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InfoQ Homepage Podcasts Sandra Davey on Purposeful Aligned Governance and Product Management

Sandra Davey on Purposeful Aligned Governance and Product Management


In this podcast Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods, spoke to Sandra Davey, Chair of Choice Australia and founder of The Product Space about governance with clear objectives and the current state of product management.

Key Takeaways

  • The importance of internet governance to enable equal access to all net citizens
  • When tackling complex problems pull together a team with diverse viewpoints and perspectives and create an environment where they can collaborate effectively to solve the problem, let them go and trust them
  • A key leadership capability is being able to accept and be okay with not knowing everything, not having the answers
  • Product management goes far beyond the role and responsibilities of the Product Owner
  • There is a renaissance happening where true Product Management is gaining traction again


  • 00:00 Shane: Good day folks. This is Shane Hastie for the InfoQ Engineering Culture podcast. I'm sitting down with Sandra Davey.  Sandra recently spoke at the JAFAC conference and we'll find a link to the coverage of that in the show notes and spoke about leading change from the board level. So I wanted to explore this further and also discovered that Sandra has a strong background in product management.  These are topics that influence us at InfoQ, so Sandra, welcome. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us.
  • 00:40 Sandra: Good day, thank you very much. It's lovely to be with you.
  • 00:43 Shane: You are the chair of the board of Choice in Australia, so that's one of the hats that you're wearing. You're also the founder and product coach of Product Space.
  • 00:54 What else do you do? And tell us a little bit about yourself, please.
  • 00:58 Sandra: Well, thank you. Yes. I've got a couple of hats. I have been a non-executive director for on and off for about 20 years, but I suppose have been really practicing and learning the art over the last decade. When I joined the board of Choice.
  • 01:13 And for our friends in New Zealand, this is the sister organization to Consumer NZ,
  • 01:19 Shane: Most of our audience is global
  • 01:22 Sandra: Global: Which in the UK and Consumer Reports in the US. Like a fierce consumer advocacy organization. And I joined the board about seven, eight years ago and became Chair at the beginning of last year.
  • 01:34 I'm a non-executive director with one hat, but my craft and my trade, I suppose, is as a digital product manager, and I've done that now, probably for about on and off for 25, 30 years. I grew up with getting my first modem connection, probably similar to you Shane, circa 1989, I think it was.
  • 01:55 In fact, the Australian internet turns 30 this year and I got a connection to the internet and an accidental career out of it.
  • 02:03 I became a product manager when I didn't even know the term existed, I've had lots of other titles:  Multimedia Producer, Executive Producer, a General Manager. Ran a bulletin board but was essentially doing product management. And that's the hat that I wear all the time.
  • 02:19 And I suppose the third hat I wear, similar to many  in your audience, this thing called the internet, which has  created not only a sustaining career for me, but has indeed introduced me to many, many like-minded souls, friends, colleagues, and mates. I've always given back; I think it's important to contribute into the industry that you know, and that you love, and that has created that kind of sustaining life for you.
  • 02:47 And I do a lot of industry policy work and a couple of examples, it's really geeky, but maybe some of your audience will appreciate this. I'm one of the founders of the AU domain administration, and that is the entity, the non-profit entity that manages the .AU  Namespace in Australia. For some bizarre reason, I got interested in domain names back in the early nineties. I've been a massive contributor and served on the board of the Interactive Media Industry Association.
  • 03:15 But I suppose, because I'm a product manager, when you think about the TCP-IP stack, I'm at that kind of user layer. I have done a lot of work down at layers, three, four, two three, four that many of us have, but really, I might that user layer. So the Interactive Media Industry Association was the industry association in Australia that really promoted web and mobile development.
  • 03:37 I've done accessibility and policy, privacy standards work for the Internet Industry Association, which is now Comms Alliance, and the last one I wanted to mention, which is really critical, that had fallen over here in Australia, is the Internet Governance community. So I suppose, if you think about the Internet, with a capital, I, it's not owned or controlled by anybody, and many of us hold the vision that it should remain open, stable, and secure. And much of that policy work gets done by volunteers all around the world and some of those initiatives are deemed under the title of the Internet Governance Forum and there are domestic governance for, that operate in places like Australia, New Zealand and the United States, and there's also regional activities, and then there's the IGF that flows kind of up to the UN.
