3 Ways Your Company Can Thrive in the Face of COVID-19
By Rob Ridgeway, Principal Delivery Lead at Praxent
One of Warren Buffett’s most notable quotes states, “Be greedy when others are fearful”. For those familiar with Buffett’s philanthropy and tendency to live quite modestly, despite an estimated net worth of roughly $72 Billion, these words may sound antithetical. However, Buffett is not advocating for Gordon Gekko style greed seen in Wall Street; rather he is simply stating that profitable long term investments can be made in a down market. Put another way, you should zig when others zag.
In the product. management world, we may not see the opportunities that exist float by as the stock ticker takes the economy on a roller coaster ride. But as we all observe the numerous organizational responses to the COVID-19 crisis across the world, Buffett’s advice rings true in the product management world as well.
Fear-Based Response Spectrum
Digital presence and strategy is critical to virtually all businesses in today’s world. In response to COVID-19, there may perhaps be a heightened sense of criticality for organizations to develop a digital offering due to the very real need to avoid close human-to-human interaction. Simultaneously, many businesses are attempting to balance user needs while experiencing the effects of an extreme economic downturn, and struggling to plan for an uncertain future. Harking back to Buffett’s advice, “Be greedy when others are fearful”, the majority of businesses will react fearfully.
A fear-based response spectrum has emerged from digital-focused organizations. On one end of the spectrum are organizations with a complete focus on “maintenance”, or keeping only key production support team members on staff as “essential”. On the other end of the spectrum organizations focus on “business as usual”, virtually disregarding the fact that a global event may have completely changed their product/market fit. Somewhere in the middle of the spectrum lies organizations that continue with product research and development, but reduce the team sizes dedicated to those efforts. These reductions are often seen in areas of the team that some would consider “nice to haves”, areas such as UI/UX design, user research, and product management. This prioritization of resources focuses on a misconception that areas such as design and product management are non-essential, and the majority of product value is directly tied to engineering.
These businesses are reacting exactly as the majority of the investment world has as well, on a range of sell everything and maintain their current level of wealth until after the crisis passes, to holding investments and riding out the market until it re-normalizes (i.e business as usual). The outcomes of these strategies are also similar, yet hard to predict with complete accuracy. A multitude of variables factor into the outcome of your strategy, such as industry, market, geography, size, stage, and the list goes on. And given all of these variables, the outcomes can range from insolvency at one extreme to little or no impact on your business.
No one has a crystal ball that can tell you what will happen to your business right now. However, that’s not the moral of Buffett’s advice. The businesses along the fear response spectrum are all zigging right now. They are all fearful, and they are therefore uncertain and allowing outside variables to dictate their organizational outcome. Now is the time that you zag. Now is the time to be greedy, sowing the seeds of success during this turbulent time.
Being greedy in relation to your organization’s digital presence, is again quite similar to Buffett’s response to the market. He takes the opportunity to invest in assets that the market has undervalued due to outside threats, but which he knows are sound businesses that will create gains for him in the future as outside circumstances normalize. In the world of digital innovation, even under normal circumstances, investing in a stellar product team that can focus on the right thing to build is key to the success of your business. The purpose of product management is to create better commercial outcomes by determining the right thing to build. Product management as a discipline determines what the right thing to build is, by focusing on two core objectives. The first objective is to define a product strategy and vision, to understand why you exist in the first place and what kind of future you want to create for you and your customers. The second is to manage ongoing discovery to constantly challenge, test and iterate products as you move towards the future (i.e. validating your ideas). It is absolutely crucial that your organization only allow ideas that have been validated by the business, tech teams, and customers to make it to market. By doing so you ensure the outcome, prevent waste, and achieve return on investment.
3 Ways to Double Down on Product Innovation
Under the very abnormal circumstances we find ourselves in today, investing in a product team is not key to the success of your business, it is a competitive advantage. Buffett doesn’t stop investing when the economy is good, but he knows that there is an advantage to increasing his investments when the economy is down. Regardless of the size, industry, market, stage, etc., of your business, now is the time to double down on your product innovation. You can do so in three ways:
- Reexamine your product vision and product strategy
- Revalidate your existing product roadmap
- Manage ongoing product discovery
Reexamine Your Product Vision and Product Strategy
If your organization already has a product vision and strategy in place, then now is the time to take a second look, and if you don’t have these items in place, then now is certainly the time to establish them. It may be the case that your industry and/or market has experienced a change in response to COVID-19. So you need to ask yourself, “As an organization, do I still exist for the same reasons, and can I still achieve my vision through the same means?” The world just changed in an extreme way, and in an extremely short period of time. Everything you once believed as an organization could potentially be flipped upside down. Investing in a product team will help you examine and establish a successful product vision and strategy in response, and ensure that as a business you do not continue marching towards a purpose that has changed significantly. Many executive teams prefer to establish vision and strategy internally, but there is reason to caution against this method. There is a fine balance to strike, especially in terms of your product vision, and having an expert to mediate these strategy sessions will ensure your vision falls between supporting commercial objectives while retaining a degree of separation from the business.
Your company’s product vision sits at the top of a value-based product strategy. Quite often an organization’s product strategy is mistakenly goal-based. It’s not your fault, our brains are wired to think in short term wins because these are easier to project as tangible and immediate. Now more than ever, we are likely focusing on solutions and outcomes, rather than values. Again, having an expert in product management help define values, guiding rules, and KPIs for an effective product strategy that will yield long term dividends.
Revalidate Your Existing Product Roadmap
Your product roadmap goes hand-in-hand with your product strategy. Where your product strategy is value-based, your product roadmap is the goal-based projection of how to deliver on your product strategy. Therefore, if your product vision or strategy has changed, then it would follow that your roadmap would also need to be updated as well. I would also propose that as you reexamine your product vision and strategy, if you find that your organization’s vision and values should stay the course, I would still highly encourage you to revalidate your existing roadmap. While your values may not have changed, your customers may have reevaluated their needs and wants in relation to your company. This too would be a need to take another look at your roadmap and validate whether it is still accurate.
Manage Ongoing Product Discovery
Knowing how and why to make changes to your product roadmap involves product discovery. Product discovery is recommended, as it allows you to constantly move from ideas or problems into validated solutions, removing the guesswork and preventing waste in your product development. Your discovery team should be made up of a Product Manager, Solution Architect, and UX Designer. Using this cross-functional team structure, a discovery team is able to frame the problem, prioritize the problem, generate ideas and prototypes, and validate a solution. This process will help build out your product roadmap. Going one step further, once the solution has been validated it is ready to move to the delivery team in order to polish and plan in the backlog for future development. This then complete the product innovation cycle of moving from vision, to strategy, to validation, and then finally to implementation.
Your Competitive Advantage
Any company wanting to succeed in digital innovation could pursue this strategy, even under normal circumstances – it is a way to take feedback and ideas and turn them into products that will delight your users. But now within the very different world that has emerged in a brief period of time, this process is your competitive advantage over others that see this work as “nice to have”, and are fearfully deciding on how to proceed as an organization. COVID-19, while obviously a horrific global event, does not need to leave your organization waiting in fear for the day when the world returns to normal. Through wise investment in your digital offerings, and guidance on how to effectively execute on your product strategy and vision, your organization can thrive in the face of one of the most uncertain times in human history.