Navigating Crisis: Insights from Two Product Managers

The COVID-19 pandemic shifted the world’s social and economic landscape completely. Seemingly overnight, the way we work, purchase, and socialise went virtual. To withstand the crisis, businesses have had to respond quickly. For teams working on customer or employee-facing products, today’s reality has required an intentional focus on understanding and adjusting to the associated changes in user behaviour. An effective product manager is accustomed to adapting to changing trends and user requirements, but these trends typically emerge more steadily and predictably over time. In contrast, the changes brought by COVID-19 were sudden, fundamental, and widespread.

For product managers and product owners confronting this volatility, we’ve distilled a few key steps to ensure your solutions are configured to adapt to, and become stronger through, the changes:

1. Rediscover your users

Your primary focus should be on finding and meeting the needs of your users. Now that these needs may have changed, it is vital to “rediscover” them. Daily routines, hobbies, and norms of interaction will have shifted, and you will be designing for new or altered personas, both during and beyond the pandemic.

Your pre-COVID-19 customer data may no longer be relevant, and gathering new insights is likely to be more challenging in the current environment. To address these challenges, consider looking laterally at data from other countries or organisations that have been facing these challenges for longer. Initially, you will be working with imperfect information, but you can iterate and improve on what you build as new data becomes available. Start with the following questions:

  • How has user behaviour changed?
  • Are you targeting the right customers?
  • Could your product meet the needs of new customers?

2. Rally around a new vision

Once you have rediscovered your users, your vision for your product will likely change. It would be difficult to jump straight into reprioritising your backlog without knowing what your ultimate goal is. You’ll benefit over the long term from dedicating time upfront to focus your team around your new purpose and the outcomes you want to achieve. Involving everyone in the process will fuel openness, understanding, and ownership, all of which are accelerators of delivery. With the right vision re-established at the start of the crisis response, rebuild your roadmap around new user outcomes that will shape the products you deliver. Consider the following questions:

  • Is the vision of your product still appropriate for your rediscovered users?
  • Is your new product vision aligned to broader organisational priorities?
  • Are your outcomes focused on the long term or just a response to the current crisis?
  • What are the opportunities to enhance or complement your products to address the new ways customers use your products (e.g., services or delivery)?

3. Update and reprioritise your stories

Use the insights gathered from rediscovering your users, your new vision, and short-term roadmap to review your product backlog. What once may have been a priority feature or user story may no longer hold true. Given the economic headwinds of COVID-19, prioritise the features that deliver the most value at minimal cost. You may find that you can pivot parts of your product to meet a new user need. Among the questions to consider:

  • What user needs are still being met?
  • What changes in user needs and behaviour are likely to continue after the pandemic?
  • What parts of your product can you pivot to meet those key new user needs, and how quickly can you spin them up?
  • Is your roadmap still right, and does it address both short- and long-term implications?
  • Are barriers that kept you from meeting an elusive user need in the past no longer present?

4. Act quickly: Speed is of the essence

When launching a new product or releasing new features, you typically have a control process in place to ensure that the release meets certain criteria. Given the speed of changes underway, however, it is worth reassessing your governance and release process to see whether they are slowing the delivery of value to customers—then adjust as needed.

As you reassess your control processes, involve stakeholders from throughout the organisation, including project managers, and consider the following:

  • Where could you streamline governance?
  • Does your organisation have a true experiment-and-fail-fast philosophy? With imperfect user information, now is the time to foster one if you don’t.
  • Where is your control process onerous, and where could you reduce thresholds for approval?
  • Can you move from a minimal “lovable” product to a minimal viable one, then iterate and improve?

5. Revisit the service wrapper and distribution processes

Finally, evaluate the service wrapper around your product, such as logistics, channel buying behaviour, marketing, and inventory management. In the U.K., for example, supermarkets have booked delivery slots months in advance and are prioritising slots for vulnerable people using data provided by the government. In this environment, with most of the population staying close to home, marketing on large billboards would be a redundant strategy.

To uncover meaningful insights related to your service wrapper and distribution process, the key is to work cross-functionally, drawing on learnings from other functions to understand the potential impact on your product. This way of working will allow you to revitalise the service offering for your customers based on their new circumstances.

With such a significant shift in user behaviour, we anticipate that the trends we observe today will continue beyond the pandemic. Failing to adjust to the new consumer landscape will leave products vulnerable and potentially redundant. Instead, by focusing on your users and vision, stories, control processes, and service wrapper, you can begin to adapt now, positioning your organisation to realise new opportunities in the post-pandemic world.