Skills of Product Leaders Required in Unprecedented Times (Part I)

COVID-19 has changed us all in irreversible ways.  On a personal level, I don’t think any of us will ever be the same.  On a business level, if we are still lucky enough to be employed, the interrelated effects are numerous. As leaders we are trying to keep our employees and customers safe, re-orienting our day to day operations to a virtual norm, and navigating our way through the unknown to keep our businesses on solid ground, let alone driving growth.

Vidya spoke about making product decisions in crisis mode a couple weeks back which was really helpful.  I’m going to take a different look at this.  Focusing more on the skills of product leaders that are required to address some of the categories of product impact resulting from COVID-19.

Beyond the obvious impacts of COVID-19 we’re finding that the product impacts are exposing skills gaps among PM leaders and product managers alike.  Today I’m going to focus on the required skills of PM leaders in addressing the broad categories of impact COVID-19 is having on businesses. 

All businesses have been impacted in some way, but we see a few broad themes of impact to businesses that kick the product management function into a relatively higher gear.

Irrelevant ProductAirBnB, Hotels
Irrelevant Business ModelNon-essential Retail, Gyms, Theme Parks
HypergrowthZoom, Doordash

Today I’ll talk about the irrelevancy related impacts. 

Well talk about hypergrowth in a subsequent blog post. 

What does irrelevancy mean? 

  • Product irrelevancy is probably the most challenging.  The problem you were solving no longer exists. AirBnB is an example we’ll talk about later.  This could be temporary until normalcy is regained.  If you do nothing, it’s a race between your cash on hand and the return to operational and income normalcy.  
  • Business model irrelevancy is when the channels and ways you are selling your products/services aren’t relevant, even if your products/services are still desired or needed.  It’s more of an opportunity than product irrelevancy if the costs to change the ways in which you offer your product are not prohibitive.  And if you can do this quickly and can regain some of the lost revenue, it dramatically slows the race down until a new norm can be established.

Irrelevancy is a situation that we all may find ourselves in at some point in our career due to the common product lifecycle.  There is a launch period, a period of rapid growth, and established period, and decay.  Decay usually means that your product or business model is becoming irrelevant in some way.  Most tenured product leaders have gone through each of these periods at some point in their career.  With COVID-19, some of us are going from any one of the early stages into decay (or irrelevancy) within days versus what we usually see in months or even years.  This leaves some leaders exposed if they haven’t flexed those muscles in a while, if at all.   

You wouldn’t be a product leader had you not excelled in the basics.  So I’m not going to rattle off a bunch of standard leadership principles.  However, there are a few skills/practices that are critical for product leaders in these clutch moments:

  • MOVE – Driving Through the Fog
  • CREATE – Seek new ideas
  • LEARN – Continuous scrappy research

MOVE – Driving through the Fog

In crisis, we see many leaders become paralyzed.  It’s scary.  This kind of impact, at this pace, is unprecedented.  We probably don’t have the data and it’s hard being comfortable making any decision or taking action in fear of making the wrong decision.  But…in these cases, no action means decisions get delayed and usually get taken over by opinion.  Teams spin their wheels for weeks or even months.  In these times, we don’t have the luxury unnecessary delays. 

“More is lost by indecision than wrong decision. Indecision is the thief of opportunity. It will steal you blind.”  -Marcus Tullius Cicero

Driving through the fog is the ability to define a product path in the midst of cloudy or complete lack of data, overwhelming competing opinions, and numerous ideas.  It’s defining that path in spite of this and getting commitment from the rest of the organization that matters.  We, as product leaders, make a path out of what seems like no path at all. 

It’s a lot easier when we’re not under duress like now. Let’s face it, these are unprecedented times for product leaders and the time we have to act is extreme.  Moreover, optimistic estimates show that a vaccine (or when things go back to some semblance of normal) will take a minimum of 18 months.  Again, optimistic.  But this means we need a path to survive (and even thrive) in this new (albeit somewhat temporary) norm.

So how do we drive in the fog in time of crisis? 

First, breath. 

Then act … Using these principles

Use Educated Hypotheses to Start:  We will never have all the data we need as fast as we need it.  In lieu of this, set hypotheses by leveraging what you do know. Use proxy data to help triangulate on hypotheses where possible.

 Some areas where hypotheses might be helpful:

  • Product Irrelevancy:
    • How has the problem your product is solving changed? Why?
    • How has your target persona changed?  Why?
    • Are there new problems your team might be able to solve?  Why?
    • Are there new markets your team might be able to address?  Why?
  • Business Model Irrelevancy:
    • How has the problem your product is solving changed? Why?
    • What part of the business model has been affected the most?  Why?

Establish some key hypotheses and build an action plan as though they were true.  In parallel, work on proving/disproving those hypotheses with scrappy research practices.  Well talk about this later.   

