Attempting to build products remotely during a pandemic

A note for new subscribers: This post is part of a monthly series on my notes on technology product management (this is what I do for a living). You might notice that these posts often link to older posts in the series on LinkedIn even though they are all available on this blog. That is intended for folks who only want to follow future product management related posts. Finally, for all those of you who don’t build tech products for a living, I believe many of these notes have broader applicability. And, I hope you find that to be the case as well…

A quick overview of what we’ve covered on “Notes on Product Management” so far –


If it isn’t evident from the title of this note, I’d like to make sure we start by acknowledging one thing – there is no playbook. Every one of us is figuring this out and this post is all about the process of “becoming” and not the “being.”

With that out of the way, I thought I’d start with the “why.” There are a lot of great articles out on the internet offering opinions on how long the unusual situation we find ourselves in will continue. I am not going to add my opinions to the mix. What is clear, however, is that we all likely have at least a few weeks of this ahead of us.

And, as this has been a sea change for many of us, I thought I’d share the best tips I’ve heard from others while also sharing what I’ve been observing and learning from my experiences over the past 5 weeks. Here are my 3 notes to self –

1) Take care of and be kind to yourself. I frequently think of the in-flight announcement that reminds parents to put their own oxygen masks before doing so for their children. The idea at the heart of it is – it is hard to take of others if you don’t take care of yourself.

This has been easy for me to observe – on days I’ve been frazzled and unsettled, I’ve checked in less with the team and thus been a less empathetic person.

So, how can we take better care of ourselves? Here are the 3 areas I think about –

a) Physical: 3 of the most popular tips I’ve heard from folks on our extended team – 1) Start the day with a workout, 2) Build in time for preparing and eating meals, and 3) Set clear boundaries to the workday to enable yourself to disconnect and rest.

While I think these are great, I’ll also share that these haven’t worked for me. In our case, we have been attempting to work while also filling in as pre-school teachers for our 3.5 year old and 2 year old. So, my variant of these have been – 1) Get out for a long walk/jog outdoor with the kids when you’re with them, 2) Order good home-style food if possible so you don’t have to worry about meals, and 3) Alternate early starts with days where you sleep in.

B) Mental/Emotional: This one is tougher. In my case, sleep has been the biggest needle mover of my mental/emotional health. The second has been finding the time to reflect and synthesize what I’m learning.

This is uniquely personal and I hope you’re carving out the time to take care of your mental health. For some, this means regular video calls with co-workers and friends. For others, it may involve therapy or for certain others – time spent writing. :-)

Regardless of how we’re wired, it helps to be kind to ourselves as we figure out how to be effective and productive. We need to begin by meeting ourselves where we are. Mental/emotional progress often looks something like this.

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c) Environmental: 2 popular tips I’ve heard – 1) Wear your work clothes during the work day, 2) Have a designated working station – invest in a standing desk if necessary.

Again, my version of this is – 1) Do whatever it takes to get work done – after some testing with work clothes, I’ve settled into a comfortable shorts and t-shirt routine as it makes much easier to clean up after the kids, 2) Make sure both you and your partner split time between your more ergonomic set up and your dining table. :-)

2) Demonstrate care to your team both by checking in and by minimizing any churn. My favorite check in learning – Ask everyone on the call to share their 1-5 rating by simply raising their hands. Check in with folks who are a 3 and below.”

I’ve also heard lots of great tips on more frequent check ins, fun activities, and hangouts with the team. I can’t speak to this myself as I’ve maintained our pre-remote once or twice a week (depending on the project) stand up meeting schedule. I have a reduced meeting window at this time and get most of my time outside of normal work hours. So, adding meetings hasn’t been an option. And, that has admittedly been frustrating as I’ve not been able to do anywhere as much for the teams I work with as I’d like.

That said, while check ins and compassion are great and important, I believe the best way we can demonstrate care is by minimizing churn. These are difficult times in most companies – there are legitimate concerns about customers defaulting, meeting payroll, layoffs, and such. In companies where cash isn’t as much a concern, there probably are plenty of discussions about whether existing roadmaps need to be changed or thrown out of the window to better meet the needs of users and customers.