  • 04:27 It's a really interesting entity because the internet is not top down, and I suppose this comes to some of the things that we might unpack today, the internet has been built on, created nurtured and sustained in a multi-stakeholder, consensus driven, bottom-up community kind of a way.
  • 04:47 And so the Australian Internet Governance initiative that I'm involved in is about rebirthing and reinvigorating that community and finding ways to keep us bound together in a way that allows us to advocate and promote  good policy that allows for, I suppose, the equal participation of all net citizens.
  • 05:11 That's some bit of a snapshot of the different things I get involved in.
  • 05:16 Shane: This is the Engineering Culture podcast, what's the common cultural theme that weaves through here. I'm hearing a lot about community and good for the community, good for others. One of the things you and I chatted about before this session was the perception that surely this is just the logical way of working today, or is it?
  • 05:38 Sandra: Yeah, it's so interesting, isn't it? Because I suppose for me, it's my defacto way of thinking and I think I was lucky enough because I started in the non-profit community activist sector and I got a connection to this thing called the internet and the internet wasn't owned or controlled by anyone.
  • 05:56 Those command and control structures that a lot of us talk about now, a lot of us have worked in institutions and organizations where power and the structure of power is very top down. That's not the way I was born into this industry. My first job was with an activist, non-profit overseas aid lobby organization. And we got a connection to the internet, and the reason we got the connection to the internet was because we wanted to connect with other activists out there.
  • 06:26 And so I had, my first experience of work was working in an organization where the words and phrases of communication, collaboration, community, coming together in a kind of bottom up way to create something. This was what you did. You came together, you shared, you served each other, you had a very clear kind of common purpose.
  • 06:55 And that's the way I grew up. So for me, that's a very natural way of thinking when I think about work. And I think about the initiatives that I get involved in.
  • 07:03 But having said that equally, I have experienced in working in large corporate structures where power and the structure of the organization is the exact opposite. It's that big top down, heavy command control kind of stuff, where the ways that we've been trained to guide to teach to manage is completely different to the way that I think is natural, which is you do it from the ground up and you do it in a way that's open, that's  enabling, that's empowering.  You do it from the premise that there's a shitload of smart people out there, right, and if I can wrap a whole bunch of smart people around me and enable them with the tools or with the environment or with the culture that lets them kind of get on with the job, then, Hey, that's just going to be awesome.
  • 07:49 That's kind of the stuff that I'm really interested in at the moment.
  • 07:54 Shane: What's it take to move from that hierarchical command and control to a more open, collaborative, engaged style.
  • 08:05 Sandra: I'm thinking of two different examples.
  • 08:07 One where I was a manager in a large organization, and this entity was a telco, this was in the 2000's when telcos were buying content rights.  We had all realized that our dumb pipes were just pipes and commodities and we were trying to create value added extras for internet services. And I headed up a content division and I want to talk about that, cause that's kind of where I think a lot of your audience is.
  • 08:32 But equally as I transitioned from a director on the board of Choice to become Chair, the why I thought about leadership had to fundamentally switch and they were both kind of similar, but perhaps some different attributes as well.
  • 08:47 When I was at Telstra and heading up sport, we had secured the rights to V8 Supercars, which I suppose is sort of the NASCAR in US and, some blokes would hate me to say this, but kind of the Grand Prix of Europe.
  • 09:01 And we had extraordinary rights to live stream V8 Supercars on the internet, and this is back in about 2003, four, five. The technology was nascent, we were still, I think, live streaming at 180 kilobits a second, but we had four months from the time I had the rights  signed and allocated us to launch at the largest car race in Australia. And we had to build something that was completely different to the broadcast and the best way that I could figure out, which I think was natural to me, and probably operated because I was shitting myself at how much work I had to do, was to rally around me as many awesome people and organizations, and then let them do their bit.
