3 Must-Have Product Leadership Skills to Survive the Corona Crisis

Even after the disease is contained, the resulting economic slowdown will stay here for much longer. To survive and succeed, your product leadership must be sharper than ever.
Beijing's Forbidden City, July 2003 (photo taken by me)

June 24th, 2003, was the first day of life after SARS in Beijing. The World Health Organization just removed the travel warning for the area. On that same day, I landed in the city.

I temporarily relocated there with 2 more developers from my company. We were trying to catch up and close the timeline gaps SARS has created for an important tech transfer project with a Chinese startup.

After multiple fever checks, we arrived in the city. Despite its population of 6-million people at the time, it felt like a ghost town.

We stayed in one of the most central hotels, 30 floors of fancy guest rooms, a business center, a gym with a swimming pool – right at the heart of the city. When we arrived, only one elevator worked, and most floors were closed (you couldn’t access them at all). No breakfast was served, and even the receptionist wasn’t always there.

We went for a walk – it was my first time in China – and the streets were almost empty. The few people who were there still were all wearing masks. When they saw us – evidently foreigners by our looks – they waved and smiled. Some even clapped their hands in happiness. They were all thrilled to see tourists again. We were their first signal of normal life after the disease.

Beijing’s famous shopping street – Wangfujing, a wide pedestrian zone spread over 1.8 KM (1.12 miles), was abandoned. Stores were closed, empty luxury hotel lobbies could be seen behind their locked doors.

Over the next few days, we saw the city getting back to life. First, breakfast opened up at the hotel. It wasn’t very rich, only a few basic products, but with each day they added a few more. The next day, newspapers were available again in the lobby, and some of the stores opened.

Within a week, the city went back to normal. 6-million busy people normal. Many of them were still wearing masks, and fever checks continued at the entrance of crowded places like shopping malls and train stations, but even that stopped after another week or two. By the end of July, SARS was officially over.

Coronavirus Will Be Over Too

The reason I am telling you this is to remind you that there will be life after Coronavirus as well. When it will happen, things will most likely go back to normal in what would later feel like no time at all.

Work-wise, you will continue to create new products, serve unmet needs, and achieve business success. But not necessarily in the same company or for the same product you are working on today.

Coronavirus is creating a new economic reality. We all see the immediate impact, and there will be long term impact as well. I can’t tell how long will this new reality last, but I can give you some advice on what you can do to increase your product or company’s chance of surviving this economic winter.

Ruthless Focus

This is no-brainer advice. Everyone understands that when resources are limited focus is more important than ever. But focus on what?

For most people and during the regular course of things, focus means making sure you are working on the important things, and say no to anything else.

While that’s an important aspect of it, I would like to suggest that in order to survive this crisis, you need to add another dimension to focus.

Think about photo shooting: you first need to select the object you want to focus on. That’s the kind of focus we are all used to – choose only the most important things.

But then you need to make sure you see the object clearly and sharp. That’s the other dimension of focus that is less talked about.

In the product world, the first dimension means deciding on important things and prioritizing them. The second dimension means deepening the understanding of why they are important, and what is it about them that is important. This is critical in order to (1) make sure you are working on the right things when your resources are sparse, and (2) increase your confidence that you will actually get to the results you need.

To get to this additional layer of focus, reasoning must work overtime. Make sure you can connect the dots very very clearly between what you are doing and your desired outcome (which especially in times like this should be all the way to a business result, not “a good feature” or “happy customer”).

A common practice to get there is to ask as many “why”s as needed (most likely 5 won’t be enough). I also like replacing the “why” with asking “so what?”. It helps since it forces us to ask a very specific flavor of why – like “why is it important” or “why does it even matter”, and get very crisp on the actual point we want to make.

To get to this level of crispiness, you must get a deeper understanding of how one thing leads to another – at least in theory.

As I said in the past, this theory has to make sense to you before you invest anyone else’s work in it. If you can’t clearly and in great detail explain the reasoning behind your theory, it’s not a good one to follow. And while in the regular course of things you might get some leeway to live with a certain amount of vagueness, in times like this, vagueness is a luxury you can no longer afford.

Make your theory as solid as you possibly can. Ask someone to play your devil’s advocate, and take their feedback super seriously. It always helps.

Eyes on the Bigger Picture

To be able to focus and lead the company towards its goals, you must understand these goals in depth. Generic revenue goals are insufficient for handling this crisis.

You need to understand the financials of your company very clearly and mark the critical path for the next couple of years.

If you are a startup who still needs funding, understand exactly when would you need to raise the next round, and which business results you must demonstrate to be able to do so. Then understand how you are going to get to these results. You need to be convinced that these calculations make sense, and you need to see yourself achieving the needed results.

If you don’t see how you are going to achieve these results, you need to refine the plan until you do. It’s ok to have stretch goals and work hard to get them. It’s not ok to have unrealistic goals set simply because these are the goals you need.

You don’t need to do this alone. If you are looking for creative ideas, you can use your team. Create a hackathon (with or without the coding part), and brainstorm together.

Sometimes, it won’t add up. You might get pressure to continue working on customer projects that you would otherwise walk away from, just to keep the company alive. That’s fine for a while, as long as you understand the end game.

How long do you expect this phase to be? What would be the immediate revenue stream? When and how will you go back to plan A, and how will that one get you to the results you need?

These are hard questions, and you might not be able to get all the answers. While you don’t want to get into analysis paralysis, make sure you spend enough time thinking about these and making a serious attempt to fully answer them. You’ll be in a much better place knowing the answers – and knowing where your answers are lacking – than ignoring it altogether.

Agile Is the New Steady State

Agile as a mindset and a way of life, not as a development methodology.

The original idea behind agile was that you will know much better what you need to do once you actually tried it. The foundation is that you can’t figure it all out in theory, and hence a working software is better than comprehensive documentation, and customer collaboration is more important than contract negotiation.

It’s all still true, but these days it’s the last line of the agile manifesto that is forcing itself on you in all extreme: everything is changing. The market is going through a time of uncertainty and slowdown. Your customers are going through this as well. This, in turn, will affect you.

Change is going to be so big, that even if you had it all figured out before the Corona outbreak, your plan might be completely irrelevant once it’s over.

So make sure you keep your eyes and ears on the market and adjust all of your plans according to this huge wave of change that is coming at you. And then re-adjust them, because it will be long before we can mark this as done.

I am going to practice everything I listed here with the product leaders who joined my new product executive training program starting this week in Israel. I didn’t plan it for Corona times, but this crisis only forces us to be much better product leaders and to up our game, so the program is more relevant than ever.

With or without my help, I hope you manage to get on the other side of the crisis stronger and healthier. To support you further during this challenging time, you can post any questions you have on my Facebook page and I’ll answer them there.

Stay safe, and keep going. Action is the only way forward.

My free e-book “Speed-Up the Journey to Product-Market Fit” — an executive’s guide to strategic product management is waiting for you

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