What Do We Do Now?

The philosopher Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” This year has punched all of our roadmaps in the mouth. Hard.

For a while, the question is, what do we do now? A few months later and we’re asking, what do we do next?

In this session, Randy Silver guides you through the questions you need to be asking – and the conversations you need to be having – to ensure you and your team are working on the right things, right now.

What do We do Now?

Randy Silver: Director – Out of Owls

Keywords: strategy, prioritization, communication, ways of working.

TL;DR: Randy shares some key learnings he identified while writing a resource book for product managers which he originally envisioned as specifically applicable to the challenges of Covid 19. He realized as he wrote that although this situation is unique, disruption has always been a core philosophy in product design and management and the strategies we have used in the past still have a lot to value we can use to inform how we move forward. Randy outlines a framework for adapting your strategy to current circumstances; beginning with understanding changes in both your customers and market to identify new challenges as well as new opportunities, then re-prioritizing your roadmap accordingly, paying particular attention to interrogating assumptions and addressing you and your teams’ emotional, logistic, and technical capabilities under current circumstances. If we return to the basics of how and why we build our product, and continue to ask the right questions, we can continue to work at the leading edge, just as we always have.

Before we get into how to manage products, roadmaps and strategies, Randy would like to take a moment to point out – it’s been a hell of a year! Randy is recording a few days after the U.S election was called for Joe Biden and for him, it feels like the first time he’s been able to exhale this year. But this is not about politics; regardless of ideology, 2020 has been a struggle.

Take a moment. Stand up. Stretch. Move. You’ve probably been sitting for too long today. Product people are really bad at looking behind them. This is why they have to schedule retrospectives in their diaries. Let’s take a moment here to reflect on friends we’ve lost, family we’ve been unable to see, and to remember how much we’ve come through. If you’ve come through all of that and are listening to this talk, be thankful. Take some deep breaths.

Thankyou for sharing that. Randy is here today to talk about a book he wrote earlier this year called What do we do now? A product manager’s guide to strategy in the time of COVID-19. Randy is going to tell us why he wrote it, some of the advice in it and what he’s learned since finishing it.

About Randy: He gets bored easily! He does many things, mostly focused on talking to people and trying to learn new things. He co-hosts a podcast called The Product Experience (anywhere you get your podcasts & at Mind the Product.) His day job is a consultant. He works with many companies on leadership and discovery, communication, collaboration, prioritization and alignment at Out of Owls. He also hosts a virtual Lean Coffee called Product in the (A)ether where beautiful nerds chat about whatever is on their mind. (Feel free to join here)

All of this is structured around having great conversations with smart people. Early in 2020 he heard rumblings of ‘Covid is coming” All very Game of Thrones. Kept us all on our toes.

Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth – Mike Tyson

Randy found himself having one on one conversations around COVID but wanted to have a larger convo, so he decided to write an article about it. But the article got longer and longer so he pitched it to Jeff Gothelf and Josh Seiden at Sense and Respond Press, whose ethos is short, practical books. Randy figured if what he had to say was worth saying, these guys would know it pretty quickly and could publish fast. Plus they might be willing to go along with his idea of donating all proceeds to charity.

They said yes! They turned it around fast. It’s $5 USD, £4.60 in the UK. All proceeds to Medecins Sans Frontieres. Two dirty secrets!

  1. It’s not just for product managers, but for everyone involved in strategy and prioritization.
  2. It has nothing to do with COVID! We live in a world of disruption and this type of thing happens all the time. The content is always relevant.

But.. enough about why… what do we do?

Part 1: Back to Basics. We go back to basics because we are unsure of the foundations that our strategy is built on. What is strategy? Strategy is about understanding the problem, understanding the customer and the market, and understanding how you propose to help your customers solve that problem better than anyone else. We do this all the time. Ex: double diamond: are we solving the right problem and are we solving the problem right? But the basics tend to get overlooked when we are not at the early stage of a product development.

Part 2: Mo’ customers Mo’ problems. Start with your customers. Who are we trying to help, what are their goals and obstacles, and what is their perception of those goals and obstacles?

Sample graphic of a sample Persona/ICA. (this template from Justinmind). These are designed to look at customers through various lenses. What are their situations and relevant habits? How might these be affected by current and changing circumstances? Habits are hard to change! But currently, enforced change is happening. Ex: this conference – we should be face to face and grabbing a beer later. But not possible. So you may change something for your customer, but are they in a position to use it?

Jobs to be done is a great framework here. Start with all the jobs your potential product may solve and refine as per the situation. Ex: Auto-insurance offering rebates as customers drove less; breweries pivoting to make hand-sanitizer; local shops offering deliveries and baskets; intercom added a free tier for non profits. Many things happened in a collaboration space and it is incredible how much companies were able to change really quickly. This leads us to…

Part 3: The Market. No-one predicted or planned for it. At the beginning of Covid all we could predict was disaster. Many lives and jobs have been lost. But in any crisis there is also massive opportunity. Again, habits are hard to change, but when something comes in and changes them for you, you have to look at how you can take advantage of that situation.

Product people are used to thinking about markets. When we start developing a new product we take a look at the gaps in the market. Where are the opportunities? Could be price, useability, features, availability. Any work that you did in this space more than a few months ago needs to be re-validated. Business have changed – some have gone under, some have been acquired, some are using cash reserves. What’s changing and who is getting bailed out? We all want to build a defensible moat around our advantages. Who’s moat is now crossable? What assumptions is your roadmap/release plan built on?

