and gut feeling. "You can over-steer in the [data] direction," she said. "Balancing that steering wheel in exactly the same way is important for all industries."

4. Collaborate internally and externally. Adopt a mindset of collaboration, with colleagues and with other people in the industry. "The problems we're trying to solve here are big ones."

5. Develop a process to say no to shiny new things. "If we learned one thing about innovation, it is that there won't be one silver bullet," Zielina said. "Identify the two or three things that align well with your strategic responsibilities, then explicitly say no to those other things. Then align further with some strategic initiatives. Superficial changes are not enough."

Ronn Are you subscribed to the SIPAlert Daily?
If not, you're missing out on daily strategies, tips, profiles and case studies that can build your audience and increase revenue. To sign up, please contact Nevena Jovanovic.

Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…