How a product manager might approach addressing COVID-19

I’ve been feeling completely helpless in the fight against the spread of COVID-19. I’m certainly trying to do my part. I am social distancing by hunkering down in my house with no in person contact (besides immediate family). Even when I drop stuff off at my parents house, I leave it at the front door and wave to them through the window. Yet, I want to do more.

I have been observing the various actions others are taking, from the government press conferences, to posts on Facebook from friends who are figuring out creative strategies to entertain kids at home. But there are many people who aren’t taking this seriously. I’ve noticed that people are comprehending the severity of the situation at different rates. Those who, last Wednesday, said it’s okay to gather for a group dinner, changed their tune by last Friday and are cancelling all plans.

It got me thinking…why is the path to our collective resolution not a more coordinated and clearly communicated effort. Further, I started thinking about what I would do if I were in charge. And, it led me to realizing that a product manager is often faced with miniature forms of crisis resolution. I called one of the best product managers I know, Corey van der Wal, who has worked in healthcare for years. He and I started breaking down COVID-19 from the perspective of a product manager solving a problem. Like Corey and I have done many times before when we worked together, we began developing an OGSM (Objectives, Goals, Strategies, and Measures). Since there isn’t much time to be stifled by measurement, we amended this model and changed Measures to Initiatives, as ultimately we need action. So, we came up with this: https://tinyurl.com/rf2ur4l

This summary focuses on the following:

1. Clear communication: what I find missing from the current communication on the action plan for COVID-19 is clear communication as to what’s taking place. Irrespective of your political views, the Rose Garden press conference from our U.S. leaders on 3/13 outlined some good actions. Ranging from engaging with large scale retailers for drive thru testing to accelerating FDA approval for drug and medical device approvals. The problem is that these are singular threads that most people can’t connect towards the larger strategy. In the model above, you’ll see how each Initiative maps toward the larger goal.

2. Breaking things down into smaller parts: the engineering mindset is one to take a problem statement and break it into smaller parts. COVID-19 needs the exact same approach. Since there are different stages of the resolution to the problem, we opted to break the problem down into five buckets (Goals).

  • “Identify” is essentially the term we’ve all become familiar with, which is “testing of patients for the virus”.
  • “Contain” is the attempt to reduce the spread of the virus by those who test positive.
  • “Mitigate” is the set of actions needed to prevent or reduce the number of new cases being sent into the healthcare system, or the phrase we’ve become familiar with, “flatten the curve.”
  • “Treat” is the investment area needed to adequately attend to all those who have the virus and bring them to a successful conclusion, and plan for more who need treatment.
  • “Stabilize” is the area where we have to calm the public to prevent irrational behavior.

3. Singular ownership for each segment: from my experience in crisis situations (admittedly tiny situations compared to this) it’s necessary to have a singular owner for each of the five buckets. We would meet every four hours for 15 minutes day and night and on weekends to ensure that an action in one bucket is not causing an unplanned disruption in another bucket. An example: I am seeing friends on Facebook posting about how hunkering down will hurt small businesses, which has them jumping to the conclusion that we should go out and visit small businesses. While small businesses are likely to suffer through this, if the government ensured a financial stimulus for small businesses, then people could be more inclined to stay home.

4. Team alignment: by creating singular owners, a clearly summarized plan, and top level goals which map to specific actions, one can create team alignment. This has unintended benefits. For example, if the entire team knows the full plan, they can cease with questions about areas outside of their own because they know the full plan. This causes people to focus on their part of the solution, versus questioning other parts of the solution.

5. Instill confidence: ultimately, the missing link in the current approach to addressing COVID-19 is that there is no leadership which is instilling confidence in the entire plan. It is causing states, counties, mayors, governors, etc. to undertake their own set of actions in a fragmented way.

In summary, my belief is that a leader needs to create a clear strategy, communicate it widely to instill confidence, trust their team to execute, and verify that the strategy is working through data. What Corey and I put together is intended to provide, whoever is in a leadership role, a framework for helping us get on the right track towards a position resolution.

(The opinions expressed in this article are those of mine and they do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of my employer or past employers)