Product Planning in a Post-COVID-19 World: The Product Strategy Survival Toolkit

Editor’s note: The following is a guest post. If you’re interested in writing a piece for us, contact gaby@productschool.com

As the coronavirus crisis spread across the globe in early 2020, one thing quickly became clear: no business is immune.

Whether online or off, the economic repercussions simply can’t be ignored, and the raft of changes to the way we work have really only just begun.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t get ahead of the curve.

If you’re in product design, product management, or tech in general, you’ve already got an advantage in that much of your work already happens in the digital realm. That’s not to say it’ll be easy, and you’ll certainly need a few pointers along the way — which is exactly why we created this product strategy survival toolkit.  

Ready to tool up for the post-COVID world?

Let’s get to work.

Covid-19

COVID-19: The impact on tech and product teams so far

It makes sense to begin with a quick summary of how the crisis has already changed the way we work in product management — and how it may change it in the future.

The most immediate change in the tech space must be the move to remote working

There’s a good chance that at least some of your workforce already did much of their work from home, so the impact of this shift for tech businesses should be less disruptive than others.

You might also be interested in: Is It Possible to Work Remotely as a Product Manager?

But the key is to understand that social distancing may last, in part, a long time — so it’s vital for your remote work set-up to be sustainable almost indefinitely. None of us have a crystal ball, of course, but there’s no way to tell whether or not the coronavirus will return later this year. Assuming that remote work will still be around for the foreseeable will serve you well.

The next big impact is something most, if not all, businesses can relate to right now: loss of revenue

To survive, and thrive, throughout the crisis, your business will need to find a way to become essential. Put simply: how can you make your business a product or service your customers can’t afford to cut? It’s here that product managers will really need to step up their game.

Workhard anywhere laptop

We’ll go into more detail about exactly how you can achieve this shortly. But as a top line:

  • Revisit your product roadmap. COVID-19 has caused a paradigm shift in the way we work, so it only makes sense that your roadmap should change too. It’s a very smart idea to revisit your backlog, decide which features will really help you compete, prioritize them, and set aside the rest.
  • Ask how much value you’re adding for customers. When it comes to cutting costs, your customers will be looking at which of their expenses are delivering value to the bottom line, and which are just “nice to haves”. Being nice is great, but, in a post-COVID world, it could mean losing that contract. Instead, focus purely on delivering value and making your product or service indispensable.
  • Learn how to do more with less. Your product team might not like it, but the stark reality of the situation is that hiring may be impacted for a while — so you’ll all need to pull together. But this can be an opportunity, too, because you’ll be forced to prioritize in ways you never knew you could — and even build a better product as a result.

That leads us on to the next significant work practice COVID-19 has stalled or made more complicated: group decision-making

After all, how can you realistically make smart team choices when you can’t even be in the same room? There are going to be some tough conversations over the next few months — prioritizing, hiring, firing, cutting costs etc. But with the right tools and strategies, overcoming these hurdles may just be easier than you think — but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

We’ll revisit this shortly, but for now, let’s take a step back and look at more ways you can protect your revenue through rapid adaptation.

Group decision making

Pivoting and prioritizing to protect revenue

There’s a concept at the heart of product management which is entirely fitting right now: agility. It’s a quality which will help you meet something else that’s changing rapidly: customer needs.

Your customers face tough decisions right now: which services to keep, and which to cut. So, how can you make sure your product falls into the right camp? It’s here that prioritizing — and potentially even pivoting — can make a huge difference, and quite literally save your business.

Big talk, we know, so let’s justify that a bit. In fact, let’s do one better, and break it down into simple actionable steps:

Step 1: Stop and listen to what your customers are telling you

Everything you do as a business is based on historical data: what your customers have done in the past, how they’ve reacted to product changes, usage analytics, and so on. But, now that COVID-19 has changed the face of business, it might be time to throw all that away. That might sound extreme, but it’s important to understand that what worked in September 2019 may be completely useless in June 2020. It really is a totally different world.

The solution? Listen to your customers.

We don’t mean specifically interviewing them or chatting on the phone — though that can help. But looking at their behavior. Are they interacting with your product more or less? Which features have seen more or less usage, and therefore seem more valuable in this moment?

It’s also worthwhile to look at your target customer persona and ask if it’s changed. Where once a product lead would make buying decisions, don’t be surprised if everything is now going through the CFO. Will this change the way you position your product?

