Product Management in Changing Times (Part 3): New Futures
Continued from part 2: Temporary Normal
Creating your new future
History tells us that dramatic periods have an impact on the future. For example, China’s outbreak of SARS in 2003 altered shopping habits: “because many people were afraid to go outside, they turned to online retail. Though the crisis was short-lived, many consumers continued to use e-commerce channels afterwards, paving the way for the rise of Alibaba and other digital giants”[i].
Although, while in the moment, we can speculate about the timing and shape of the future state (there’s lots of talk about V, U, W and L shaped curves – see below), no one really knows how today’s events will shape our future until it’s here.
Economic Recovery Curves
Even with this uncertainty, we can take cues from trends and use these to kick-off an adaptable path to our future. For example, current trends[ii] point to:
- Changing attitudes towards working from home and flexible working.
- Increased use of digital services across all aspects of our lives from shopping (up from c.20% today) to video chats (its reached 44%[iii], so can grow) and virtual experiences (incl. music, retail, etc.).
- A shift to telemedicine (recent growth has been exponential[iv]).
- Faster digital transformations (especially as organisations have made years of progress in a few months).
- A focus on business resilience and disaster proofing.
- The increased importance of personal and organisational purpose and mission.
- Growth in local (from shopping to engaging in local communities).
- Increased use of subscription services in categories such as food, health and well-being, beauty, learning, media, etc.
- More and more data, especially as more products and services go digital.
Unfortunately, it’s not all silver linings. Due to the forecast recession and fact that businesses have been burning through their cash reserves, balancing books, whilst responding to threats and maximising opportunities will be the order of the day.
For product goals and strategy, ways of working, people and leadership, it’s now important to combine lessons from the previous periods with a sense of what the future might hold. This can then be used to try and work out remains the same, what’s changed for good, what is likely to change and how these can be used to create your future.
To move the product goals and strategy forward, ask questions such as:
- Have new customer needs or problems surfaced and how can you best address these?
- Has customer behaviour and or expectations changed?
- How has the product performed and what can it achieve in the future?
- What have your competitors been doing, what are the indicators about their future strategies and are there any new competitors moving (or expected to move) into your space?
- Is your industry changing direction and focus?
- Is there any government or industry-backed changes on the way?
- What are your business priorities, have they changed or do you expect them to change?
Answers to these questions will provide an understanding of where the product is today and the potential opportunities and threats that the strategy must address. For example, they may identify that customers have become price sensitive, product usage will dip once a new normal is established, new players have entered the space, customers want to use products in new ways, new customer groups have surfaced, product or category decline has accelerated, customers have moved to new channels, the business wants to priorities new areas, or that there are multiple unknowns until the world settles in a new mode.
With a view of the key factors shaping the product’s future, options to move forward may include:
- Adapting existing products or creating new ones (at normal or an accelerated pace) to meet changing or new customer needs, bridge gaps in the product, re-engage customers who stopped or reduced their product usage, address gaps left by poor performing competitors, mix the old world with the new, or differentiate against new or expected competitors[v].
- Extending, optimising or repurposing existing products and features to maximise new opportunities.
- Removing unnecessary or declining products or features.
- Exploring and experimenting with new customer segments, markets, product categories or formats to maximise new opportunities, fill gaps created by declining products or maximise core assets and capabilities.
- Dropping or extending products and product features created during the period.
- Reviewing and adjusting pricing, product packages and formats, marketing, channels and product support models.
Trends and options will likely be abundant, so it’s worth working through several scenarios. From this, priority scenarios should rise to the top and be moved into a mode of experimentation and adaption as learnings are captured and the future starts to become reality.
Ways of working
Amongst other traditional management practices, for years, it has been argued that employee productivity declines when working from home. However, the last few months have demonstrated that employees can work effectively from home, and in many cases increase productivity.
Ok, so the circumstances are different from the norm. But the time has been so dramatic that employees and organisations should prepare for a new way of working that includes:
- More remote working that sees co-workers communicate and collaborate in virtual worlds[vi] and use cloud-based tools to work from anywhere in the world
- More flexible work that enables employees to achieve a better balance between their work, family and personal lives
Other areas that are ripe for accelerated change include:
- Fewer or smaller office set-ups and the creation of flexible hubs where teams can come together a few times a week or month for face-to-face collaboration.
- More decentralised and distributed organisation structures that use agile and adaptive principles to (1) flex and quickly respond to changes on the fly and (2) empower teams to guide their products from the coalface.
- Growth of the learning organisation that never rests on its laurels and is always trying to learn how it can do things better[vii].
On the first point, offices mustn’t be banished into history. Offices provide a social setting and interactions that are good for well-being and relationship building, and should, therefore, remain a part of the mix going forward.
In reality, all of the above require a mindset shift that this crisis has laid down the foundations for. Many organisations are tuned into wanting to make these changes, but the big test will come as the new normal approaches – who will take the opportunity and who will go back to their old ways?
People & Leadership
On people and leadership, most people will have likely created stronger connections with co-workers, stakeholders and partners through sharing more personal information than normal; learnt new remote working skills; found ways to replace some of the serendipitous moments, and created a balanced way of working from home e.g. not overworking and taking breaks at regular intervals.
Product leaders will have also learned more about:
- How to keep their teams engaged and motivated e.g. by trusting them to get on and do their work.
- The value of regular check-ins.
- How to be flexible with demands on teams and team members.
- Their team and how they like to work.
- How to effectively communicate across different mediums.
- How to adapt their leadership style to a remote context.
But it does not stop here, once the new normal arrives, the challenge is for everyone to review how the period played out (positives and negatives), what was learnt along the way and how this can be integrated into being better co-workers and leaders.
Also as employees return to the office, there will be a need to provide reintegration support for those who face challenges adjusting to an environment they have not been in for months.
A new future or just hype?
Ultimately, the experience of this period can be a catalyst for change or a hype cycle that is quickly reversed. I think (or at least hope) that it will be the former, but only if we all contribute and play our part as drivers of change that help our customers, teams and businesses return to success or be more successful than before.
Good luck as you navigate your way into the new future. Let me know what you’re doing and if you’d like to delve into any of the topics – book a chat below.
[ii] Although this list paints a positive picture, there may be some negatives, particularly in the area of health and well-being.
[v] Don’t forget that Uber and Airbnb were born around the time of the 2008 financial crash!
[vi] I think there is a lot more to come from video conferencing tools e.g. using VR or AR to create environments that better mimic face-to-face interactions and office settings. Just image sitting in a virtual room that looked like an office or a family members home!
[vii] Satya Nadella was able to achieve this at Microsoft when they had the potential to become irrelevant. The changes he made will have helped Microsoft weather this and the previous storms that were coming their way. Could this be your moment?