Effective product management from crisis to the new normal

Product managers are nothing if not adaptable. How do we remain effective product managers and thrive in our roles if remote Zoom sessions are to be our near-term future? How do we retain influence and continue to drive through innovation when we’re in our yoga pants in our living room? What are some of the new challenges we’re going to face in this covid 19/ post pandemic world?

Effective product management from crisis to the new normal

Cheryl Gledhill: Head of Product – Zip Co Limited

Keywords: hinge of history, remote working, hygienic communication, vision, emotional intelligence, curiosity, vulnerability.

TL;DR: Cheryl shares her experience of pivoting from a new role as product head to leading her team in transitioning to a remote work format, highlighting the differences between remote work she has done in the past and the unique circumstances, positives, and negatives of remote work during a global pandemic. Her core leadership philosophies of setting a vision, persuading people, motivating toward shared outcomes, and leading by example remain her guiding framework, but she has particularly leaned into the inherent vulnerability and uncertainty around Covid to emphasize team wellbeing, curiosity, and emotional intelligence as core attributes that can anchor and strengthen the team. By looking at 2020 as a ‘hinge moment’ in history, we can embrace the inherent ambiguity in this time and harness it toward creativity, innovation, experimentation, and insight.

Background: Cheryl started at Zip in January of this year, new year new me! Covid was already background chatter even then, and then BAM! [2020 dumpster fire graphic]

Cheryl’s role then pivoted to be part of the team looking to future-proof the company and address the challenges of a co-located team having to now work remotely. They went to pre-emptive lockdown before it was government mandated, so as of March all product planning was being done remotely.

The BBC recently published a fantastic article talking about the ‘hinge of history.’

Leading philosophers and researchers are debating whether the events that are occuring could shape the fate of our species over the next thousand if not millions of years… The ‘hinge of history’ hypothesis proposes that we are, right now, at a turning point.

The underlying goal of understanding this is identifying what societies should start to prioritize to ensure the long term success of our species. As a product person, this is what Cheryl lives for. We can effect real, meaningful change coming out of an uncertain time and there is lots of rich potential here for product people.

What is ripe for disruption? Cheryl’s work is fintech focused, so she is thinking around the future of personal finance and how people spend. What is the future for public spaces? Ex: Cheryl has not been to an ATM since the pandemic began… how does a cashless society change privacy and security? Other industries ripe for disruption include travel, the arts, museums, entertainment, and restaurants. Not about surviving right now, it’s about pivoting and thriving. This brings us to a very interesting place.

Impostor Syndrome: Confession time! Cheryl has been doing remote work for a long time across various time zones and cultural contexts. She is highly proficient in this work medium. But this time she had two five year olds at home with her and was not remote working, she was home schooling whilst trying to hold down a full time job. She feels a little impostor-ish discussing effective product management because for the core of pandemic she was purely in survival mode.

Why this matters: What we are doing is not remote work. It is coping in a global emergency [through an unprecedented global pandemic]. The distinction between remote work hitherto being a choice and currently not being matters. A layer of anxiety pervades the latter. Which means we need to use a different lens than usual discussion around remote work.

Cheryl’s favourite thing about product management is the ambiguity and uncertainty; she thrives on taking a thread and weaving a story, and this time is exciting and can yield a lot of positivity in that regard.

What makes a product manager effective? How does this change with remote vs on-site work?

A core attribute of being a great product manager is being a strong leader. Not just talking hierarchy here, but being able to set a vision, persuade people, and motivate your team toward what’s working and toward a shared outcome. Concept of the CEO of a product as akin to product management is common. Sounds pithy but it’s incorrect, because nobody reports in to a PM the way they would a CEO. If things get done, it’s via interpersonal skills and team building.

Great leaders lead by example: Need a willingness to go the extra mile and a can-do attitude.

How does this change when you are remote? Overcommunication is key. You may think it’s too much, but during uncertain times your team wants to hear from you and wants to know you’re taking decisive actions. Without visibility, we have to be extra mindful around communication. Even if you don’t have the answer yet, respond right away regardless.

This not only makes your life easier, but also your teams’ and stakeholders’.

Really important to take wellbeing seriously (both your own and your teams’). Recent quote Cheryl saw captures this: We’re not working from home, we’re living at work. Home/work boundaries are blurred. When you are using Slack asynchronously (which you should be), [also see Alejandro’s presentation on this point] you can’t expect others to be on the same schedule as you. Cheryl works best in the evening after her kids are in bed and had to be explicit with her staff that when messaging after hours she did not expect a response, she was just putting her thoughts down for later discussion. Hygienic communication. Economy of words. Don’t send Slack messages just saying Hey! But: Hey, I’ve got a question. [Insert question]. Focus on outcomes vs outputs.