All of these questions, combined with real-world usage data, will give you a solid understanding of what your customers really want today, and that might help you devise a plan for moving forward.

Step 2: Decide whether or not it’s time to consider a pivot

Make no mistake: pivoting your business is a big decision.

It can require a change in personnel, tooling, and a total upending of your product roadmap. But it may also be the only way you can weather the storm.

For those less familiar with the terminology, a pivot occurs when a business decides to entirely change its product offering (often drastically). Recent examples include breweries who have pivoted to producing hand sanitizer and fashion brands crafting personal protective equipment. But pivots happen in the tech space, too — with examples including Flickr (which used to be a video game) and YouTube (which began as a dating site — yes, really!).

As a digital product, it’s somewhat easier to pivot your model should the need arise, but it’s still a significant change. Then again, if you’re really suffering as a result of the global crisis, it might be your golden ticket to protecting the bottom line.

Product manager working

If you do decide that pivoting is your only option, you’ll need to prioritize development resources — and fast.

You might also be interested in: Coming Back from the Brink – 5 Stories of Product Failure and Success

Step 3: Take what you’ve learned and prioritize (the right way)

So, you’ve made a decision and it’s time to make some changes. Where do you begin?

It’s here that being able to prioritize in the right way will be an absolute lifesaver. Luckily, it too can be broken down into several easy steps:

1. Make a list of all outstanding tasks or features

2. Decide which of them are the most urgent

3. Assign a numeric value to each task based on urgency, so you know where to start

4. Organize any remaining tasks by time and effort required

Of course, no matter how good you are at the theory of prioritization, it can all fall down without the right practical foundations in place. 

That’s where a tool like airfocus really starts to shine — giving you the ability to prioritize, collaborate, and make team decisions (no matter where you are in the world). Even better, you can try it today for 6 months totally free.

Product Manager coding

Making team decisions remotely — 3 ways to make it work

Decision-making is one of the biggest changes any product team will face as we all move forward into uncertain times.

In the pre-COVID world, making a decision as a group was as simple as rounding up the stakeholders, throwing a roadmap on the screen, and talking it out.

In the ‘new normal’? It won’t be so straightforward. But that doesn’t mean it needs to be more difficult — it just needs facilitating in a different way. We know that sounds nebulous, so let’s get specific.

Here are 4 strategies you can employ today to make group decisions a lot easier as a remote team.

1. Give your team a single source-of-truth

When everyone’s in different physical locations, it’s impossible to sit together and pore over a whiteboard or notebook — so what’s the next best thing?

Having a single space where you can all collaborate, track progress, and prioritize is actually a smart choice whether you’re remote or not. The reason is simple: it gives you all accountability, and means that all aspects of a project are managed concurrently (rather than being scattered across platforms and devices).

Something as simple as a spreadsheet can be enough to serve as your source-of-truth, but a fully fledged prioritization platform like airfocus can be even better.

2. Understand how group decision-making is different when remote

Before you all jump in and try to make decisions on a video call, it’s essential to understand how the process differs to its in-person counterpart. From clashing time zones to people talking over one another, there’s a lot that can go wrong.

Remote working world

So, here’s how to do it the smarter way:

  1. Decide when (and how) you’ll meet. Picking a time in advance that suits all time zones will prevent anyone missing the call or feeling left out. Likewise, picking one platform for your meeting will prevent anyone scrambling at the last minute.
  2. Establish a process for analyzing each option. When you’re making decisions together, you’ll naturally want to assess all options first. But if everyone in the team wants the final say, it can get messy. Before you begin, assign roles so that you all know where you stand. We really like the DACI decision-making framework — this makes it clear from the outset who will make the final decision, and why.
  3. Ensure you have sign-off from everyone. A group decision isn’t really a group decision unless all relevant stakeholders give it the green light — you may not all agree entirely, but everyone in the team needs to be satisfied with the next steps. To ensure accountability going forward, it’s a very good idea to document each person’s decision individually in case of questions down the line.

3. Leverage the best decision-making tools for the job

It’s easy to talk about documenting your decisions, but how does a group actually make them? Luckily, there are plenty of techniques and tools available to help you do just that.

