How Accomplished Product Managers Lead in Uncertain Times

Vikas Joshi
August 18, 2020

Despite shrinkage in real economy and unemployment in double digits, S&P 500 is inching past pre-pandemic levels and NASDAQ composite is at an all-time high. With changing patterns of work, consumption, and entertainment, tech companies stand at the intersection of exciting opportunities and an unprecedented crisis.

How are successful product managers navigating the situation to gain competitive advantage for their companies? I had the privilege of hosting four of world’s highly accomplished product management leaders for Harbinger PowerHour, an online roundtable discussion this week. My guests were Potoula Chresomales, Rich Gallagher, Robyn Ise, and Steve Heister. (Their brief info is at the end of this article). In this article, I capture seven key themes from the hour-long discussion.

Product management is at the epicenter of tech companies. It is such a critical function because it overlaps with strategy, product-market fit, customer experience, pricing, and operations. If you talk to any product manager today, they will tell you they need to worry about a host of issues – roadmap decisions, updating value propositions, pricing, packaging, competitive moves, acquisitions, post-crisis capacity building, remote team management, and more. We decided to focus our discussion on product roadmaps. Specifically, the talk revolved around how to recalibrate product roadmaps in uncertain times.

Getting Closer to Customers

Counterintuitive as it may sound, the opportunity to get closer to customers was never better. This is a great time to find out what really matters to them and what doesn’t.

RG: We had to recognize that many of our global community of customers are a bit wrecked.  They're all operating, to some extent, in shock or confusion, trying to balance new personal and professional considerations, as they keep their organizations running. So, even though they're providing us feedback, we've had to put in that feedback in perspective just to make sure we can separate the drama, so to speak, from what is insightful feedback and make sure that we're both supporting our customers with empathy as well as acting on what will be most impactful.

PC: How we might take this opportunity, where there's a lot of change in the marketplace, to get even closer to our customers? We count 65% of the fortune 500 as our customers. Their priorities are changing. It's difficult for customers to articulate that. We [ask]: What problem are you trying to solve right now? We've been focusing our product visioning and our product roadmap on helping them solve those new problems that we think are going to persist.

SH: You’ve got to look at the long term, make sure you're maintaining the long-term vision. But look short term as well and [find] interim wins that help your customers especially with the challenges that they're facing today.

RG: The pandemic has allowed us to put a new lens on our user feedback.  A lens that helps us better understand what's truly most valuable to our customers. When customers are pressed for time, torn by competing priorities, or under enormous stress and strain, they're going to go do the things that they value most. Under many other circumstances, when you ask a customer for their feedback for certain of your product’s capabilities and they'd likely say, sure. “Yeah, that's good.” “Yeah. We still need that.” But when push comes to shove, and then they are really speaking about the value through their usage or lack of it. As the cliché suggests, don't let a crisis go to waste. At Energage, we’re using this time, to among other things, help us simplify and focus on only the most valuable offerings to our clients.

Making Hard Portfolio Decisions

This is also a time for hard decisions. Does the firm double down on revenue generating products or pivot to new markets? Will changes to customer priorities stick? How do we know that changes to user behavior persist long enough for a pivot to be profitable? Are we overreacting?

RG: It's not just one change, it appears to be a progression of changes. Whether or not it's temporary or permanent and that just creates another level of challenge. A company that provides launch services to satellite industry is now making ventilators. A distillery that was making craft bourbons and whiskeys in Kentucky is now making hand sanitizers. Those products were not on their roadmaps. That just goes to show how quickly things can change.

Fostering a Culture of Courage

How has the pandemic allowed product management teams to move aggressively? How do successful product managers encourage risk-taking in their teams?

RI: This pandemic has allowed us not to rest on our laurels and actually go even more bold with product innovation. We've been working on [a new feature concept] for quite some time. We've talked about it but we always had within our product roadmap all the neat stuff that our other clients have wanted. Now during the pandemic this need for that feature has come front and center. So now it’s our top priority. Right under the pandemic, we found we need to grab those huge faraway items and pull them as early as possible. That drives innovation for us. So, it's been fascinating to see how you can actually grab some of those risks and big investments and actually invest in them earlier, faster, and get them to market faster.

