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How product managers can adapt, survive and thrive in an ever-changing world

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(Image credit: Image Credit: Ra2Studio / Shutterstock)

We’re 18 months on from the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic but, in many cases, no clearer as to what this so-called ‘new normal’ actually looks like. Many businesses have seen their market change in ways they never considered before and, in some cases, business models are being reinvented in real-time. 

Remaining adaptable in a world that continues to be uncertain is a key skill and, with all this disruption around, now's a good time for IT product managers to think about building their resilience, reflecting on their role and hitting the reset button on the ‘old’ way of doing things. After all, we’ve been presented with a mixed bag of challenges and opportunities here, it would be a shame to let them all go to waste.

Review how you do your role 

Product managers have a leadership role to play. Businesses depend on us performing our roles to drive the product forward. To set the pace, we're connected to many internal and external stakeholders, act as a central focal point for our product, and rely on others for our success to build the product and sell it equally.

Now more than ever, it's important to review how we do our role. In a recent industry survey, the top frustrations at work highlighted by product managers were a lack of data-driven decisions, constantly changing priorities and the pressures of stakeholder management. This last point in particular should not be understated in product management, but it's even harder to manage your stakeholders in a flexibly working, often remote workplace! 

What this does provide you with however, is a chance to take a step back and think about the behaviors you need to exhibit in your role. The usual focus in product management is about knowledge - understanding your specific domain, your products, customers, technology and competitors. These are all fine, but to be truly effective, you need to be able to get things done with a whole range of people. This means taking the time to learn and understand how the organization works, the governance, processes, structure and key people, and how to make things happen using your soft skills. 

Speak to your customers and understand their point of view 

One of the best ways to gather information about your product is by talking to your customers. With so many people working from home, there's a little more flexibility, and a little less formality involved in setting up calls. The most valuable insight will be gained from your users so ask open-ended questions to discover what their pain points are, what they’re trying to get done and how your product is, or perhaps isn’t, helping them do that. 

Individual calls aren’t the only way of gathering customer feedback. Other options include creating virtual customer forums, hosting free webinars about how to get the best from your product, pitching some draft value propositions or even inviting customers into your agile ceremonies. Some of these suggestions take courage and confidence but, by being vulnerable and open, you'll be surprised by what you can learn when you step outside your comfort zone. The other advantage you have is that everyone knows things are happening quickly - chances are you'll be forgiven for having rough materials in exchange for sharing your thinking!

Nurture your stakeholder network 

Let's look now at how to improve your organizational knowledge. As mentioned earlier, the way you interact with your stakeholders is vital, as they can often determine whether the new launch will be a success, or not. You will have a network of key stakeholders, both internal and external, both your superiors and subordinates - but how should you go about nurturing this network to get the best outcome? Well, a great place to start is with a stakeholder mapping exercise; you begin by classifying stakeholders as either a ‘decision maker’, ‘key influencer’ or a ‘friendly face,’ then objectively rate them on a scale of one to five to establish both the strength and importance of the relationship. Once you understand their place in your product journey, you can work on developing proactive strategies to build those relationships when you need to. 

One thing that you’ll need to do across all stakeholders is build your credibility as an expert. You know your product inside out, but this might be the first time they have encountered it, so don’t keep all that knowledge to yourself. Sharing valuable facts and industry insights will increase your reputation and influence amongst your network. You could try “product pit stops” - otherwise known as speed dating for product demos - or host a lunch and learn session where everyone in the company can learn about your product. These are traditionally designed to be held in the office, but they can just as easily be held remotely too via a webinar. With that, you can make the most of these sessions by recording them so anyone who's interested can revisit them at a time suited to their schedule. Worry less about production quality, just get them out there and start establishing yourself as a key player.

Develop new habits  

If there's one thing that we hear from product managers, it's that there's not enough time in the day to get everything done. It’s a high-pressure role and the demands of others can easily make you feel that you’re not in control of your own schedule, but there are ways you can take back control by developing the following habits:

First, accept reality - there will be times where you’ll be unproductive, and that’s okay. Instead of worrying about unproductive days, find ways you can keep the project moving and also do the firefighting that comes your way. You could also consider employing productivity techniques like the Pomodoro method, to help keep your time management on track. 

Next, look at your personal development plan. The challenges of the past 18 months will have provided you with a rich context in which you can develop and hone your skills. Now is a great time to fill the gaps in your knowledge and explore something different to what you usually do, particularly if there’s something you’ve never had a chance to try before.  

Thirdly, make sure to set aside time regularly for reading and thinking. This is so important for both personal and professional development, yet so easily forgotten about when emails are constantly dropping into your inbox demanding a response. The problem of email overload is not a new one, but there’s no doubt it’s gotten worse since the pandemic began. There’s a balance to be struck and while it takes confidence and trust in your teams to hold a daily 15 minute catch-up call for queries and decision making in lieu of sending loads of emails, you’ll be surprised at how much time you’ll gain back. 

And finally, take care of yourself and your own wellbeing. This means looking after your mind as well as your body. I’m no health expert, but it's common knowledge that getting enough sleep, getting some fresh air and making time for yourself in the day are all beneficial. Another concern I’m hearing from many product managers is that their screen time has soared, so schedule a break, do a jigsaw or get some exercise - whatever you fancy, just make sure it's analogue and not digital. 

You can’t control the situation, but you can control how you react to it. By viewing unexpected events as opportunities instead of obstacles, you’ll quickly build the resilience, flexibility and curiosity to succeed in a world that’s always on the move.

Ian Lunn, Founding Director, Product Focus

Ian Lunn is a recognized global thought leader in product management and Founding Director of Product Focus, a leading provider of product management courses in the UK, US and Europe.