Team making decisions

Here are some of our favorites:

  • Brainstorming is an age-old method for making decisions. It allows everyone to pitch in their ideas, no matter how wild they are, and be heard. You can even leverage modern tools like the Miro whiteboard platform to help you do this.
  • Putting it to a vote is still one of the best ways to make a group decision. It’s fair, it’s fast, and everyone feels like they have a voice.
  • The RAPID Decision-Making Model is a good way to get decisions made (surprise!) rapidly. The acronym: Recommend, Agree, Perform, Input, Decide refers to the roles each person will take in the decision-making process.
  • airfocus Priority Poker is for those who are sick of the tired and (let’s face it) boring ways of making decisions. Priority Poker challenges group members to place a value on their tasks anonymously, so you get the true view of how the team feels.

Of course, beyond all of these specific strategies, there’s some small stuff you can do to make the process easier, too. Investing in reliable tech, for example, or limiting meetings to 90 minutes — it all helps a team make better decisions.

You might also be interested in: A Curated List of Tools and Software for Product Managers in 2020

The secret to managing a newly-remote workforce — now and in the long-term

Before we wrap things up, let’s consider one aspect of the new normal which may be a little more slippery: managing a remote team.

It might seem simple. A couple of video calls, a prioritized roadmap to share, and boom! Productivity! Right?

Not quite.

Here are a few things that every team manager or product owner should consider when heading up a team of newly-remote employees.

Be clear about your team’s working hours

When your home is now your office, lines and boundaries can get blurred real quick.

Some people are better with this than others, but in any case, it’s important to share everyone’s preferred working hours so that folks aren’t being bothered when they’re trying to eat their dinner or get their kids to bed.

Nurture team spirit (even when you’re apart)

Modern technology is an amazing thing, but feelings of isolation can still sneak in. If possible, it’s a great idea to set up a few virtual meetings which aren’t purely about work — because social time matters, too. Likewise, if an employee needs a regular 1-on-1 to stay focused, make it happen.

Remote working

You might also be interested in: Communication Secrets for Product Leaders

When your team first transitions to fully-remote, trust is everything. As a manager, you’ll want to know that the essential work is being done on time — but you don’t want to constantly pester and chase it up (remember, people will need to work more to their own schedules, if they’re looking after family, caring for a relative, volunteering for the community, etc.)

Communicate, communicate, communicate — that’s the key to a happy, motivated workforce (remote or not!).

Keep an eye out for signs of burnout and disengagement

Again, when the lines between home and office are non-existent, it’s easy to become lost in your work. Keep an eye out for signs of stress or burnout in your team — missed deadlines, low energy, being late to meetings, and so on. Engage with them discreetly and suggest ways to keep things compartmentalized — it’ll help the whole team.

Similarly, it can be hard to keep a hold of the bigger picture when working from home on your own. Remind your teams of the collective goal, and how their individual input amounts up to a lot of value for your customers. That’ll give employees a much-needed morale boost, when times get rough.

Make sure you have the right tools for the job

Your workforce could have all the energy in the world, but without the right office tools, you’ll struggle to make progress. The very same logic goes for remote working, too — and may be even more important when you’re all apart.

With that in mind, here are a few of our recommendations for stellar remote working tools:

  • The Miro whiteboarding platform is ideal for brainstorming ideas in a truly collaborative way — no matter where they are.
  • airfocus helps you build, define, and iterate upon your prioritization roadmap. When your team is reliant on your company’s north star, a tool like this is essential for staying the course (in a profitable way).
  • Jira is one of the world’s most popular task management tools for a reason — it just works. Combine a scalable execution tool like this with the adaptability of your airfocus-powered roadmap and you’ve got the recipe for remote success.

The new normal is almost here. Are you ready?

We hope this toolkit has given you the tools — and the confidence — you need to drive your business forward during this turbulent time.

While we can’t promise that adapting to the new normal will be easy or painless, one thing’s for sure: with the right tools, processes, and decision-making models in your arsenal, you’ll be able to adapt quickly, attract top talent, nurture your team, and build your business in the post-COVID world.

Even better, by adapting flexibly — and helping your customers do the same — you can retain your market share, boost your bottom line, and become the master of your new normal.

Meet the Author

Malte Scholz is Head of Product and co-founder of airfocus.com, a prioritization and roadmapping software for product management teams. He’s obsessed with reducing waste (time, energy and money) and helping people solve problems.

coporate training pm

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