Jean-Marc de Jonghe: “The product I am most proud of is the team”

“Building new product is expensive and building the wrong things is even more expensive”. That’s the working philosophy of Jean-Marc de Jonghe, a noted proponent of the ‘agile’ approach to innovation.  Thanks to his 35 years’ experience at the meeting point of technology and media Jean-Marc has had ample experience in new digital models and methodologies. Which makes him ideally placed to talk about solutions that truly meet the expectations of users.  After its tablet version the success of La Presse on mobile has proven that it is indeed possible to attract a new audience in an ever more competitive marketplace. Doing that requires vision, agile methodology, and the agile team to go with it. He explains how.

Interview with Jean-Marc de Jonghe, Vice President Strategy & Digital Products, La Presse, Montreal, Canada

David Sallinen – I’m very happy to welcome you to our New World Encounters initiative dedicated to product development. I wonder if you could tell us a little more about your background and your activities in your position as Vice president’s Strategy and Digital Products at La Presse.

Jean-Marc de Jonghe – So I’ve been working in media since 1985. I’ve been at La Presse since 2003, and I’ve been the VP of Digital Product and Strategy since 2010. I was lucky enough to lead the Press Digital Transformation from its inception to the creation of three outstanding products. These products include our own editorial workflow that has been rebuilt in-house as well as our new mobile app store. And I’m leading the team at the centre of this digital creation.

DS – What about product management? How is product management different for media?

JMJ – Product management is the idea of creating products that are perfect both for the market and also for the business itself. So it’s really about being customer centric and bringing to the world a product that will be used, appreciated, loved, fit with users’ needs and fix users’ problems. At the same time, you need to capture value from it, because if you don’t capture value, just throwing your assets or content at the market, without bringing in money, you would be out of business. That’s the role of a product team: understanding what the business is trying to do, what is the business model, and trying to capture value from the market while making sure the users will be satisfied. Why is this different for media? Because we need to be very good at this. When you build digital products, you don’t have many chances: you have to be very efficient and test things thoroughly. You have to challenge the business model of actual newspapers. We have to reinvent starting with how do we capture this value? What are we trying to do? So it’s very different because we have all those giants right now around us that are capturing value differently from our past and present and the question is how to distinguish yourself. It’s really about how to get into this market, how you create your own space and get the value from it.

DS – Now, how do you define ‘agile’? Why is the agile mode so indispensable to the changing media? 

JMJ – For me, agile is a tool. It’s really good for doing basically two things. Step one, you can use agile to create value and test ideas at an incremental pace. Instead of building something huge, then launching and finding out that people will use only half of the features you envisioned, you can use Agile to develop value in small increments so you effectively test approaches without having to build them all. It’s a mentality of incremental product management, basically.

Stage two of our job is a lot more interesting because stage two is the understanding that to do this successfully you need four pillars. You need to envision your features or ideas in terms of the impact you want them to have. It forces you to ask what are we trying to do? Why are we doing this? What will be the result and how do we define success? And then teams can invent and test features to see if it moves the needle in the right direction. You ask a key question first: what does the customer need? How do we prioritize this? And what is the customer journey for this product?

The third step is making an environment where teams that can be auto-organized and finally four: having an organization that learns. So, it’s about giving responsibilities back to the people that are the closest to the customers, closest to the product, at the interface of media with content and the reading experience. So agile is a tool to be effective, to create products that will be used, to build product, but also to change the organization, the way you think, the why you write code and how you develop your staff.

DS – What are the mistakes to avoid in the development of new products? 