Emotional Intelligence: This is also a key strength for effective product managers. Build strong relationships and know how to navigate hurdles to ship a great product. EI has three prongs:

  • Self Management – your own emotions and needs and balancing them without affecting the team.
  • Relationship Management – how are you balancing relationships between various stakeholders? Balance prioritization conflicts and tight deadlines in a way where you feel in control. Stay cool under pressure! Push hard on the right priorities with a sense of urgency but without a sense of panic or stress. Know when to step away and regroup.
  • Social Awareness – this is about authentic relationships with stakeholders. Negotiation, conflict resolution, and balancing needs of various stakeholders.

How does this change when we go remote? Apologies in advance, this is a bit L.A because Cheryl lived in L.A for several years, but there are valuable insights she gained.

The key is to not get emotionally hijacked. Practice self regulation, self awareness, and do regular self check-ins. Psychology trick called the label and learn response. The process is: Take a moment, take a deep breath, and recognize what you are feeling. Label the feeling – is it anxiety, anger, fear, etc? Research shows that labeling the feeling disengages it from the emotional brain and re-engages with the prefrontal cortex (logic brain) to offer space from the emotion.

As a product person, keep in mind that your reactions are data. You can notice these reactions and begin to identify patterns in the data that you can learn to navigate around and use to stay grounded. Consciously processing your own emotions helps you become a more effective team leader. This works! Not just in L.A! Ex: Cheryl had a friend who was a paramedic. His job was unpredictable, so it was critical that he stop, breathe, and assess where his value was best served before taking action when arriving at a crisis scene. He didn’t first go to the person screaming loudest or even the person most hurt, but where his value could best be served. This is product management! Remain calm, assess, triage, and then act. [End hippie section]

GOOB: Get out of the building. This is a tenet of the lean startup process. Single most important thing that project managers can do but most frequently don’t. Ex: pre-pandemic, working in fintech, Cheryl would often go to Chinatown and observe what payment options people were using for everyday purchases and ask why. You can learn a lot outside the office. Be an anthropologist.

In pandemic life this is clearly harder, but you can still make space and time away from meetings and Zooms to synthesize your inputs and find inspiration to tie these together. Even a 20 minute walk serves this. Put it in your calendar if need be. Wonder is a powerful tool!

Product Discovery. Many product managers excel at this during the ideation phase, but once they move through discovery, UX design, solution validation and execution they tend to drop discovery. There are many opportunities to keep checking back in with the original vision and learn earlier in the process if what you are delivering still has value. Take it back to lean process: build-measure-learn, reiterate. Always ensure you are shipping value.

How to do this remotely? Not as simple as running focus groups and useability tests. Part of it is using the right tools. The pandemic has uncovered a lot of unexpected tools that have added tremendous value. Lookback, Miro, useberry and many other tools that have added intimacy to the process and efficiency in cutting back travel time. What you lose in face to face or in person communication you gain in time and tool efficiency, particularly around useability testing.

Curiosity: This drives great PMs. Cheryl hires on this. Curiosity helps understand a problem from all angles and get a diverse range of sources and understand how outcomes impact different successes. Ex: This conference feeds our curiosity. Personal Ex: At the last Web Directions conference Mark Pesce led a panel on the future of digital money. Cheryl watched this and it sparked her curiosity so much that she ultimately got a job for a buy now pay later company. Curiosity can lead you in unexpected directions. Again, without commute time, we have more time to devote to webinars or podcasts or online conferences that feed our curiosity. Use that!

Vulnerability: This is Cheryl’s biggest pandemic learning. She doesn’t enjoy being vulnerable. She has work-me and weekend-me and with homeschooling being combined with work that division had to dissolve. Admitting her own vulnerability allowed others to step up and step in. The rest of the team shares this. Honesty was crucial and once it was voiced they were able to create safer and more supportive spaces and they came out stronger for it.

Circling back to the ‘hinge of history’:

We have increasing power to shape the lives and well-being of billions of people living tomorrow – for better and for worse… It will be for future historians to judge how wisely we used that influence.

As product people, recognize this hinge moment, use emotional intelligence to see beyond your own life and go through discovery points to see how others are reacting and what’s changing. Find the seed of insight and run hard with your idea. The ambiguity and uncertainty of this time means we can fail really quickly and really hard and it doesn’t really matter as nobody has the answers at this moment.

This is liberating! As PMs we want to fail fast, fail often to find that right path. Often what stops us is the fear of failure. But right now, nobody knows, so find that insight, create, go out and run with it. We are at the hinge of history and we will look back at 2020 as the time where everything changed.

We are so well placed to be part of that change and part of the direction of how we interact with all of these things going forward. What a time to be alive!

Q&A will follow – excited to chat!