Wartime Product Leadership

Ben Foster April 9 2020

An Unprecedented Situation

The COVID-19 outbreak and associated response have staggering immediate ramifications for many technology companies. Nearly everyone has closed their offices and plenty of thought leaders have shared best practices for delivering software in a 100% remote work environment. However, the far more important product leadership challenge today is the need to quickly switch gears based on new business priorities and to become more dynamic at the senior-most levels given unpredictable and rapidly evolving market conditions.

Business and school closures, remote work environments, mandated quarantines, etc. have likely shifted the situation for your customers (and potentially for their customers in a B2B2C play). Your customers could be dealing with severely tightening budgets or are facing the prospect of mass layoffs. Maybe they are more reliant on deliveries or are substituting physical interactions for digital ones. Or, perhaps this event is actually an opportunity for new customer acquisition (consider Zoom). Regardless, these changing conditions in your market require an immediate response in product management, whether to address potential customer attrition, become less dependent on outside capital, or find new customer acquisition strategies.

This is wartime product management.


Peacetime Product Management

The role of product management has always been dynamic and stressful; startup PMs feel the weight of the company’s existence on their shoulders. It may not have felt like it at times, but for those who weren’t in product management 10 years ago, the last decade was a highly prosperous period where a team with product-market fit (and other forms of fit) could count on short- and medium-term stability. The status quo has been peacetime product management, which looks like the following:

  • Focusing on delivering customer and internal business outcomes over the long run
  • Organizing scrum teams to be tightly aligned and loosely coupled
  • Pushing decisions down in the organization
  • Producing longer-term roadmaps that clarify, at a minimum, the most important problems to be worked on in the foreseeable future
  • Measuring progress against leading indicators of success: early engagement, NPS, etc.

These are the right leadership and organizational strategies to maximize impact in the long run. Consider the analogy of driving a long distance. You go out of your way to take freeways and maximize your speed to cover the most ground over several hours. However, driving at high speed comes with tradeoffs:

  • Greater visibility: you need to be able to see hazards up to a quarter mile ahead
  • Less agility: swerving the wheel to avoid a pothole could flip the car
  • Higher risk: what would have been a fender bender could now be a fatal accident

We take similar approaches as product leaders when the roads are smooth and wide to maximize delivery, throughput, and outcomes over nimbleness and strategic flexibility. Even “agile teams” which are tailored to maximize flexibility within a scrum team (or similar) sacrifice flexibility across teams.

For example, at GoCanvas where I am the Chief Product Officer, we have 5 scrum teams, each more or less focused on a particular problem set: (1) customer acquisition, (2) onboarding and conversion, (3) user engagement, (4) customer value, (5) upsell and monetization. Each team has the ability to set its own priorities, rearrange the backlog based on feedback, and so on. However, I’ve intentionally sacrificed strategic flexibility by effectively locking in a percentage allocation of development against these balanced objectives. This team structure is typical and appropriate for most successful post-PMF SaaS companies: it’s been peacetime.


Wartime Product Management

In contrast to driving on a multi-lane expressway, wartime product management is akin to driving on a dirt road in the mountains. Looking a quarter mile ahead is dangerous if there’s a sinkhole right in front of you. You lower your speed so you can steer hard as necessary. In fact, you’d prefer to drive a different automobile entirely: a Ferrari engine is worthless when compared with good shock absorption and 4-wheel drive.

Even in normal circumstances, individual scrum teams may have been operating in this highly nimble manner inside their respective teams. But, in wartime product management, the product leader needs similar levels of steering power and flexibility in setting (and resetting) the strategic direction across teams. Perhaps the right decision is to put all hands on deck to work on a single problem all at the same time, meaning they might need to work with unfamiliar code or deal with the possibility of stepping on others’ toes through better communication and coordination. Simply put, being “tightly aligned and loosely coupled” is peacetime luxury which is an insufficient excuse for not fully addressing existential threats in wartime.

