By DIANE SEXTON
Even though periods of decline are a normal part of the economic cycle, there is no denying the enormous pressure these periods place on our organisations. Yet, despite the forces working against us, there are still ways in which we can adapt and even disrupt during periods of economic downturn.
I recently was involved in a panel discussion on ‘Disrupting the Product: Strategies for Success’ hosted by DiUS, where we shared proactive strategies for disrupting the product that prioritised tech innovations, operational efficiencies and customer experiences.
I love sharing a bit of product management wisdom whenever I can – especially if I’ve had to learn it the hard way. This was a great discussion – that you can watch in full via the link above – but there were many follow-up questions that we just didn’t get time to answer on the day. By picking out some that I’ve been itching to share my thoughts on, hopefully I might be able to pre-emptively answer some of the questions that might come up the next time you’re looking to be a disrupter in product management, and have to cope with an unpredictable world.
In our current economic climate with fears around a tech recession, what are some of the strategies you’ve seen work well that have helped ‘recession-proof’ a product or organisation?
I believe the best strategy is to really go back to your roots.
What is the vision that you started with? Is it still true? Does it need to be revised?
From there, confirm your market fit. Are your target customers still the same? Do you need to refine your target market?
Once you have the confirmation you’re after, ensure you have a solid strategy to execute on that confirmed vision and target market.
It’s important to remember that things change over time. You’re deluded if you think that the strategy you had in flush years will still work in lean ones. Look out for the signals that tell you there is a problem. These might be external signals, but also pay attention for any internal signals as well. These can be sign posts to tell you if you are still tracking to your intended goals.
Disruption in the external environment leads to ‘Scaling down’. This has a generally negative connotation attached to it – especially when compared to ‘scaling up’. How can leaders focus on shifting mindsets and boosting the morale of the team on the ground?
Scaling down should always be done with a good reason, and a sense of humanity. First up you must honestly own your new strategy – the one that will take you through the lean times. Then, make selections for role redundancies based on how the role delivers or doesn’t, based on your new strategy. You can’t treat people like numbers. By being open about the strategy and the changed business model you show that you respect your people even, or especially, when you have to make hard decisions.
Also, be mindful that the team who are left will find themselves with a case of survivor guilt. This is unavoidable, so what you want to do is be honest that you are resetting your strategy to one that will manage through the tough period and keep the company alive till things change.
Be really open with your team about the fact that you are unable to operate the same way as before, and make sure you never say “do more with less”, or even “do less with less”. This kind of language doesn’t help anyone. Refer back to your vision and strategy, and remind your team about what has stayed the same before going through the things that have changed – and why you got there.
How do you measure the success of a disruptive product strategy, especially in its early stages?
One thing that you can easily track is whether or not you have gone from 0 to 1 with your (disruptive) value prop intact. Sticking with that same vision and value prop to go from 1 to 2 to 10 is a challenge, but if you can stick to your original vision and add more paying customers, that’s success.
Also don’t forget to look outside – if your competitors are talking the same talk as you, or if you start seeing imitators you definitely will know you are onto something.
When it comes to re-evaluating a pre-recession strategy, what time horizon we should be looking at? Next quarter, next year, or the next five years?
You should first check in on your vision. Are you still confident you’ve identified the market need? How about the benefits?
Is your target customer still the same? Are they still able to pay for your product? Can they pay for it now – and if not, then when?
Then if that’s still true, you should set up a couple of alternate strategies that will allow you to adapt as time goes one. Create an optimistic strategy, but also pessimistic and realistic versions as well. Give your organisation the chance to explore the upside if there is a slight uptick, but realistically you should be investing in your pessimistic strategy more consistently. Always look at all those time horizons! But the further out, the more pessimistic you should be.
Often the most innovative (disruptive) ideas come from outside the immediate teams within the business. How do you ensure you don’t miss out on fresh ideas?
I ask my stakeholders what have I missed, or what keeps them up at night. I ask the stakeholders of my stakeholders the same questions.
As well as talking to customers and reading the room, I always recommend keeping up with market publications or following influential folks in your domain.
Are digital twins, blockchain and other emerging technologies disrupting product management? What about AI?
My short answer is no.
My long answer: These technologies are here, and can be used to deliver customer value if you can find the right value prop and execute on it. AI is already being used in customer service (sometimes well, sometimes poorly!) and to generate LinkedIn content, for example.
Product thinking doesn’t change regardless of the cool new tech that is used to try to deliver customer value. The root is always “what is the problem and who am I solving it for, and how do I know they will pay me for it”. Our challenge is to use the technology responsibly, ethically and morally, without waiting for regulation to step in once bad stuff starts happening.
Read Man Made by Tracey Spicer for a great take on this.
Currently AI is seen as more of a risk than an opportunity in the product space. What can the average PO/PM do to change that narrative within Product Leadership groups?
It’s not all about the cool new tech. It has to solve a problem that delivers customer and business benefit. So put the effort in to prove the business reasons why AI investment is worth it.
What is it that your leadership will have to show to their leadership to get the money? Provide that confidence, don’t just expect the buzz words to sway investment decisions.
Folks – change is inevitable and has been around forever. As PMs, adapting to change is part of our core capability. I’ll sum it up with this quote:
“So what do we do? Anything. Something. So long as we just don’t just sit there. If we screw it up, start over. Try something else. If we wait until we’ve satisfied all the uncertainties, it may be too late.” – Lee Iacocca.