Welcome to your new normal.
It goes without saying, but these are unprecedented times. Welcome to your biggest challenge and your biggest opportunity as a Product Manager.
You thought your job was challenging before?
You ain’t seen nothing yet.
The last few weeks have likely been extremely trying for both you and your organization. Here are a few things you can do (hopefully you’ve done several already) to best help your company survive not only this crisis but also future ones.
And there’s always the next one…
Common Types of Crises
First, let’s define a few different types of crises your company or startup may face.
Please Note: Certain recommendations for a “wartime” Product Manager may be more appropriate for particular types of crises and less appropriate for others.
Additionally, each crisis has its own nuance that you need to try to sort through and understand as quickly as possible.
Macroeconomic (Economy, Pandemic)
These are BIG crises with widespread impact.
In fact, the impact is often so widespread that it may initially be difficult to comprehend the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd order impacts (as it is today with the Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic).
These crises are also long-lived; think in terms of quarters and years, not weeks and months.
Funding Specific (Short Runway, Funding Failures)
If you work for or have founded a startup, you’re probably familiar with that “treadmill” feeling between fundraising cycles.
A common crisis that startups often face is running low on cash (short runway) or failing to raise enough money (or any money) in a round of funding.
People-Specific (Founder Departures, Layoffs)
People-specific crises may sound less severe than the prior two crisis types, but they can be majorly damaging.
When a startup loses a founder or two, it can quickly lose its culture and its vision. Additionally, layoffs can be culture killers if not done with compassion and sound explanation.
Regardless of your Product Management talent, you’ll also experience crises that are specific to your product.
These can include critical bugs that lead to high churn rates, bad reviews, and botched/failed product launches.
While these may not immediately put the existence of your company at risk, if you have too many of these or have a really BIG one or two, you’ll feel it.
Enough background on a few of the more common crisis types, it’s wartime and you’re a Product Manager, what should (and shouldn’t) you be doing?
You’re Now a Wartime Product Manager
What does this mean?
This means you need to act differently than a “peacetime” Product Manager. While there are a few significant changes, many of the characteristics of a “wartime” Product Manager are simply those of a “peacetime” PM but amplified, accelerated, and compressed.
And did I mention you’ll have a lot less information to work with too?
Here are a few things you need to do when you find yourself in a crisis as a PM.
1. Critically Evaluate the Environment
Before you make any decisions, you need to critically and honestly evaluate the likely impact of this crisis on your business.
What are the short, mid, and long term impacts on your bookings/revenue?
What has changed about your ability to attract new customers?
What has changed about your ability to keep your current customers?
How has your product’s demand in the market changed?
Are there specific features that matter more or matter less?
Create “best case”, “likely case” and “worst case” scenarios for the financial and customer impacts and work with your product teams to determine likely impacts on your product and features.
Don’t hold back, you’re not doing yourself any favors by being too positive here.
2. Accelerate Decisions, Time is Your Enemy
Time is always the enemy of the Product Manager and the startup, but during a crisis, it’s even more critical that you accelerate all of your decisions.
Often, you’ll find in a crisis that there aren’t any good decisions, there are just least bad ones.
This will make you uncomfortable.
But the faster you make these decisions, the faster you can relieve at least some of the pressure on your company’s survival.
During a crisis, as we’ve seen even over the past few weeks, everything is fair game. For example, quickly evaluate all of the SaaS products you use for analytics, visualizations, testing, monitoring and determine what you can live without or do manually for a period of time.
How else can you as a PM help cut burn?
If you use outside design resources, congratulations, you’re now the designer! (P.S. Check out Figma while you’re at it)
If you use outside QE resources, guess what? You’re now the lead tester.
During a crisis, everyone (especially the PM) takes on more responsibilities to preserve the lifeblood of your startup: cash.
3. Simplify Your World
To counterbalance these increased responsibilities, you also need to simplify your world. Perhaps you came into the quarter with 7 company objectives. Reduce those with your leadership team to the 3 that matter most now.
Also, it’s likely that you may have to add a new objective or two that you couldn’t possibly have envisioned pre-crisis.
Did you have 5 goals for the Product/Engineering teams before? Now you have 2.
Did you have 5 small scrum teams working on different features? Combine them to focus on the products and goals that matter in the new crisis world.
How do you know what products and goals to focus on? Most often, the answer is the ones that will most likely continue to generate bookings/revenue (and ideally, profit) for your company in the short-term.
4. Double Down on Short Term Revenue/Profit Generators
What products are generating bookings/revenue and/or profit right now? Which ones aren’t?
During most crises, it makes sense to quickly lean into these products as they’ll provide more access to that lifeblood that all startups need: cash.
If you have any products that you’re developing that don’t have a path to bookings/revenue in less than 30 days, stop work on them.
After the crisis subsides, you’ll have time to work on these again, but continuing work just because of sunk cost isn’t a good decision for you as a wartime PM to make.
