Luxury to necessity – the future of Product Management

Adrienne Tan

I’m using this time to reflect on the practice of Product Management and how it may change when we emerge out of this unprecedented global turmoil.

Over the years, Product Management has become pivotal to the growth of many businesses. All the successful tech companies have well-established Product teams. We’ve all read about Amazon’s, Google’s, and Basecamp’s great Product teams – which act as independent entities within the larger organisation. Companies from other industries see how these businesses are performing and want to replicate their success. This, as well as a proliferation of technology products in the last 10 years, have been the main drivers of the growth of the Product profession.

So what will happen after COVID-19?

Will Product Management disappear?

Product Management won’t disappear.

I suspect it will become more pivotal to a business’ success.

Marty Cagan summed it up succinctly when we spoke about this very topic recently.

He said:

“What we do moves from a luxury to a necessity …Businesses will have to pay more attention to product. They can’t just throw money around like when things are great.” 

Supercharge your practices

Daily practices, however, will have to significantly improve if Product Management is to outwit a possible global depression. We have to be sharper and move faster than we do today. The synchronicity of activities between team members and across different product teams becomes vital. It ensures we’re efficiently discovering, designing and delivering Products to our customers. The artificial divide between various roles has to cease. We need to treat each other more humanely and know that we’re driving towards a common goal.

Ignore supply chains at your peril

Product teams cannot remain as feature factories and only attend to the minutia of incremental, sometimes non-value producing, product changes. Instead, we need to thoroughly understand our ecosystem and have more visibility of our suppliers and our supply chains. As we’ve seen recently, when one part of our supply chain crumbles, it has a domino effect on our Product, our business and our customers. We’ve never really had to consider or address our supply chains before, but if want our products to withstand disruptions, as Product folks we should be educated, and contribute to these discussions and decisions.

Recruit better, faster

If we need to be better at Product Management, we also need to get better at quickly identifying and securing top talent. Product Leaders will have to engage with the broader Product community to entice folks to join their teams – and so they also need to be clear on why people should join their teams. What makes you a great Product Leader and what makes your company a desirable place to work?

More companies need to establish internal programs that teach and offer people a path to become Product Managers like the ones at Atlassian, Google, Linkedin, Uber et al. Don’t fall into the trap of searching for a Product unicorn. There is no such thing. Expand your search criteria and look for people who are driven to understand customers and the market, and who relish working with others to bring something tangible and profitable to the market.

Compete differently

When we emerge, no doubt, the market will have shifted. Many companies may not be around. Some companies will have thrived, others will have emerged.

Marty said that

the best product companies are borne out of recessions; think of Uber, Slack and Stripe.”

This means that if your company survives the pandemic, your marketplace may have different competitors and so you need to be prepared to compete differently. Your tooling and processes must be suited to competing with companies borne out of such turmoil. Approach your internal machinery (processes etc) as a competitive advantage, not shackles that stop you from competing. Companies with the tenacity, foresight and strength to emerge out of such confusion will be lean, mean and keen and we all need to find ways to keep up.

According to a recent article by the Economist:

“Ingenuity, not just financial muscle, will become a source of advantage, allowing cleverer firms to operate closer to full speed”

Be ever ready

Be ready for anything. Especially new, unexpected opportunities. Opportunities that you may never have considered will present themselves. This means having leadership and a culture that is purpose fit for changing conditions. Leadership that is capable of communicating clearly and succinctly and teams who are open to receiving and reacting to the communications easily are ones that will thrive post-COVID.

Customers reign supreme

More importantly, people – the people who buy and use our products and services – will have changed after this experience. If their economic security takes a beating, my guess is that they will be more cautious. They’ll meet their basic needs of food and shelter before any luxuries. They’ll spend their money more wisely.

According to Bernard Salt,

“The Australia we re-emerge into will be different–more cautious, more hygienic, more inclined to Buy Australian, living in homes with bigger fridges and freezers, where the home office has morphed into a home broadcast studio, in a world that has readjusted social stratification lifting essential workers and relegating the celebrity and the influencer.“

You can see evidence of this change in consumer spending now. We’ve flocked to necessities. Food, health care, fitness, and tools to help us connect and do our work from home are where we’re spending our money now.

During the lockdown period, customer habits also change. Many will become accustomed to businesses servicing their needs digitally. And, after the lockdown, customers will continue to expect high-quality digital services. Those who are unable to fulfil these demands, will not be capable of competing effectively.

Drive for customer attention

In any case, Product folks have to work harder to get the customers’ attention. Where previously we may have relied on ‘hope’ as a strategy for success – hope that our product is the right product for the right market and hope we make the right margin to keep the business afloat – hope will not work. This time, we need to truly invest in understanding customer problems quickly. We need to ensure that our Product solves the customer’s problem so well so that it becomes a necessity, positioned alongside the basics.

What can Product Managers do now to prepare?

So if that’s what Product Management might look like when this is all over, what can you do right now to get yourself and your business ready for the new future?

The learning leap for many Product folks has already been immense. We are learning to communicate and work away from our teams, we are figuring out whether to continue with our current tasks and learning how to use tools that we’re unfamiliar with.

But after this initial learning leap, what next?

For Product Managers:

Be strategic

Remember the tasks that you never seem to find time to do? They’re mainly strategic activities. Now’s the time to do them. Now’s the time to really understand how your Product really stacks up in the market. Not at a superficial level, but at a deep level to the point where you know how your competitor’s supplier is performing. Now’s the time to speak to your customers. Everyone is open to a chat. Understand how your Product is or isn’t supporting their needs. Understand how and where your Product is used. Now’s the time to grab and analyse available Product data. Play around with the numbers in a spreadsheet. Ask yourself why you’re getting these results.

Think of this type of work as panning for gold. You might reveal an opportunity which positions you well ahead of other Product folks when we all emerge.

Lift your learning

There’s so much to learn and the availability of information and knowledge is vast. So, reflect, be honest, figure out your weak points, invest in yourself and go back to school to address your gaps. Don’t waste your precious time now. Be ready for when the world opens its doors again.

For Product Leaders:

Be decisive and clear (Be like Jacinda)

In times of turmoil, teams need comfort and more importantly, direction. Now is the time to understand the situation you’re faced with, evaluate various options and make decisions quickly. Your situation may be a cut to sales and revenue – if so you’ll need to evaluate your team’s work commitments, prioritise their efforts based on indicative delivery of value and decide next steps. Whatever your situation is, your directives must be clear, succinct and repeatedly communicated.

Don’t abandon good product thinking

It is easy to fall back on gut instinct and shed product activities and tasks that you think may take too long during this time. Tasks such as research and analysis, following good process, may feel superfluous but I think they’re more important than ever. Now is the time to do the Product tasks that enable your team, your company to compete effectively; now and in the future.

In the future, all companies – big, small, old and new – need to transform from what Marty calls delivery and feature teams to empowered product teams. In the future, in the world which will slowly emerge from the coronacrisis, we will all have less opportunity to make mistakes. This is because when we emerge, unless you’re in one of those lucky unaffected (or even rarer booming) industries we simply won’t have the financial capacity to make mistakes.

Feel free to drop me a note at info@brainmates.com.au if you’d like to chat about your product and your product practices.

Adrienne Tan

Adrienne Tan | Author

Adrienne is a Product geek who is well-known for her green hair, forthright opinions and formidable Product expertise. She has been championing Product Management since 2000, earning international recognition for raising the profile of the Product Management profession within the Asia Pacific. She regularly speaks at business and Product events in Australia and around the world.

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