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Coping with COVID-19: How Has the Coronavirus Changed Product Management?

Robin Walters | April 16th, 2020

Before COVID-19, dealing with disruption in the product management space meant worrying about competitor encroachment, deployment delays, or a laundry list of other challenges.

You thought that was tough, right?

Product innovation is almost always disruptive in some way, but the unprecedented impact of a global pandemic may leave your Product Managers scrambling to change their approach. Here’s how the coronavirus has changed Product Management so far, and how your organization can best leverage the role during an uncertain time.

Turn and Face the Strange: Product Management Changes During COVID-19

Product Managers are the glue holding cross-functional teams together. While remote work isn’t a new idea, many Product Managers are still adjusting to big unknowns such as:

  • How can Product Managers make sure everyone is on the same page even when they’re in different locations?
  • How can Product Managers evolve products to meet customer needs when those needs shift with the latest coronavirus curve projections?
  • Can Product Managers still lead with proactive data-driven decision making even when consumer behavior is changing so rapidly?
  • And, whiteboarding? What’s the coronavirus doing to product iteration and development strategies?

To answer these questions, we turned to Derek DeHart, Senior Product Manager at Root Insurance in Columbus, Ohio.

Interview From the Project Management Frontlines

Q: How has coronavirus remote work changed your product management approach?

A: Remote product management isn’t a new thing. But working remotely, when you haven’t in the past, re-normalizes what it means to work with product teams. Communication is always a challenge, but when you can’t work face-to-face it becomes an even bigger issue. Things can go off the rails quickly when communication fails. When the team isn’t collocating you have to be intentional about saying the same thing five different times in five different ways and be very deliberate about product touchpoints to make sure things keep moving forward. The number of conversations I have every day has increased exponentially. But there are nuances within each group interaction that you lack; if I’m sharing my screen I can’t see the faces around my virtual table. You have to be really intentional about making sure people’s voices are heard and that everyone stays fully engaged.

Q: Has COVID-19 changed how you validate data?

A: There’s no baseline for this. You can’t go back to last year’s data to help with decision-making. All the consumer behavior patterns have changed so it’s a challenge to even look back a month to extrapolate data. Now, you look back 30-days, cull the data, then decide if that consumer behavior pattern is holding.

Broader socioeconomic issues have changed the buying patterns around certain goods and services that are just not top of mind anymore. Every product team is in the process of discovering how consumer behavior has changed. We rely on established behavioral trends but how do you make decisions when there’s no data? There are few effective leading indicators and that’s forced Product Managers into a reactionary mode, which can be very uncomfortable from a decision-making perspective. I don’t think we can predict yet what comes next.

Fortunately, Root was built to be a learning organization designed around how can we instrument the right feedback loops to ensure our solutions solve customer problems. It helps that we’re a direct-to-consumer company with shorter release cycles and tighter feedback response loops. It gives us an agility in the marketplace that we need right now.

Q: What advice would you give other Product Managers trying to cope with COVID-19?

A: Now more than ever it’s important that Product Managers stay in touch with the needs of their customers. Those needs have evolved quickly and it is going to continue for the unknown future.

For Product Managers that are one or two steps from customers, collapse the layers, get plugged in, and get close to your target audience. My advice is to eliminate any barriers between the Product Manager and the customer. This will increase the pace of their learning and response.

But having the Product Manager on the front lines requires that they respond with a high degree of empathy. It’s easy to get bogged down in the data, but there is a raw human component to this that needs to permeate product development. Product Managers must make sure the products they’re delivering to customers meet their core needs in a way that also resonates with the human experience during this pandemic.

How Has The Coronavirus Changed Your Product Management Initiatives?

Organizations like AWH rely on 25-years of Product Management experience with more than 4,500 unique applications. However, our organizational approach is evolving to navigate the uncharted waters of COVID-19.

This month, we announced the rollout of a new product management staffing initiative. We offer seasoned Product Managers as consultants to help your products adapt to the current shifts in the market. To find out more go to AWH Product Management Staffing.