What 2020 Has Taught The Product World

2020 has been an absolute ride, and along the way it has taught the Product Management community a whole bunch of lessons!

It’s in the nature of Product Managers to be adaptable, and to learn from big change and adversity. Pivots happen, crisis happens, and the market changes, and launches flop. But let’s face it, none of us were prepared for something like 2020!

Every year, we like to look back at what we’ve achieved in a year, like our Year in Review. We also celebrate the top products of the year, and run down our best product talks of the year.

But 2020 deserves something else as well. The unique lessons this year has taught us deserves some recognition. And as everyone knows, the end of Q4 is the perfect time to reflect, to help us shape our hopes and expectations for the coming year.

So let’s take a look at some of the biggest lessons that 2020 has taught the product world.

Woman working in mask

We learned how to work remotely

Let’s start with the most tangible change that 2020 brought to the vast majority of us, at least work-wise.

Whether or not Product Management can be done remotely, and done well, has always been a debate for as long as both remote work and Product Management have been around! PMs work in a very people-centric role, with days full of meetings.

Some things are still easier in person, it’s true. But online collaboration tools like Miro and Figma were already taking off. Once necessity pushed us back to our home offices/bedrooms/kitchen tables, these platforms went from strength to strength.

While these platforms were certainly a huge help, it was a change in attitude on an individual level that helped to facilitate the shift from bums-in-seats work to remote-first. Leadership teams across the world found that their employees were happier, more productive, and more comfortable working remotely.

Many companies in the tech industry decided to make this change permanent – including us here at Product School!

We learned how to connect while apart

The hardest part of switching to remote is missing out on the in-person connection with our coworkers. Chatting to the person at the desk next to yours, having coffee breaks with your ‘work wife/husband’, and having lunch with people on a different team to yours.

These are the little moments that bring joy to our day to day work, and help us to feel more connected to our coworkers.

Without these moments happening organically, teams across the world have had to find new ways to connect to one another on a human level.

At Product School, we’ve been using Donut, a Slack plug-in which randomly connects two people ‘serendipitously.’ This helps colleagues who work in different teams (and sometimes different timezones!) to meet one another. Sometimes these connections are with people in our team, and it’s a nice excuse to catch up. But more often than not, it’s someone who we would otherwise not have the opportunity to connect with.

Other companies have also taken it upon themselves to make a real effort to connect their employees, and give them space to talk about things other than work. Virtual Christmas parties are happening over Zoom, and some teams organize special virtual events just for the fun of it.

The product world has seen it all by now! Virtual cooking classes, yoga sessions, caricature drawing, karaoke, dance parties, movie nights…it can all be done online!

We learned how to care about each other

baby with cat

But more than that, across the board product people are starting to really take stock of what matters. Already an empathetic bunch, Product Managers are becoming a pillar of support for their teams. Whether a colleague has a difficult family situation, or got stock in a country that wasn’t their home as borders closed across the world, PMs learned how to deal with their teams on a more human level.

In the old days, mental health was a taboo subject, and you were supposed to check your personal issues at the door and just do your job.

To a certain extent, that’s true today. You can’t snap at the intern just because you’re in a bad mood! But we’ve learned that not everything is so black and white.

This year has been mentally difficult for huge swathes of people. And as people leaders, Product Managers are finding ways to support the mental health of their teams. The importance of having a safe space at work, and feeling empowered to say “I’m struggling to keep up and need some help this week” is a much bigger advantage to employees than it was in 2019.

There remains a fine line for Product Managers to tread, between friend and ‘boss’. You have to be able to influence without authority, but you also have to be able to say ‘no’. Luckily, great Product Managers have the intuition and empathy to find the balance needed to get the job done and be a supportive leader in hard times.

We learned how to be adaptable

‘Unprecedented’ is perhaps the most typed word of 2020. Luckily, it’s a word that Product Managers were already familiar with!