These kinds of situations can be very challenging if the team feels unsure about product direction – it helps to have some certainties. These situations can also be frustrating for us as the emotions involved in the moment can result in some unhelpful and incomplete short term thinking.

In such situations, there are 3 things we can do to ensure we’re responding vs. reacting –

a) Make sure we’re requesting our leaders to communicate their priorities. Understanding their current thought process can help us better understand how we should adapt.

b) Communicate what we’re hearing and learning with the cross-functional team leads (and the team) so they are in the know. In challenging times where most things feel outside our control, we tend to operate with lower levels of trust. And, since the amount of communication required is inversely proportional to trust, we need to communicate a lot more.

b) Make sure we are applying problem finding fundamentals more than ever on any new “urgent” project we’re being asked to explore. When times get busy, the fundamentals of putting together a rock solid problem statement (who is it for?, is there a real need?, what is the business value?), laying out the assumptions for the question – “what would it take for this to work?,” validating them with data where possible, and outlining the success metrics matter more than ever. As a friend once said, it is okay to build incrementally – it is just not okay to think incrementally.

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There is no dearth of meaningless projects that sound good but do nothing. As custodians of customer and user problems, it is on us to make sure we’re being rigorous in our thinking. And, the best time to catch ourselves from working on a meaningless project is before any work begins.

It is also a good time to remind ourselves of the cost curve of a typical project. If a meaningless project was costly before the lockdown, it is significantly more costly now.

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3) Obsess about the 2 things that matter. Start and end every day and week with a clear list of the two things that matter. As you make your way through the day, ensure this list stays updated.

Given the extraordinary circumstances in which we’re operating, on some days, this list might involve duties outside of work. All we can do is focus on what we control and do our best with what we have.

This is one of those ideas that is frustratingly simple to understand while being incredibly hard to do. Consistent execution on this idea always ends up being game changing – for us, the team, and the users of our products.

 


My biggest struggles: As I shared above, writing is my form of therapy and I’m writing this on the back of a week where many things felt like they were going sideways.

In this case, I didn’t do a good job defining the 2 things that matter consistently enough. When I did do it, I found myself unwilling to make clear trade-offs and/or communicate my priorities clearly – leading to at least one unsavory situation. And, to top it all, I did a really poor job setting boundaries over the previous weekend and week.

Ergo these 3 notes to self. I’m hoping to do better next week. And, I hope they help you in your journey too.

(Added note: Making it through the work week – especially the last day or two that seemed to stretch forever – was thanks to some amazing cross functional partners. Thank you for your patience and understanding.)


A life sidebar: As I’ve been processing the events of the last few weeks, I’ve found it helpful to remind myself that we’re facing multiple crises all at once – a pandemic, a financial crisis, and various others depending on where you live and what you are going through.

In my attempts to make sense of what is going on, I think there are 2 seemingly contradictory truths to internalize –

1. Everyone around us is hurting from this epidemic. They may be hurting in different ways and to different degrees – but, they’re hurting nevertheless. While it is tempting to compare our pain versus theirs – cut by age of kids, marital status, introversion/extraversion, etc., – the truth is that these are all just marginal differences in the big scheme of things.

2. The real chasm this epidemic exacerbates is that between the haves and the have nots. If we have a) savings in the bank to see us through the next 6 months and/or b) a steady paycheck (likely from a job that can be done remotely), we are firmly in the have category.

This isn’t to trivialize any pain we’re going through. Our problems – even if they are first world problems – are still problems and it is impossible to serve others if we don’t take care of ourselves. And, the only way to make progress is meet ourselves where are, create the space to patiently respond, learn to be kind to ourselves and others… while also continuing to maintain that combination of physical distance and social connection.

Once we do that, however, it is on us to ask the question – what can we do to help those whose needs are far greater than ours?

It is perfectly okay if we aren’t there yet. But, in the spirit of reminders, this is one for when we are ready.