  • 09:45 I think creating a common purpose and I suppose a value proposition, when you think about the language that we use, and being really clear on here's where we wanted to get to, here's what we believe good could look like, and then enable the teams. And there were multiple teams. We had web developers, mobile developers, platform providers. I had 50 million BAs and technical- and solution-architects and devs inside of Telstra, I had the rights holder in V8 Supercars. So, it was an enormous team and there was no way that you could control that. So, setting the common purpose and a vision helped, and then just letting them kind of go and trusting them.
  • 10:27 I suppose, the other element, which has, is similar to how I feel as a director on the board of Choice, this is a really critical one, is to accept and be okay with not knowing everything, not having the answers.
  • 10:42 I think one of the challenges for those of us that are Gen X and Boomer generation, by the time you get to leadership, one of the things that you've been taught your whole life is if I get to the top, I'm supposed to have all the answers and I'm supposed to be the one that's made it to the top because I have the knowledge and I have all the answers and then I tell, and I instruct the people below me how to solve for those problems. When you make that switch, when you accept that you don't know the answers, in fact, sometimes you don't know what you don't know, but if you have the right people around you with a common purpose and you unleash them, they going to figure it out anyways.
  • 11:19 And that is similar to how I thought about the transition at Choice. When you transition from Director to Chair, the role becomes really different. One of the roles which applies back to the V8 Supercar job as well is the art of listening. You switch from talking and instructing to actively listening and kind of being really empathetic.
  • 11:43 And then the other thing that was similar when I think about my role as Chair is again, acknowledging that just because I'm Chair doesn't mean that I have to have the answers to everything. My role becomes one of a facilitator. My role, and I think this happens in good leadership too, and good management paradigms, you shift from instructing and telling and doing, you shift from I don't have all the answers and you shift to I facilitate, I empower, I enthuse, I support, I serve. And when you make that shift, it's kind of liberating,
  • 12:19 Shane: So liberating, but how do we stop it from being chaos?
  • 12:24 Sandra: That's a good question. Isn't it? I think a really clear purpose helps. 
  • 12:30 One of the things as a product coach I see time and time again is, there's a disconnect between the organization's strategic intent or company directional business objectives or strategy, business plan, whatever you want to call it. This massive disconnect between that and the product team. And I think this applies to a lot of teams because it's not clear what the common purpose is. It's not clear what objectives is my team driving towards that are articulated in the strategic plan.
  • 13:05 And I see one of two things happen. The strategic plan is shit, and there's no clear articulation, we've got lots and lots of teams out there doing awesome staff, maybe having some metrics and measures within their product teams, but actually  not able to tie back to the common purpose or the strategic objective of the organization.
  • 13:23 The strat plan is either missing or it's unclear and teams struggle to tie back to that common purpose. So avoiding chaos, I think one of the critical things we need to do right is to be able to clearly tie what it is we're doing back to some overarching purpose.
  • 13:41 From the purpose, and again, some companies have really waffly vision, mission, and purpose, but others have real clarity, I can latch onto something in that strategic plan or something around that common purpose that I can connect to as a leader or as someone in a team and bring that connection closer. And that's one way to kind of stop chaos in my view, because I think you would have seen it too, and many of our listeners would have seen it.
  • 14:09 Melissa Perri talks about it in her book, the Build Trap, there's a lot of our product teams out there, and I've done it as well, you build and you build and you build and you release and you release  and you release and you got feature after feature after feature,  and none of us can figure out what needles they're shifting, how it ties back to a strategic vision?  Was the product going after acquisition? Was it about retention and churn? Was it about moving particular metrics? That ties off what they're, and I think that's really one of the critical ingredients that I see missing time and time again.
  • 14:43 What else would we say stops chaos? Bonding teams, one of the things I've really loved about agile is some of the more kind of practical, cool techniques.
  • 14:52 Roles, and accountability are really important, right? Like, if you're clear and the team's clear on what is my role and the accountability of my role and being held accountable by myself but being held accountable within the team construct as well. And I see a lot of teams and divisions and units and functional structures where accountabilities are really unclear.
  • 15:17 That hurts, that hurts us as individuals and it hurts us as organizations.