You never know in product when a new piece of data or a surprising survey result will upend everything you’ve been working on. Luckily, we have agile Product Management practices to keep us…well…agile! Companies who were still stuck in the old way of doing things learned the value of being able to make quick iterations and last-minute changes to plans and campaigns. In the sink-or-swim waters of 2020, it became more important than ever to be able to change direction.

But that’s the high-level stuff that sometimes Product Managers don’t have control over. What we do have control over is how adaptable we are as professionals. And we’ve seen that trait grow within our community tenfold in a variety of ways.

Aspiring and new Product Managers found that the roles they were applying to may not necessarily be the roles they were expecting. Now is a time not to say ‘that’s not my job‘ but to say ‘right, what do we need?‘ When a company needs to be adaptable, they need reliable professionals who are willing to roll up their sleeves and dive in.

In times like these, the product world needs PMs who have an open mind, and that also goes for how we’re listening to our users. Customer habits are changing, which means that the visions we have for our products may not quite fit the new reality.

To thrive in 2021, Product Managers will need to listen closely to what their users are saying. If they’re asking for a new feature, as them why they want it. Get to the root of the problem, and find the best way to solve it.

We learned that the mission matters

footprint on the moon

When we ask the product leaders who join us for AMAs and special events, “what’s the biggest lesson 2020 has taught you”, many of them told us that it gave them the opportunity to reflect and thing about their mission in life.

Product Managers are, by nature, mission driven. After all, the goal of a Product Manager is to find a problem, and work on how best to solve it, delivering a solution that ticks as many boxes as possible.

But outside of what employers tell people they should care about, the people in our community became more driven than ever to make a difference to the world in the ways that they cared about the most.

We knew from last year’s Future of Product Management report, that Product Managers were driven and principled, with big dreams and plans to tackle the world’s toughest problems.

That’s a trend that we expect to grow in 2021, which more people feeling like they want their life’s work to matter and to make a bigger and more positive impact.

We learned how to keep learning

Online education saw an enormous boom in 2020, for a number of big reasons.

First, working from home and sometimes even being trapped in a full lockdown gave people more free time that they’d had before. We know from experience that time is one of the biggest hurdles when it comes to pursuing education alongside a full time job. (That’s why we tailor our certifications to work around a day full of work!) To occupy this newly found spare time, people dedicated some of it to learning new skills and bettering themselves.

There are also those who were unfortunately affected by company downsizing and even closure. Many jobs were lost in 2020, which means that our community grew to include those who decided to seize the moment and make the transition to Product Management.

As we’ve already mentioned, 2020 has been a year to stop and reflect on our goals in life and what we really want. Even those who kept their jobs decided to carpe diem and go for their dream job in product. We provided a bunch of free resources to help ease this transition and make the industry as accessible as possible, and we found that this was one of our most popular initiatives of 2020

Interested in checking out all of our resources? Check out our Learn From Home hub.

What 2020 Taught Team Product School

At the end of the year, we also like to personally reflect on the things we’ve learned. We asked the team what challenges they faced in 2020, and how they overcame them.

Anthony Fritz, Senior Director of Admissions

“Managing “screen time” has been the most challenging part of 2020. Pulling myself away from politically charged topics and trying not to worry so much about lockdown has been exhausting, but it is so rewarding to just go outside with my dog and pretend that everything’s normal for a little.”

Shewit Doherty, Senior Operations Manager

“I think we can all agree this year challenged everyone’s WFH strategies.  I found that acknowledging each challenge of 2020 head-on with colleagues, peers and clients helped me strengthen my professional relationships, find solidarity with my peers and was a gentle reminder that this year has been challenging and impactful for everyone. 2020 showed me common ground and resilience.”

Nikki Ndukwe

“As someone who prides themselves on adaptability, 2020 was definitely a challenge to that both personally and globally. Going from daily collaborative in person work to virtual-first proved the resilience and agility in everyone. I am proud of the tough lessons that 2020 brought, and excited to see how I can implement these lessons as we carry on.”

Best Product Talks 2020

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