JMJ – There are a lot of mistakes you can make because of the many different ways of developing products. Not testing with real users is probably the biggest mistake you could make. So my own feeling is that the answer is more about media organization. Media organizations have a strength in that we are very good at creating value, contents, very quickly. With small increments we create news stories, we create news features, and we can be very efficient at throwing things away WITHOUT testing. If something is successful, that’s great! If something is not successful, too bad. Tomorrow is another day!​​ There is almost no cost at shipping a badly written story. When it comes to digital products it is not the same game; digital products are very expensive to build and maintain, and there is a high cost at shipping something that nobody wants or doesn’t work. You have to become very good at managing your pipelines of ideas before committing to one. Understanding what is the best route to success. Which ideas will fit in the market? If you’re customer centric, some ideas will come from your users, not only from the newsroom as an example. The big mistake we are guilty of in the media is managing product development just as we manage news development or content development despite it being a very different game. It’s more expensive, at the beginning a digital team seems slow to produce, asking too many questions before building, testing a lot before shipping, etc. But when you understand why we’re doing this you understand that launching a digital product means allocating resources because when it’s online it’s alive and people are going to use it. When you understand all the differences, you understand that you need to manage product development very differently to all of your other news products.

DS – I love the sentence “building new product is expensive and building the wrong things is even more expensive.” So how do you ensure that you deliver solutions quickly and economically? 

JMJ – Yes, that’s the secret. I would say it’s not intuition that makes a very good product  – it’s developers understanding goals and context that develop great products. So when you have a system that can take all the ideas, and manage and test them confidently you will be successful. There’s an element of “fake it till you make it”. Basically, you have a product, an idea, new features but you don’t start writing code just yet. You start by thorough assessment of the market need – what do customers really want? Why do we think this is going to be good and crucially what KPI do we have to judge success? Exactly what kind of value are we delivering?

There’s a lot of work to do understanding the stakeholders before beginning to build a product. That means a lot of fact finding with user interviews, field research, data analysis, prototyping, etc. You can do testing; we run small tests, usability tests so we can show users stuff without having to develop any code. Basically, see it as a horse race where all your horses are your different ideas for the product, and you have a way to test those ideas and say: “This one this one, right now, has the best chance of success.  You do all those assessments, the fact finding, and testing including internal tests using the newsroom or media’s employyes as users as a way of testing before launching. It’s all about testing but it’s also about having the courage to kill something when it doesn’t work well.

DS – What are the projects you developed and most proud of? 

JMJ – Oh, what a great question. First, I’m very proud of La Presse because it’s a very innovative product. To this day, eight years after its launch, it’s still a remarkable product. But strange as it may sound I think the product I’m most proud of is the product and digital teams, the organization itself, the machine that builds the machine. When you build a great product, it’s amazing but when you build two, there’s something there: there’s magic there. Someone once said. “Once means you’re lucky, twice means you’re good”. So I’d say the legacy I will be the proudest when I leave La Presse is the product team, the digital team, and the way we work together.

DS – What or who helped you most to become an innovator? 

JMJ – What helped me most to be an innovator was the curiosity and learning that my role as an innovator was very different to the role of an operator. Before 2010, when I came to La Presse in 2003, I was in charge of operations and digital stuff. When I began my role in digital strategy, I had to invent the future. I had to invent new products and I had to learn something very important. My role was not about having all the answers. My role was about having all the right questions. My team will find the answers. It was very uncomfortable at first because my experience meant I thought that my role was to have all the answers all the time. What helped me most was understanding the paradigm shift in my role and the need to build the teams to find the answers.

DS – How do you envision the future of media? 

JMJ – This is a tough question. I think there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. I think that the media that are still up and running right now will have the humility to understand they have to change and they will change. Now we understand much better how to build outstanding product and products that are very viable as digital media.  I think that the market is clearer now and that readers and customers understand more than ever that facts, and quality news are really important. What the media can do is not only build great news content, but help people find it too. People still have huge confidence in a good media brand. If you succeed in taking your media brand and making it a digital media brand, if you can build a team to understand how to test and build outstanding products; and you don’t need so many of those products – one success will be great. We have growth in digital advertising, we have growth in digital membership or subscriptions, everyone of your readers has a digital device in their hands… If you understand that you have to make your brand a digital brand, and if you build an auto-organized digital team in an agile organization; you will create good digital products, and success will be there and you will still be around 20 years from now.

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