Some good models for working in this space. Two in particular- scenario planning and wardley mapping. Randy covers these a little in the book but there are many great resources online about these approaches.

Part 4: Death of a Roadmap. Once you’ve gone back to basics, looked at personas and at the marketplace, you tie these together into a roadmap or story. This serves to get everyone aligned and working on the same priorities.

Image of Tony Soprano intimidating Richie as metaphor for what 2020 did to our plans: nice roadmap you got there, shame if something happened to it.

We need to re-prioritize and re-do our roadmap. But before this, we need to ask two key questions:

  1. Is there something we can do to help with the current situation? No right answer here, just make sure you ask the question.
  2. Is what we are currently working on still the best thing to do? Can you change pace quickly? What does your release cycle look like?

Ex: grocery stores – they have tech systems at scale but logistics that aren’t. This is why we ran out of loo paper! Had they been able to take advantage of customer appetite for online sales it would have been an incredible acquisition opportunity, but they did not have systems or processes in place to do this. There is no point doing a prioritization exercise until you have looked at the opportunities around you

Words matter. Let’s get our terminology straight. Communication is key. Customer personas + Market analysis = A series of bets. We make hypotheses which then get prioritized.

Hypotheses are made up of two things: Facts (we know this) + Assumptions (we think this will happen if…) BUT, assumptions themselves have other aspects, namely if you add emotions to an assumption you get an opinion.

Quote from Jeff Lebowski (The Dude) from the Big Lebowski Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man. Opinions are impervious to facts. Make sure you know if you are dealing with a hypothesis with an assumption, or an opinion.Assuming you are not dealing with opinions, what strategies do we use next in putting together our roadmap?

Some options:

  • Assumptions Mapping – feasibility, viability, neat 2×2 matrix
  • Impact Mapping – work backwards from the impact you want to achieve, focusing on Outcomes and Outputs
  • Dragon Mapping – This is Randy’s creation – cross between the opportunity solution tree, impact mapping, and the 5 Whys. The process is you say Here’s our goal and then ask: For this to happen, what has to be true? Iterate and map out for each item is it a fact or an assumption. If assumption, test. If an opinion, manage it.

Part 5: Capabilities. Now it’s time to put your psychic’s hat and look into your crystal ball. Why? Because everyone will ask you: When can I have it [the product]? Typically, we do this based on prior experience. But now? Things are different.

Cartoon gif of dog in a burning building sipping coffee This is fine. I’m ok with the events that are unfolding currently. This is NOT the new normal. This is NOTworking from home. But it is working in very different circumstances. New questions: Who is available? How available based on their living situation? What tools do they not have? What kind of customer access do we have?

We tend to romanticise the old workspace. Offices have issues. Working from home = no commute = yay! But many use the commute to decompress, and that’s gone now. Different psychic load. We no longer have ambient awareness of what’s going on in our company.

Ways of Working: We have to adapt. First, take care of yourself at home.Companies are wise to invest in work from home spaces.

Let’s invoke Marie Kondo here. Spark Joy. How you manage your day matters. How much of it sparks joy? Look at each meeting: Is this meeting adding value? Can I cut it entirely? Can I change the format? This speaks to how we work with our teams.

Need to do things that retain social elements. Ex: some companies are doing virtual team lunches with individual pizza deliveries. Plan for mental and social wellbeing of our teams.

The makeup of our teams is also changing: Without a central office, where do we recruit from? The war for talent is changing – you can hire anyone anywhere within a few hours of your timezone. Wider talent pool available to you, but also to your competitors. To retain the people you have and attract talent, you need mission, purpose, and clarity. Ex: Simprints, NGO that competes with Google/Facebook in terms of talent. They can’t compete on salary, but they compete on mission and are intentional in the recruiting process.

Have a good company culture: This is important. Let’s leave notions of presenteeism and productivity theatre behind. It was always a superpower to define an outcome over an output and manage for that. Now, this is essential. You aren’t going to be able to manage well if you are trying to enforce presenteeism.

Deployment Cycles: There is an urge to pivot and change release cycles. Things to consider here: Are you ready to do this? Do you have the culture and capabilities to do this? Not just about getting code into production – it’s about being on the same page as marketing, and sales, and support, and most importantly, your customers. Just because you’re ready to change. are they? Are you changing something that’s part of their critical infrastructure? Be aware of what you can do vs what your customer is expecting.

Part 6: Execution. This is a key part of what we do but a fundamental difference about working now is attention. It is hard to keep people focused. You need to be able to explain the value that your product confers to a six year old. If you can’t, refine your message. This is the path to keeping everyone aligned and focused.

Review:Think of your work as a pyramid with the following tiers beginning at the base:

  • Identify an opportunity space – look at personas and market analysis
  • How will we solve that problem for customers – Bets, assumptions, and facts
  • How will we work on that – capabilities and ways of working
  • The plan – execution (more details in the book if you are interested – buy it, its for charity!)

Randy doesn’t have all the answers. No-one does. But the important thing is to make sure we are asking the right questions; That our teams and our management teams are having the right discussions. That is the job. That is our superpower. Question your assumptions, redo the roadmaps, update the prioritization and keep learning. This is the job of somebody working in product.

Thankyou! Please get in touch via any of these avenues. [email protected] @randy_silver