  • 15:21 Shane: ou've given us some really good pointers there in terms of guidance, leadership, boundaries, direction, common purpose. Can we segue a little bit and talk about your experience and perspective from a product management perspective, what's happening in the product management space. You've mentioned Melissa Perri's book, which we haven't yet had a review on InfoQ for, but that is coming.
  • 15:49 What's happening in the product space?
  • 15:51 Sandra: 15:51 I suppose, in one way, when you think about agile as a bunch of awesome techniques for helping us solve problems, for helping us be more effective for focusing in on value, I came to the kind of techniques much later in life than probably most of your listeners.
  • 16:09 The being agile, the mindset that we talk about now, and I suppose we often use growth mindset as a way of kind of describing the being. I suppose I've being-ed my whole life, and when I think about product management, having been a product manager for 25, 30 years, always digital, always internet enabled. So I've never done a physical product management role, although I have been heavily involved in hardware-software builds.
  • 16:37 I grew up with waterfall as the project management mentality, and I've seen that product manager is one of those nebulous titles.
  • 16:46 In fact, I think Marty Cagan is another awesome guy.  When I think about my favorite product folk it's probably Melissa Perri for holistic product management, Marty Cagan for holistic product management, Teresa Torres for good product discovery and, of course, Jeff Patton. 
  • 17:01 I've been thinking about port management 25 to 30 years. And I think about it holistically. So from the idea, the opportunity, through to unpacking and validating the opportunity, looking at the market, doing market research, user research, all that kind of product, what we now call product discovery bits, through to good dev delivery, and then out through to launching the product, the feature, the platform into the market, nurturing, sustaining it, optimizing it, and ultimately end of life-ing it.
  • 17:33 That holistic cycle is how I think about product management.
  • 17:36 When I came to agile, I was inherently confused by this title, and a role that was being performed, called Product Owner. And it has been both beneficial, but it's also, I think, caused confusion  in our craft where a lot of young folk on growing up where their only experience of product management has been a PO,  and not seeing that kind of holistic approach to product.
  • 18:01 So the big shift I'm starting to see now, which is really wonderful, is a renaissance and a reacknowledgement that actually product is much more holistic. That it is a far bigger, greater job and role than the activities that we would typically see a Product Owner perform and a real shift back to that understanding of holistic product management.
  • 18:24 The second shift I'm seeing is a real love affair and a renaissance with product discovery. So good UX  with CX, good user research and interestingly, I'm a product manager with a background in social sciences and humanities, and I was taught these techniques in my social science undergraduate, we were taught the art of good research methods, of empathetic listening of non-participant and participant observation techniques.
  • 18:53 It's really wonderful to see product discovery, a renaissance there. And partly that's been driven by really good agile product teams who have built really fantastic things, right, but the challenge they've got is they've not got any control of what comes from upstream.
  • 19:11 If product discovery is not good, these guys in the dev delivery team, which is building shit, right, and we're just pumping stuff out, not confident that actually the work's been done upstream in the product discovery space. So that's the second thing that I'm seeing which is really a wonderful shift.
  • 19:27 Then I suppose the last thing that I see, which is just difficult for all of us, product management as a phrase means 50 million things, depending on the size of the organization you come from, whether you're tech-led and engineering-led ,whether you're sales led, whether you're product led,. Whether you're coming out of a large multinational corporate structure, whether you're a tech startup, whether you're working in the nonprofit advocacy space.
  • 19:52 Product management is carved up and chopped up differently.  Equally, if it's B to C versus B to B. In a B to C environment, you might see the marketers and the product folk hanging out together, but in a tech environment, you might see the product folk and the engineers hanging out together. And now the conversation is shifting to how do we best think about structuring and enabling those, our product teams to kind of liberate themselves so that they can create real value.
  • 20:23 That's a snippet of sort of some of the things that I'm seeing in product management.
  • 20:27 I suppose the other thing: titles really misused, don't they? One thing we're starting to see in Australia is Product Delivery Managers, which is really interesting, right? These are product folk who have been tasked with delivery as well.
