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We’re experiencing strange, curious times right now. For all my fellow product managers this is the time to watch. We see product management practices operating at a scale none of us will ever have to manage.

For every product manager uncertainty will be their bread and butter. Let’s use this crazy time as a learning opportunity.

Where to start

Let’s start with something every product needs: A strong vision.

Many product managers are confused about the difference of a mission and a vision statement.

A mission statement is something you want to achieve or do and has a clear end, like “be the number one company within education”.
The vision is the picture to paint on how the future will look like after you have completed one or more missions. This is an aspirational and motivating picture of a better future you want to strive towards, like “enable everyone to learn smarter”.

Let’s take the following quote by the German Federal President as an example:

“We will defeat the virus. The world will be a different place after this. The direction it takes is up to us.”

Walter Steinmeier

So let’s look at this statement. The first part is a perfect mission statement, but no vision statement. Because beating the virus is one thing, but how does the world look like after this is done?

The second comes close to a vision statement, as it describes the future. But he is painting an unknown, not aspirational future. Of course will there be change, the same goes for our products. But the future should be bright and motivates your team and stakeholder into action.

Quote by Steve Jobs: "If you are working on something exciting that you really care about, you don’t have to be pushed. The vision pulls you!"

When talking about a wage future without any improvement it does not help motivating people to work against this vision.
To find more about how to create a compelling vision statement see these 8 tips by Roman Pichler.

Road to get there

Quote by Stephan Case, fmr. CEO of AOL: "In the end, a vision without the ability to execute it is probably a hallucination"

You will most likely find yourself asking for the end of the shut-down, when can your kids get back to school or when can you work from the office again.

This is normal, in every kind of situation, humans have a strong urge to reduce uncertainty. Dates or time frames help everyone to reduce the uncertainty, even if we all know that most estimated dates for the future can never be believed. Or have you heard of many people who built a house and could move-in earlier than planned? I guess not, but still everyone thinks with his/her house it will be different.

I hope you see the parallels to your stakeholders asking for a roadmap or even concrete dates for your features. As we all know, providing specific dates is almost always a disaster. It’s so problematic because as it’s taken, especially in inmature organizations, as a commitment. 

But you as a product manager need to show that you have a plan of action, that might change but shows that we have some ideas about what’s coming next. This roadmap is also a very important tool to start conversations.

A roadmap is like a light in the dark. It clearly illuminates items near to you, but it fades out the more you look into the distance.

But currently this is not known by the public. Currently it looks like there is a new change every day and they are just open ended regulations. From everything that I gathered it’s not the case, that the people in charge have no plan, it’s just that the communication is not there. 

To learn more about what a roadmap could contain and how to use them I recommend the book Product Roadmaps Relaunched.

Change is inevitable

But in times of great uncertainty it’s important to act quickly. No one can wait for all numbers and/or a perfect plan – side note: there is nothing perfect!

Quote by Field Marshal Helmuth von Motke: "No plan survives contact with the enemy"

That’s why it’s important to run experiments as quickly and efficiently as possible. Everything we do should follow some for of Plan, Do, Check, Act loop. That’s what we’re, or better our politicians and their experts, are doing now.

We want to stop this from becoming a deadly crisis, therefore almost all experts say, that we have to #flattenTheCurve.

No one knows if it’s really necessary, but all the numbers that have been gathered so far from other countries suggest that it has to be done. That’s the problem with uncertainty: it can’t be known for sure.

We do the same in product management. We have hypotheses on what would be beneficial within our product. For these hypotheses we find ways to test them.

But what’s missing, or at least not really communicated, right now is the time frame and the metric for the Check & Act Phases.
When you define any kind of test you should also make sure that everyone knows for how long you’re going to run things. Otherwise you increase the uncertainty again.

With all actions, it’s important to know what you want to achieve and not randomly test anything.

Know your North Star

To know what you want to do you need a way to measure it. John Cutler calls this your company’s North Star metric. That’s your most important number for your company.

It’s not easy to define this correctly within your business. It might be daily active users, retention or one of many more KPI. For the Corona crisis it’s easy: We want to keep the death toll to an absolute minimum.

But similar to retention or whatever your company’s north star will be the death toll is also a lagging metric. This means that after each experiment it takes time for this metric to move. Therefore it’s not useful for the day-to-day, as it can not be checked quickly enough.

You need Strategy

We know the North Star, but there are many possible options to achieve that goal. So you need to define a strategy on how to get there. In a strategy you define which ways you think bring you closer to your north star. 

With this you can divide up your troops and give all of your teams one particular section to focus on. That’s the basis to set up empowered product teams.