Last week, I had a very direct and transparent conversation with all our product managers about the new challenges we are immediately facing as a company. While GoCanvas’s customers span several industries, what’s consistent about our target market is that their businesses are likely highly impacted by social distancing or its economic ripple effects. Our leadership team is bracing for unnaturally high contraction and churn and depressed inbound lead volume over a prolonged period. Given these wartime conditions:

  • What are the stakes of not being “strategically nimble” right now? Pretty damn high.
  • Should the allocation of resources remain consistent given new market realities? Probably not.
  • Even if we set new overarching priorities for the next month, how confident are we that they will still be right the following month based on what we know at this point? Not very.

5 Steps for Transitioning to Wartime Product Management

Very early stage companies or those facing heavy competition may be acclimated to (and even optimized for) wartime conditions, but they also likely never grew their teams to the same size as their post-PMF counterparts. The danger is for companies that built their teams, organizational structures, and software development processes around peacetime conditions only to find them woefully inappropriate in the wake of a major disruption, such as the coronavirus outbreak.

Making the transition isn’t easy for a product leader, as it requires a departure from ideas and doctrines he or she may have been pushing for years. It’s not about what’s easy, but what’s necessary. These are the adaptations I recommend for product leaders in companies that may be in a similar situation to GoCanvas, and which I intend to implement immediately.

#1: Hit the brakes. Just because you kicked off a project doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to finish it. An infrastructure initiative that will pay dividends in 2 years isn’t as valuable as keeping your customers today. Focus on initiatives that have direct impact now.

#2: Pay attention to what’s in front of you. Don’t worry about the quarterly update to your one-year roadmap. Instead, make sure you are working on the absolute best product updates in the next couple of sprints. Rinse and repeat. Deliver direct value on a shorter time frame. Focus on current customers or prospects in the pipeline vs. your future target market five years out.

#3: Switch off cruise control. As a wartime product leader, you cannot use “autonomous teams” as an excuse for why the immediate priorities are even slightly mismatched with business needs. Understand the business metrics on a day-to-day level, communicate to your teams, and verify the priorities they set.

#4: Listen to your backseat drivers. One-off feature requests previously perceived as a nuisance compromising your roadmap should now be thought of as potentially important warnings that can help you pivot as needed, save hard-earned revenue, or close difficult-to-land new business. Keep cross-team and cross-functional communications frequent and in-depth.

#5: Swerve to avoid hazards. Be willing to make wholesale changes as needed based on how the market conditions evolve. That may mean any number of major adaptations, such as swapping top-level priorities, reassigning teams to new problems or merging teams together, and discarding processes that are no longer serving you.

Fortitude and Perseverance

These 5 recommendations are worth following when exiting the freeway onto a bumpy dirt road. But none of them imply that you should abandon your destination or make a U-turn, no matter how rough the road may feel. And it will feel very rough at times.

Although wartime can become long and drawn out, it’s temporary. In this context, product management requires shrinking the horizon for strategic initiatives and rebalancing the buckets of product development work. However, you must not lose track of your ultimate vision, the customer problem your product aimed to solve in the first place, or the integrity of the product itself — its design principles, its simplicity, its scalability and extensibility.

Equally important to being adaptive when required is refusing to concede when you shouldn’t. Be willing to change your priorities and even your strategy, but don’t compromise the integrity of your product regardless of the circumstances. Similar to fighting a real war, things will eventually go back to normal and you’ll need to face the consequences of the actions you’ve taken. While we must be agile in how we operate, the most important leadership qualities are exercising fortitude and perseverance in times like these — when it matters most.

Written by Ben Foster

Ben is a co-founder of Prodify and Principal Product Advisor / Coach. In his career, he has been the Chief Product Officer at WHOOP and GoCanvas, the VP of Product & Design at Opower (which went public in 2014) and previously worked for Marty Cagan at eBay.

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