How are Product Leaders Adapting?

At home, at work, in public… digital products are at the forefront of technology right now, providing the crucial connectivity needed to keep the world turning.

But with lockdown having significantly shifted consumer habits, how have product managers adapted their leading, building and managing skills during lockdown? We asked our network about their insights from the past few months.

 

Responding to Uncertainty

“Some of the bets which we were taking based on a long-term, gradual change of the landscape have just changed overnight.”

With so many major factors outside anyone’s control, and a number of ways a business can respond to a change of this magnitude, being a decisive leader is not an easy task right now. Do you play it safe to keep your head above water? Is it safer to return to old, tried-and-tested behaviours that feel comfortable in a time of unfamiliarity? Perhaps it’s time to accept that the rulebook has been thrown out, and push forward a new, innovative agenda?

For many businesses, Covid-19 has inspired a renewed, intense focus on product. With an unstable sales pipeline and shifting market needs, many leaders are taking the crisis as an opportunity to look at pivoting their existing products or even launching brand-new ones. This is even more pronounced in companies that offer both in-person and digital services – in many cases, there has been an increased focus on the development of the latter. Although for product teams this move brings forward exciting prospects, it can also put pressure on the department to be a “magic wand” during these uncertain times.

From Sales-led to Product-led

“The CEO has taken this opportunity to put product front and centre.”

For some leaders, a drop in sales leads has opened up opportunities to re-evaluate best practice by infusing research and data back into the business. Listening to customers and implementing a product-first mindset throughout an organisation is an effective way forward in an increasingly digital world, but this is a double-edged sword, particularly in recent times; not being able to physically sit down with customers to understand their needs has posed a challenge for some.

Some B2B leaders are also looking at improving the relationship between product and sales, in order to move towards a highly informed, consultative-type sales approach. Whilst it’s true that many potential clients have a large appetite for digital products right now, many still have a risk-averse attitude to actually buying. Fears around investing substantial sums in new technologies and businesses they haven’t worked with before are well-founded, especially at a time when future revenue is uncertain for many businesses. For product leaders, adjusting their propositions and educating sales about products on a deeper level could go a long way to appealing to and addressing their clients’ conflicting feelings.

 

Supporting teams through a crisis

“At virtually no other time have employee needs been so different. Some people are at home in this intense environment with their kids getting way too many hugs a day. Other people haven’t had a hug for weeks.”

Humans are inherently social creatures, and with face-to-face interaction having been extremely limited in recent months, one of the key challenges faced by all leaders is how to effectively support their teams. With an uncertain future ahead, it can be hard to answer questions and provide adequate reassurance on a human level, particularly over video or phone calls.

For many, the key question is now when – if at all – to return to the workplace. It’s important to involve your whole workforce in these decisions, whether via an anonymous survey or by reaching out directly. Of course, everyone’s individual needs must also be considered; with only 25% of students having returned to school at the time of writing despite government mandate, childcare is still a big obstacle for many facing the prospect of going back into the office.

Employee and employer opinions on the matter also vary. Whilst many businesses are keen to pick up where they left off as soon as possible, lots of employees have got use to the flexibility of working from home and are unlikely to want to snap straight back to normal. In a recent poll of some of our product leaders, nearly everyone said they would expect more flexibility from their own jobs on returning to the office.

It is tempting to simply put on a brave face – keep calm and carry on, perhaps – but one of our product leaders noted that, in fact, one of the best moves a leader can make at this time is to model vulnerability. Regardless of seniority, everyone has collectively been through a difficult time, and opening up about this is a fantastic way of connecting with employees and showing empathy. Another consequence of remote working is that employee mental health has moved to top of the business agenda. Our product leaders have adopted a variety of tools to monitor employee wellbeing, including OfficeVibe (which allows you to collect, measure and review employee feedback) and Bolt (which facilitates the reporting of employee concerns).

 

Future of product?

“You can’t just have product sitting in the corner doing its thing – it needs to be infused throughout the organisation.”

With working practices changing at unprecedented pace and scale, ‘the product mindset’ has now started to be applied to describe teams themselves. Thinking about their teams as a product, and allowing experimentation not only to what they build but how they work, will enable companies to give both their employees and customers the brilliant experiences they deserve.