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Product management at 18F, part 4 - 10x

This is the fourth and last in a series of blog posts that will provide a glimpse into what it’s like to be a product manager at 18F.

10x projects let anyone in government pitch an idea that could have a massive impact on the public. To accomplish this, 10x has money set aside (via Congress) to explore concepts and a group of innovative, passionate people to work on them.

Some concepts have taken hold and grown into full products, for example, the U.S Web Design System and Federalist both went through an earlier version of the 10x program.

So how does 10x go about developing these ideas? Each pitch requires a lead investigator who will need to develop an understanding of the idea and make recommendations. Although it’s not limited to product managers, the tools of product management can come in handy when creating a process to determine if the idea is worth pursuing. Booting up a completely new concept is very different than managing an existing product and requires an appreciation of uncertainty, but it is also what makes 10x projects exciting.

In 10x projects, an idea goes through successive funding phases that bring some structure to the innovation process.

  • Phase One: Investigation is a very short investigation to determine, “Is this a bad idea?”
  • Phase Two: Discovery is a little longer and looks at, “Is this a good idea?”
  • Phase Three: Development gets into building and answering the question, ‘Will anyone use this?”
  • Phase Four: Scale looks to answer: “Can we scale this product?”

For all of these phases, any clear answer is a successful outcome, whether that answer is “Yes” or “No.”

Out of the hundred and fifty or so of pitches that have been submitted to 10x so far, approximately fifty have been selected for Phase One: Investigation, where ideas are validated by a small team of one or two people. This is where a product manager usually enters the picture. At this stage, product managers need to use their experience to gauge the viability of an idea and develop a process to validate the concept. To see if an idea has potential, a product manager calls upon their research skills and best judgment to:

  • Define the problem space
  • Assess real need through market and user research
  • Identify risks, roadblocks, and opportunities

The funding generally lasts a few weeks, so time management is crucial to making sure an idea is explored sufficiently to gauge its viability. If it’s promising, you’ll move on to Phase Two: Discovery, where there are additional resources and an extended runway. The primary challenge will then be to validate if the problem is worth addressing. At this stage you’ll need to:

  • Identify and reach out to new stakeholder groups
  • Go deep into research
  • Develop prototypes to test with users

Phase Two is a critical point in the process. There is an opportunity to dig deep into a topic and have the resources to do a thorough assessment. The outcome may result in continuing or ending the investigation, but either way, the materials the team produces are cataloged and shared with future investigators. This growing catalog of successful and unsuccessful ideas will hopefully become a treasure trove to future investigators.

Of the dozens of projects that make into Phase Two, only about five will see Phase Three: Development. During this time, product managers will have the resources to build a team and the funding to create a working product to test with real-world users. Depending on the team size, you’ll have about a year to:

  • Articulate a clear vision for your service and partner organizations
  • Lead a team to develop a minimum viable product (MVP)
  • Develop a strategy to support the product and acquire users.

At the moment, there are a couple of Phase Three projects in progress. One project, for example, is the U.S. Data Federation, which is working on providing data interoperability across federal, state, and local government agencies.

10x currently doesn’t have any projects in Phase Four: Scale, but in 2019, the team expects at least one will move to the next stage and make their bid for long-term sustainability.

As a product manager working on 10x projects, the experience can be challenging and rewarding. While these projects often come with uncertainty, they offer room for creativity and an amazing potential for impact.

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