For the crisis we see, that we have “teams” working on:

  • A vaccine against the virus
  • Increasing the capacity of your health system
  • #FlattenTheCurve
  • And many, many more

But these teams need a way to know if they make progress on their journey.

Measure your efforts

Quote by Peter Drucker: "You can't manage what you don't measure"

That’s why you need proxy metrics that map each of your product segments/strategies to your north star metric. 

This is a hard job for any product leader to identify these for your product areas, but let’s look at the #FlattenTheCurve product area.

We know that the death toll will increase if the health care system can’t handle the load of critical patients. One of our strategies to prevent this from happening is to #FlattenTheCurve. 

How are we going to measure if we are effective?

The number of critical cases is also hard to influence and measure in the short term. But we know that if we reduce the total number of cases, the number of critical cases will also decrease.

This is still hard to measure against, because it takes too long for patients to be tested and/or show symptoms – or they might not even show them.

Due to the fact that the virus can only be spread from human to human we can run different experiments to reduce the contact of humans, which leads to less people infected.

You might have already seen different experiments in effect: Cancellation of events with big crowds, closing schools or total curfew.

But you might think that these actions appear at random and can’t understand that there is a new action done each day. 

But like with all experiments, there will always be side-effects. Therefore the german Robert-Koch Institute for example is checking movement data that is provided by telecom companies to see if the measures have the desired effect on the mobility of the population. This is one of their proxy-metric for the north-star metric.

The government in the UK might instead set a curfew for all persons in a defined risk group. So there might even be different KPI for a similar strategy.

So what’s your leading KPI, that defines your products success in the short term? Is a metric, which measures customer behaviour and can be use to validate experiments quickly?

If you want to know more about setting up metrics for your product strategy see this article on proxy-metric within the series on product strategy by Gibson Biddle.

You have to say no!

If you have these metrics defined then it’s also easier to discuss all other ideas that might flood your inbox. One of the important jobs as a product manager is to say no to many many things, so you can say yes to the relevant and important things.

That’s what is happening in hospitals all over the world, doctors and nurses are scoping down their work, because they know it will be, or is already too much to handle. So all non essential actions are postponed if possible. This enables them to handle the critical cases if they are coming in. But they only can do this, because they have a clear measurement against which they can evaluate any action.

This is also covered in the Guide for product managers to say no.

There are two types of decisions

Decisions are almost always hard decisions. But there is one big difference:

Should we be over cautious and bring the entire country to a stand still or should we risk the death of millions? There is only one answer to this question!

So what’s the difference between the two options?
One is reversible and one is not.

This also applies to your product decisions. This question should be the indicator if you could run experiments or not.

Of course death is the top non-reversible option, there it’s easy. But let’s look at one other segment: creating a vaccine. Here it’s way more complicated. Should a vaccine skip tests now to be available earlier?

Of course every decision taken will be a hard one for one or more people. Be it a segment of your customer base who would really need a particular feature you said no to or entire industries that are now in a down-roll spiral due to the restrictions.

Listen to experts

One more similarity is observable within this crisis. That the topic debt!

If you are a product manager working with a development team you might have heard the request “We have to reduce technical debt now”.

It’s always a trade-off, but if you have experts you should listen to them. In this crisis it shows which country ignored their debt in the health care sector.

It’s totally human, that we are never happy and will still complain on the highest level, I’m looking at all of our “first world problems”. But if your experts keep complaining about a situation over weeks, months and years you should pay attention to them!

Any form of debt is not bad on its own, but there will be the time when you have to pay it back. That’s the moment it counts.

Stakeholder management

It’s not only important to listen to your experts, but is especially important to have a strong stakeholder management in place.

That’s particularly hard at that scale. Each and every decision has so many side-effects and will affect new groups of people you could not think of at the beginning.

Therefore it’s important to do a stakeholder analysis regularly and also before bigger initiatives. There might be people or groups which might be a great ally for your plans or people who might actively try to sabotage your efforts.

Find more about how to do a Stakeholder analysis here in this detailed article.

It’s all about communication

One thing that’s obvious again is that most of the problems we have are caused by poor communication. Communication is hard and needs repetition.

Quote by Jeff Weiner, CEO Linkedin: "When you are tired of saying it, people are starting to hear it"

Only this way you can battle fake news, if they are attentional or just part of a game of telephone. Repetition and clear communication is the best way to reduce uncertainty.

So keep on iterating on your vision, strategy, roadmap, decisions you are taking and progress against your KPI. To find solutions for hard problems we need great teams and collaboration. A shared understanding is the foundation for all these efforts.

We’ll get through this and due to this crisis we’ll get out stronger than before, even if it takes time. I hope you as a product manager or as a human can take something away from this and use it to become better in the future.

I would love to talk about this, so if you want some digital socializing in these times, schedule a virtual coffee with me.