Product Management in Times of Crisis
Updated: Apr 5
The role of the product manager is to focus the team even and especially in time of crisis
While we all watch the world as it handles the crisis of the coronavirus in various ways including all the different ways we human beings are used to respond to events, it is an amazing opportunity to reflect how similar things happen in our organization in the face of even small events.
We see countries, organizations and people act in various ways, some in a very responsible way and some in panic, some following any information without checking it and some working based on data.
I am definitely not going to reflect on how the world should behave or even how local politics should behave in such a case. I will leave it to the readers to deduct their own conclusions, even though you can’t really make a straight deduction because it is not the same situation.
I do think however that whatever I say that is valid for the local product or organization is also valid for a wider scale. It just might be someone else responsibility because there is no product manager in those areas and there are probably many many more parameters to consider.
When we work on a product we have our strategy, our roadmap, and our plan. The team can execute it and we adapt it in an agile way as we go.
Sometimes the plan can face a crisis. It can be a good crisis such as a big potential customer on our foot door that may require some new features to be developed very fast to win them or a bad crisis such as a critical problem in our production system that might cause it to stop working if we do not handle it properly in time.
In such situations, several things might happen. If the process works as it should, the right people will jump on the crisis or the opportunity and will do the necessary things to work on it and solve what is needed to be solved within time. That is the easy part, even though it sometimes seems like magic.
What we may see many times is that around this process unnecessary behaviors might happen. Suddenly some people think they need to get a status every 5 minutes and that if they are not on top of it nothing will happen.
Other people are sure that the whole team needs to work to solve the crisis and nobody should do anything else because it is not right to discuss or handle other things while everything fall apart.
This is the time in which a good product manager can make a difference. Our job is to calm things, put them in proportion and make sure that while the right team solves the crisis we keep the collateral damage to the rest of our plan minimal.
First, we need to analyze the crisis and make sure it gets the right resources. No less. No more. Many times, this happens even without us. The system knows its job.
Second, we need to make sure to control the flow of information. We need to make sure that the team working on the crisis has all the right data on the situation. We need to make sure that the rest of the team gets timely updates and does not interfere with the team working on the crisis. We actually have to protect this team.
And last, once things are in motion we need to make sure whoever is not needed for solving the crisis can continue to work. We may need to shift priorities, update the plan and move things around. But there is no point in paralyzing the team. The crisis will be over at some point in the future.
When we get out of it we do not want to discover that we handled the crisis well while neglecting everything else and creating many other small problems. We don’t want to discover that the crisis was abused for neglecting the big things that we believe would make an impact on our product and customers.
A mentee of mine just told me that in her company the executives took the situation of the current corona crisis as an opportunity to break all processes. They have seen very interesting opportunities to act fast and produce features that can help them possibly gaining new customers because of the crisis and started bombarding the team with many new features that need to be developed now and immediately.
They have abandoned all processes of analysis of data, roadmap aside, and let work just on intuition because we don’t have time to lose.
The important question here is not whether their decision is right or wrong. The important question is how we as product managers can help our organization make sure that the right decisions are taken because executives in panic do not remember all constraints or the stakes.
From the executives’ perspective, they have probably seen a roadmap some time ago, and everything that is for the next quarter is considered to them as already done. When they ask for new things they have no idea what is the price.
Our job is to ask a lot of questions and frame the situation. We need to reflect on what is going to be delayed if we take a new approach. We need to maybe create new temporary metrics to follow if we decide that for a short time there is a better opportunity to follow. We need to make sure that if as a product group we decide to change the direction of the ship because we are now facing a new market situation, it is done with eyes open.
Focus is almost always the key to success. As product manager making sure the team is focused on the right things is almost the most important thing we do both in calm times as well as in a time of crisis.
Keep Calm and Focus