RG: We've empowered our product owners to be even more courageous in these times.  Interpreting user data and making decisions more quickly, shortening our roadmap horizons, etc.  We're also more aggressively evaluating the success and failure of the things that we do. When they succeed, we want them to be succeeding fast. When they fail, we especially want them fail fast and quickly move on to the next opportunity.  We’re creating a culture of courage, especially in these times, to keep moving, and not letting the small stuff trip them up.

Prioritizing Roadmap Items

How are product managers thinking about backlog items on the roadmap? Is this a good time to look at long-due product makeover?

PC: There's always a backlog. But what I'm finding is that the customers that asked us for certain enhancements in the backlog don't care about that stuff right now. Those are the things they cared about before the pandemic. Right now, they need a solution that they didn't think they needed [earlier]. Now they don't care about the 500 other things they asked for six months ago. So we prioritize continuously.

Leveraging Data

How are enterprise software vendors helping organizations in leveraging the data tsunami? What, if anything, has changed with the pandemic?

RG: Our company helps leaders maintain critical conversations with their employees.  Even harder these days for leaders to do now that employees are more virtualized. Current conditions have created a strain on important feedback loops. At the same time, employees appear to be even more expecting that their voices will be heard. Within our solutions, alternate channels provide that feedback to us, in forms that leaders and their employees are most comfortable with. Our patented technologies and algorithms in processing free text with the help of AI, machine learning, and natural language processing, ensure that we can convert feedback into understandable and actionable insights.

PC: During this pandemic [our product usage] is up 317%. We've been able to use all of that data to power our AI models. That we are delivering targeted recommendations to each user.

Building Integrations

Product managers must keep an eye on the ecosystem within which their products must live and breathe. How do they discover integration needs? How do they prioritize the spend between feature development and partnership integrations?

RI: Industry needs streamlined workflows. Clients can't always communicate that to us [in precise terms]. Sometimes we just have to ask - What systems do you live in every day?

SH: Integration is about allowing people to work out of their system of record where they live. One, it adds to customer satisfaction user experience. But it also allows you to create partnerships with a lot of different [vendors]. Integration is critical to workflow, user experience, and customer satisfaction, but it became can be a tremendous line of revenue for you as well.

PC: We've identified our biggest partners and we have built connectors that are specific to them so that we get the best user experience out of their specific feature set with our product. And then we have a more generic, standards-based integration to a long tail in our industry of vendor systems and homegrown systems that our clients have.

RG: It's mission-critical for our solutions to get the most authentic employee feedback. To have the most authentic conversations, you have to be capturing them in the flow of work. And so, our ability to integrate with the systems that employees use gives us the most up to date view of the organization. Whether it be an HRIS/HCM system, Slack, MS Teams, or even just Outlook 365, those are the things that you've got to be integrated with if you're going to capture the most authentic and the most comprehensive feedback.

Going to Market

In a situation of tight budgets, travel restrictions, and short staffing – customers must cope with a reduced capacity to evaluate new products and implement those products. How do product managers respond to this new reality?

RG: Historically, our DIY (Do it Yourself) solutions have been more than satisfactory for many companies to achieve their objectives. Under current conditions, customers need help and they are increasingly asking us to help them by way of a DIWM (Do It With Me) model. And so, we've nearly doubled our customer success and customer engagement efforts, to make sure that we can help customers keep moving. And so, we have had to look beyond the feature functionality of our solutions, and also re-evaluate how they're packaged, delivered and supported in order to meet these evolving needs of our marketplace.

Markets are shifting and tech firms are employing a variety of strategic responses ranging from staying the course (and even doubling down) to pivoting. Leaders in Product Management must recalibrate their roadmaps accordingly. The foundational issues are getting closer to customers, making hard portfolio decisions, and fostering a culture of courage. The core decision is prioritizing roadmap items. The opportunities are in product makeover, leveraging data, building integrations, and making it easier to go to market. Here is the link to the video of Harbinger Power Hour.

The author thanks Potoula Chresomales (SVP Product Management at Skillsoft), Rich Gallagher (Chief Product Officer at Energage), Robyn Ise (Chief Technology Officer at TargetCW), and Steve Heister (Chief Product Officer at SkillSurvey).