Build a simple plan:  Instead of building a list of product efforts, help people understand your logic, not just the actions you’re taking.  As you learn and prove/disprove your hypotheses, you will certainly update your course of action.  These updates can be confusing and disconcerting to people if they don’t understand your logic initially and what you’re learning that might be changing your course of action.  A simple plan outline that I often use:

  • Summarize what you know…Key data points and customer learnings that matter
  • Translate those data points into insights or hypotheses and what it means to the business.
  • Summarize what action and/or product path(s) should be taken as a result
  • Articulate next steps and who owns what

Pretty simple stuff, I realize.  But I often find, in a crisis. that leaders jump straight to actions without insight-driven logic beyond those actions.  Then the organizational churn begins….time, we don’t have, is wasted.

Communicate Early & Often:  Your teams need more communications, not less, during times of crisis.  And they don’t need “business as usual” or the “We will live on…” speech from the movie Independence Day.  They need confidence that their product leader has a logical plan forward (even if it might not be 100% right,) and will learn and pivot where necessary to get to the right product path.  The best product leaders (and even CEOs) I know, say things like…“We don’t have all the answers, but here’s what we do know and what we’re going to do about it.  And we’re going to learn as fast as we can along the way.”   

The other misstep I see is the lack of communicating what the team is learning and how it’s changing the original course of action.  In crisis, things can change daily as you learn more.  There is a high likelihood that you confuse people not close to the action and create unnecessary churn (there’s that word again.)  Through my own misstep here I have heard things like:

“I thought we were doing this?” 

“Why is product changing the plan again?”

“That doesn’t make sense?” 

“We should do this instead!” 

…All of which can be avoided by a regular interval of communicating what the product team is learning (Learning is progress!) and how it impacts your plan.  This provides the continuity people need and allows them to continue to see the path forward.  Remember you’re serving as the driver through this fog and your passengers need reassurance.

Tip:  Use the “simple plan” we discuss above; hopefully the one you presented at the beginning of this process.  Show what’s changed and the logic behind any change in your course of action. 

I could go on here.  There are a ton of books on crisis leadership.  But product leaders have a uniquely tough job.  Many CEOs expect us to lead the thinking on a product path in times of crisis.  We are expected to find a path quickly when there seems to be no path at all.  It’s navigating through this fog effectively that enables survival, if not success.

CREATE – Seeking New Ideas

Okay saying you need to innovate quickly is an understatement.  We usually think about innovation in terms of a multi-month, clearly-outlined processes including approvals, research studies, and experts.   That is not the innovation I’m talking about here. 

We need to facilitate extremely fast discovery and definition of big problems and the identification and testing of their solutions.  This takes some solid design thinking practices and a comfortability with speed.

Design thinking isn’t some super-secret set of rituals practiced by master designers at companies the likes of Apple or Tesla. 

I like the definition that the Interaction Design Foundation has for design thinking:

Design thinking is a non-linear, iterative process which seeks to understand users, challenge assumptions, redefine problems and create innovative solutions to prototype and test.

Wouldn’t we all say this is part of our job as product leader?  Can I get a ‘YUP?’

There are more than 1,000 design thinking methods out there.  All have their value.  The goal for us is to leverage the necessary methods in facilitating the following:

  • Definition of the problem and who you’re solving the problem for.  This could be redefining the problem you are already solving or the target market you have been focusing on.  It could also mean discovering a new problem or target market that has arisen out of this new norm with COVID-19.   
  • Ideating ways to solve the problem
  • Rapidly prototyping & testing your way to the most viable solution…turning prototypes within days not weeks.

Let’s look at AirBnB.  They experienced up to 80% declines in reservations in Europe and over 50% in some parts of the US; all within a few weeks.  They had to offer blanket cancelations for travelers, put their founders’ salaries on hold, and slash salaries of top executives by half.  They even set up a fund to compensate hosts for up to 25% of their lost income.  While this helped with regaining goodwill with hosts and travelers, the pressure is on to solve the bigger problem.  What do they do now if travel is impacted for years, not just these weeks while we’re in quarantine?  You could argue that their product is irrelevant or close to it as the perceived risk of the virus stays high. 

They mobilized and innovated quickly.  Within weeks they’ve been able to release two new product ideas.

Frontline Stays:  This is a program offering pandemic frontline healthcare workers a place to stay.  As the pandemic worsens healthcare workers are traveling to hotspots and need a place to stay.  Their continuous exposure is also presenting high risk to their families at home.  So AirBnB quickly moved to leverage the large base of unused inventory to solve the problem.  And while initially they offered the stays free, many healthcare organizations and government agencies are supporting the effort.  New big problem solved for a new market segment.

Online Experiences:  Debuting in mid April, 2020, AirBnB began offering Online Experiences.  Their travel Experiences offering was halted with the pandemic but they quickly identified another new problem to be solved; Recovering hosts’ income. They’re doing this by offering a platform for hosts to offer intimate, online cultural experiences through AirBnb. Online “tourists” can enjoy everything from discovering the rhythms of Puerto Rico to Cooking with a Moroccan Family.  These experiences range in price from a few dollars per person for an hour experience to $40 per person. 