  • 20:42 And if I think back: when I was first a product manager in the nineties, I was actually really just a project manager. I was a coordinator and I was tasked with coordinating a whole bunch of activities. I would have a project manager too, particularly if I was working in a large corporate, like Telstra, but you were a doer, and I'm starting to see that happen again, where some organizations are mashing, possibly due to the lack of people they have access to, because we always have more roles than people to fill.
  • 21:13 Mashing the product and the delivery role together, which I think can be done for a short period of time but then becomes very problematic, because the product manager and the delivery manager, whilst they have very similar attributes, human attributes and capabilities, their actual focus needs to be different.
  • 21:30 I suppose that's a long winded way of saying the mashup of  job titles and the confusion that comes when people go, Oh, are you a Product Owner or Product Manager or are you a Product Delivery Manager or are you a UX person that does product? Yeah. It's a bit of a mess. Don't you think?
  • 21:47 Shane: It certainly is a pretty confusing landscape.
  • 21:52 Sandra: One of the other things that you got me thinking about before, which we haven't really touched on, and I suppose it comes back to sort of the leadership styles that we're starting to see more and more of, they have attributes that people like us and your listeners have probably thought very normal for 10, 20, 30 years.
  • 22:11 And one of them is around kindness, and I think about human kindness as an essential ingredient of almost anything that we do, but kinda it got scrubbed out. In the corporate structures of the sixties, seventies, and eighties, where we were driving hard for, and we were using terminology like tough and hard and driven, and we were driving revenue and profits and we were creating shareholder value, and you needed tenacity and drive and aggression and what I suppose have become associated with male behavior and it was rational and the systems are functional and rational, and we use data and evidence to kind of drive our decision making.
  • 23:00 And what I saw and have observed with that is that the pendulum has swung. And I did a talk at the first JAFAC conference a couple of years ago, and I think it was called something like thinking is good but feeling is better. And I went on a bloody rant actually.  Do you remember a few years ago when we all got obsessed with making data driven decisions, and  it was all about the data and data for me is rational and objective and it was quant, and we didn't like qual cause qual is fluffy and blurry and messy and possibly even feminine.
  • 23:34 And all of those softer traits, for decades we chucked out the door, but then I saw it really swing to the far right when we were just talking about we cannot make any choices and decisions without data, and I'm like, yeah, hang on a second, what  do we mean by data? Because for me, when I think about data, I think about the qual and then I think about all the stuff that we've got, that we build up in our craft over the years, my instinct, my experience, and bringing all of that into the mix, and there's something around kindness in there as well and empathy.
  • 24:12 In Australia, and I haven't seen that as much in New Zealand and in European countries I don't see it as much as well, but we bred out of our male population attributes like kindness and empathy, but I've seen it swing back in. Right.
  • 24:27 Here's a classic example. About seven years ago, I worked for a very clever French engineering company and our client was Telstrus, and I've been in tech my whole life, right. So 90% of the sessions, meetings ideation, brainstorm, facilitated workshops that I'm in, 80 to 90% male, and Australian men would never talk about their private lives. And about seven, eight years ago, I noticed something really interesting at the start of a meeting where everyone flibbertigibbets for a few minutes, and we used to talk about the sports roles right. Here, I would start saying men flip out their wallets and flip out photos of their kids and be having real deep, empathetic human conversations because that's who we are, essentially who we are, but we'd scrubbed that out of our culture and it's now being allowed to come back in.
  • 25:21 Attributes that are possibly might have been deemed the softer side, intuition, heart, empathy, kindness, the art of listening, bringing my full self to work. We're allowed to do that again, and I think we, in some industries we've always been allowed to do that, like the community and nonprofit sector, but for many corporates, we have not been allowed to do that.
  • 25:46 And that's a really lovely shift that I'm seeing. And a lot of that I think is off the back of the work that the agile community has done.
  • 25:53 Shane: Sandra, thank you very much indeed. If people want to continue the conversation, where do they find you?
  • 25:59 Sandra: It's You can reach me at and I love talking about this stuff.
  • 26:07 So happy to talk to any of you.
  • 26:10 Shane: Thanks so much.
  • 26:11 Sandra: Thank you, Shane


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