Managing Product in Uncertain Times — A Global Panel

One of the truly amazing things that has happened during this period of Covid-19 is how it has accelerated the number of online events. I’ve been involved in more online events in the last three months than almost any other time I can remember! Some have complained about virtual event fatigue, but I’ve been blown away but the quality of conversations that have been happening.

A week (and a bit) ago, one such event happened. Organised and moderated by Saeed Khan as part of the Product Leaders Meetup*, this was truly a global panel with representation from:

* Note from the organiser: If you’re a Product Leader (Director or higher) working in a Product role and would like to join a Global Slack Community specifically for people like you, fill out the info at this link — https://bit.ly/ProdLeadersSlack

Once again, I will be using a similar format to how I gave the summary of the online panel for Product Management from Silicon Valley to South East Asia, where instead of writing a transcript of all that was spoken, I’ll be writing it from what I personally felt impacted by with some sprinklings of my post event thoughts. Having said that, this event happened at 5am Malaysian time, so hopefully I got it all down correctly.

Introduction

Instead of starting with introductions and then jumping straight into discussion, Saeed started by having the attendees randomly split into groups of 3 with its own virtual meeting rooms (including panelists) so everyone can get to know each other. We did this twice back to back, and it was good because we all got to know new peers within the industry, which was great. It also allowed the caffeine to kick in for me, so it was all good indeed.

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Covid-19

The panel discussion started right into the thick of things, with Magnus being given centre stage as he hails from Sweden, one of the very few countries who has not implemented a lock-down during this pandemic. It was interesting to listen to Magnus’ account first hand as most of what I know have been from articles and hearsay. While he confirmed that schools (not universities or colleges) and eateries are still open with social distancing being observed, he felt that the real difference between Sweden and most other countries was that the government and its people mutually trusted each other; the onus of responsibility was on its citizens to abide by the plan drafted out by the leaders. Very interesting observation indeed.

What functions / activities should be stopped due to Covid-19

For Mani, stopping annual / multi year planning was top on this list, because both the existing and new customer bases are behaving differently during this pandemic. He also observed that focusing on core competencies such as what Airbnb did would be crucial. To provide better context, I’ve reproduced Brian Chesky’s message to Airbnb when they broke the news that they were laying off 25% of their workforce below:

This means that we will need to reduce our investment in activities that do not directly support the core of our host community. We are pausing our efforts in Transportation and Airbnb Studios, and we have to scale back our investments in Hotels and Lux — Brian Chesky, CEO Airbnb

Also as important is to continue to doing is to keep talking to customers. This would ensure that companies could win through retention.

The perspective I shared was from personal experience was that decision making will be highly influenced by how badly the company was affected financially, especially as to whether a company should pivot and do anything to survive, or double down on a product strategy. My caveat to the latter move is to be aware that customer behaviour may not be the same as the world enters into the new normal.

How things have changed

It was very heartening to know that in the midst of such uncertainty that product leaders continue to think about not just adapting the business, but also how be more human.

Janna related how her product introduced Covid grace programs for clients facing difficulties, and at the same time, trying to make things more comfortable for a new hire who was having to be onboarded virtually by suggesting they make coffee together. Her point about having empathy about how weird the whole situation is was both funny and accurate at the same time.

For Adrienne, honesty with the team to admit that they weren’t sure about what’s happening has helped the team to cope. There was also a lesson learnt where in the midst of almost incessant communication (which came from good intentions I must add), to dial it down and let the team manage themselves.

What the future looks like

On this point, I must say I loved Magnus’ story where he related how during the Pirate Bay court case proceedings, one of the founders remarked that they do not use the term IRL (In Real Life) because to them, meeting over the internet was still real life. Magnus homed in on the point that even if we’re meeting digitally, we are creating value, and that we should embrace this because we’re not very likely to go back to the old way of thinking.

For those interested, here’s the proceedings that I’ve taken from this article which covered court proceedings on day 5 way back in 2009:

Prosecutor: “When did you meet [Gottfrid] for the first time IRL?”

Judge: IRL?

Prosecutor: In Real Life.

Peter (Pirate Bay): We do not use the expression “IRL” No, everything is in real life. We use AFK — away from keyboard.”

Mani believes that we will see a shift from synchronous to asynchronous communication i.e. writing instead of speaking. As I reflect on this, I can’t help but agree. I do not believe that verbal communication will become inferior to the written form, but it would seem like today, there is almost an over emphasis on the verbal communication to such an extent that sometimes people have no time to think and put their thoughts into writing. So perhaps, that shift may help some of us to achieve that.

Dispelling myths about managing during Covid-19

Myth 1: The inability to plan for major unforeseen circumstances

Reality: We need to have worst case scenario planning. Also, many companies have taking being lean a bit too far such that they break because they are unable to absorb the hit.

Myth 2: We can’t predict the future

Reality: We can’t plan for every eventuality but we will need to make bets on what we believe is the future

Myth 3: We’re all in the same boat

Reality: We’re not all in the same boat, but we’re all in the same storm

The story behind the image and caption

And with that, we ended the session.

If you attended the event and have any input, please do feel free to link your insights and provide your comments in the response section.

Follow Product Un(censored) for more content relating to product and product management focusing on the South East Asian region.

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Colin Pal

Colin Pal

Writes about Product & Agile | Product Leader | Founder Product Un(censored) | Co-founder PM Huddle |