Will these be successful?  Jury is still out.  That’s not the point.  The point is not that AirBnB has nailed the winning product decision, the point is that they are testing and learning quickly.  They launched both of these within weeks of the announcement of a pandemic.  It’s this continuous, rapid innovation that enables quicker recovery in times of crisis. 

LEARN – Continuous scrappy research

We tend to go heads down into problem solving mode immediately.  Action is good.  The goal is to take informed action wherever possible and as fast as possible.  That’s why we talk a lot of about scrappy research.  How do we define scrappy research?

A small number of structured customer or stakeholder interactions to test your most pressing hypotheses within 5 working days.

Vidya talked about scrappy research briefly a couple weeks ago in one of our blog posts. It’s one of the foundations we teach at Product Rebels.  Instead of going into all the tactics of scrappy research, let’s focus on one of the biggest challenges product leaders are facing in operationalizing scrappy research in this particular crisis.  They are not having the same access to customers and stakeholders as they once had and are struggling to get timely feedback as they are trying to move quickly.

And to add salt to this wound, many feel like they have to reach sample sizes of 50+ to be able to make decisions.  That’s a daunting task in the best of situations.

What we need to focus on here is enough to educate your hypotheses so that you can move forward.  Don’t worry, you’ll continue to test those hypotheses; this isn’t one and done.

Experts, like Nielson Norman Group, say that 5-7 interviews are enough to develop rough actionable themes.  Yes, only 5-7 interviews!!  After that you start to hear repetition.      

Feeling like scrappy research is more doable now?    

Here are some ideas on getting access to participants for your scrappy research:

  • Proxies:  There are two types of proxies.
    •  Internal:  Your sales teams, implementation teams, customer service teams and any other frontline employees can be great resources
    • External:  Many of us have partners and vendors that may have easier access to our customers.  VARs, distributors, eCommerce partners, etc.  Even if they were hit by this crisis, they hold different perspectives and potentially rich insights about your customer.  They may have an easier way to connect and may be open to partnering in gathering additional insights if it can help them as well.
  • Webinars:  There are a lot of companies turning to webinars and other online mediums to offer content and stay relevant.  It’s also a great way to learn.  Work with your marketing team in creating ways during those webinars for your customers to offer feedback and insights.  There are some great tools out there for polling, questionnaires, etc. during presentations.  Don’t miss this touchpoint to learn.
  • Virtual “Focus Groups”: Okay, not a fan of focus groups, but we gotta do what we gotta do in these times.  Similar to webinars that you might already be doing, can you test less-formal ways to get your targeted customers on a virtual call to gather feedback?  Is there value in bringing customers together to share challenges and best practices in dealing with the crisis?  What are ways you can bring people together and learn online while adding value?
  • Social Media & Other Digital Gathering Points: Most companies have social media or other digital channels where customers will post issues, questions, bugs, etc.  Can you use polls, questionnaires, or just posts to gather feedback?  Again, can you partner with your marketing team and other operational teams to field questions in the current touchpoints or channels you are already in?
  • Surveys:  Let’s be clear, surveys are great for quant views at the market but not totally actionable beyond sizing or high-level trends.  That’s because we don’t get the “why” behind any given answer.  The “Why” is where we can define the problem and take action from a product perspective.  But in times like these, surveys may be all we got.  Using open-ended questions may get you to some educated starter hypotheses where no other data exists.  Surveys are also great for finding people that are open to chat more.  Asking the question “Would you be willing to spend a few minutes with us so we can learn more about your answers?” helps you quickly identify folks you can talk to.
  • Recruiter: Recruiters are expensive, no doubt.  An average cost for finding one recruit is $135+ and higher for the more niche profiles.  But a lot of recruiters are fully digital using phone and survey methods to recruit.  If you have the budget, recruiters can be a saving grace. 

The point here is to help your teams get creative in getting access to customer insights as quickly as possible and in sustainable ways.  If you have other ideas on ways to do this, please share with your fellow product people below! 

In summary, product leaders are under some serious stress right now.  The buck stops here when it comes to defining the product path to get through these unprecedented times, especially in rapid, even if somewhat temporary, irrelevancy situations.  It takes a few very special skills to get through this.  It’s the ability to find and communicate a logical path where no path seems to exist, the ability to practice extremely rapid innovation, and have your entire team continuously learning and informing that innovation that will enable the best chance for company survival when your product or business model has abruptly become irrelevant.

Are you a product leader Interested in talking about this more?  Our next Product Rebels forum on May 8 at 10:00am PST we will discuss these skills and answer any questions or challenges you are having.  Get the deets by Joining our Product Rebels Community on Facebook

Product Rebels is a product management training and coaching firm run by long term product executives for companies like Intuit and Mitchell International. We have trained over 200 companies small and enterprise level in the skills and frameworks that help product management leaders and product managers deliver kick-ass customer experiences.    We have a passion for finding efficient ways of infusing customer insight into everything product teams do in pursuit of experiences that customers love …that drive growth.  Join us in the Product Rebels Community on Facebook or the Product Rebels Community on LinkedIn.

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