5. Retain, Retain, Retain! (Your Customers)
It’s critical that you retain as many of your current customers as possible during a crisis. Keep in mind, as is the case with the current Coronavirus/COVID-19 crisis, your customers are often impacted as well.
So what can you do?
Be flexible with your customers, find payment terms that keep customers from churning even if they pay you less in the short term.
Give customers access to the other features you offer for free if it can help them increase their chances of survival.
Level up your customer engagement with more check-ins and more support.
Do things that don’t scale.
In most crises, for most businesses, it will be very very difficult to attract new customers, so it’s critical that you keep the customers you have.
If your customers go out of business, you’re in deep trouble.
6. Identify Tangential Opportunities
Crises almost always reshape the world as we know it.
The dot-com boom and crash reshaped the internet and (at least for a while) taught us that high views and website traffic did not a profitable business make.
The financial crisis of 2008 and 2009 taught us that giving massive mortgages to people who couldn’t afford them and then packaging them together and selling them as hyper-complex, impossible to value, securities on Wall Street was not a good idea at all. It also taught us that home prices (unfortunately) aren’t an up-and-to-the-right graph forever.
Each crisis reshapes the world and the Coronavirus/COVID-19 crisis will likely reshape the world as much as the two World Wars did. The way we do business will change, the way we live will change, the things we value will change.
All of this change creates an opportunity for your business. If you can identify these opportunities quickly in the crisis, you can divert some resources to attacking the most critical problems of the “new normal” world.
For example, Uber’s ridesharing business has been decimated by the pandemic. Part of the strategy to survive the pandemic at Uber is to lean into Uber Eats, but that won’t be enough since they don’t make near as much money from this business line.
Uber needs to expand into tangential “new normal” green-shoot areas like grocery deliveries and package deliveries.
Uber wasn’t working in these areas before, but they are great “tangential” opportunities because Uber can use the same tech, the same resources (drivers) and, with a little bit of coding, these products can be live very quickly in one of the only rapidly growing areas of our Corona-economy.
Don’t Fall Into These Wartime Traps
1. Waiting for the Perfect “Signal”
Many people, even some otherwise great leaders, get paralyzed by crises. It’s instinctual to retreat, to hoard, to wait for some signal or authority to tell you it’s ok to emerge again.
Fight this instinct to wait: act quickly, act decisively, and continue to evaluate the rapidly changing landscape for feedback. There is never a perfect signal during “peacetime” and during “wartime” it’s far worse.
You’re navigating through a minefield in the fog. And, on top of that, your shoes are tied together and you’re trying to run.
(credit to Nancy Lublin for that analogy!)
2. Waiting for Things to Turn Around
Startup founders and Product people are almost always born optimists. That’s why they got into these careers or founded their companies in the first place.
However, during a crisis, you need to suppress this optimism.
To be honest, you often will have only a very faint idea of when the crisis could end and that timeline will shift every day.
You should be planning for a very long crisis period (on the order of quarters and years). If the crisis subsides before then, great, you can celebrate.
But you don’t want to be caught the other way around.
3. Sticking to the Prior Roadmap and Prior Teams
But we spent weeks planning the perfect quarter!
But we had all of the teams perfectly balanced to achieve our OKRs!
But there will be costs of context switching!
You may hear protests from your team or your engineers to stick to a prior roadmap or keep prior teams, despite the crisis. But, staying in the same place is almost always a very poor idea.
It’s like going into battle with a plan from the prior war.
The battlefield has changed, information has changed, timelines have changed, you need to be agile and you need to adapt to survive.
4. Avoiding All Risks
Similar to waiting for the perfect “signal” to emerge to make it clear what the path forward should be, you should also not try to avoid all risks during a crisis.
You may have the instinct to retreat to seemingly “safe” decisions, but the truth is: No decisions/paths are safe during a crisis.
As Reid Hoffman likes to say, the predicted outcome of all startups is death.
With that grim outcome in mind, trying to avoid all risks is actually a very risky and unlikely-to-succeed proposition for startups.
You need to act quickly during a crisis, take the smartest risks you can rapidly deduce, and prepare for the worst.
5. Thinking This Will Never Pass
On the flip-side of the overly optimistic PM or Founder, you also don’t want to be the depressed or despondent Product Manager during a crisis.
Lamenting about thecrisis or wishing things were different doesn’t help anyone and actually can be infectious in itself.
While you should plan for the worst case you can imagine and not expect things to turn around on any specific timeline you can control, you should also know and share with other team members that “this too shall pass.”
We don’t know when and we don’t know what will be on the other side, but we know we, as humans, will get through it.
And as always, during difficult moments in our lives, in our country’s history, and in our world, we will get through it together. We’re too strong not to.
How Have You Changed to Become a Wartime PM?
I’d love to hear what you’ve learned over the past few weeks and the decisions you’ve made to help your company survive this crisis. Please share with me on Twitter or in the comments.
We are in this together.