Let Some Fires Burn: What Software Product Managers and Product Marketing Can Learn about Triage from the COVID-19 Crisis

As we reflect on COVID-19, and its evil cousin in 2020, and how it has impacted everyone both professionally and personally, one idea appears more vividly than others—the power of triage. Triage enables individuals to quickly assess a situation to determine what is urgent and important, thus deeming what is essential and nonessential. It’s clear healthcare workers across the country are triaging as they ruthlessly prioritize who gets care, who gets tested, and who should be a part of the workforce, in order to reduce the need of personal protective equipment (PPE) given its shortages. While it’s commendable that many startups and large corporations, even in unrelated industries (Tesla, GM, LVMH, etc.,) are racing to build masks, ventilators, and other PPE, might it be prudent to ask what were product managers (PMs) and product marketing managers (PMMs) doing as they watched this crisis evolve?

I will leave the medical industry experts to solve the specifics of that particular problem, but there is a lesson here for us at WealthEngine and vendors of B2B software to take note from. PMs and PMMs should pay more attention to their daily grooming habits, establishing a triage protocol across their tribes (to use some SAFe jargon) in case of emergency. Ideally, this should be assessed on a daily basis, but organizations lack the foresight to do so. Why? Because they are busy tending to daily fires. Unfortunately for the medical device manufacturers, this lack of insight and action on early pandemic warnings has caused countries of various sizes and national wealth to be unprepared for the increase in demand for PPE, leaving them frozen and unable to adapt quickly. So, what can future PMs and PMMs learn from this emergency on how to triage empathetically, prioritize ruthlessly, and execute flawlessly?

But first a big salute and thank you to the first responders and health care workers – our real heroes we all are sincerely indebted to.

Triaging with Empathy, Prioritizing Ruthlessly, and Executing Flawlessly

This pandemic should lead us to rethink how Product Roadmaps are constructed, prioritized, and aligned in light of rapidly changing environments and market needs. A pre-established set of post-crisis processes will allow for companies to remain calm, prepared, and adaptable amidst future crises.

I recognize that the scale and pace that this pandemic hit the world was unprecedented, yet I find myself questioning the priorities, inventories, and supply-chain resilience of the medical device manufacturing industries, and by extension, the effectiveness of the on-the-line product managers and technologists in charge of production and capacity planning. It seems as though this crisis has exposed an overwhelming, and rather concerning, lack of a formalized scenario planning structure in these large corporations. I am surprised to see that all apparent planning and envisioning has gone out the window as demand for PPE has skyrocketed and am curious as to how these corporations will adapt from this pandemic. I have no reason to place blame or judgment on these manufacturers’ market-product prowess or even on the healthcare system’s ability to stockpile PPE, but the severity of the problem does lead me to ask one very basic question.

When do you know that your risk-adjusted assumptions to deliver on a product roadmap are no longer valid and when should triage begin?

Triage is all about deeming what is essential and nonessential. It forces companies to reassess what is important to their mission statement and success rate. In 1954, former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.” What went on to be coined the “Eisenhower Principle” is a 2×2 matrix that distinguishes between what is important and urgent. Important activities lead to goal achievement, making them more long-term focused, while urgent activities demand immediate attention because they may lead to immediate consequences. It may be difficult to distinguish between what is important and what is urgent at first, but once this clear distinction is made, companies are able to focus on which activities are essential for success. Companies should constantly be assessing what is important and urgent, even during times of prosperity, so that when crisis strikes and a timely response is necessary, there is no time wasted on this. With their priorities already established, companies will not focus on unimportant urgent activities but instead save time for those that are essential.

3 Actions PMs and PMMs Should Implement in Their Triage Protocol

1. Consider Data as Fact

Use data as facts for decision making.  It is one ear to the ground, listening to the changing market conditions, while the other tunes into understanding what is the hardest dollar to get from your customers and what is the most important dollar they could spend right now(and hoping it’s with you). Understanding what the hottest and wisest dollar a customer may spend is crucial for PMs and PMMs, and deciphering this allows for them to focus their time and energy on the activities that would yield the best outcome. In this current crisis, this may be intuitively obvious, but when things come back roaring, the discipline to chase after the hardest dollar will swing to the lowest available dollar, and thus begins the dilution of the product roadmap again. So, using data as facts is an important practice both in times of crisis and prosperity. After all, we are living in the data decade, as Morgan Stanley coined this era of data usage. This means all opinions that color facts or data that does NOT support your position, must be included in the decision making process.  This will help to eliminate conscious and confirmation bias, amongst other traps that we are all prone and succumb to often.

2. Reenergize Your Team

Conduct an honest and unbiased assessment of the skills of your current team and how those skills support the company’s important and urgent activities. In my experience, I have found that most PMs and PMMs struggle in this department. Skills assessments may cause uncomfortable conversations with not only their teams but also their superiors, as they have to explain why a majority of their team is not relevant to the essential activities. Without an honest assessment, “sunk cost” may occur as companies attempt to maintain the status quo. Yet, a new normal has emerged, and thus new strategies and skills must be prioritized. Don’t let old patterns and unrecoverable costs freeze your company. Just as Action One stated, act on the new data you receive, not the old data that is now irrelevant. By aligning your teams’ skills and business projection to the new market conditions, your company will be more proactive rather than reactive.

3. Analyze the Old and New with Your Customers

Encourage your customers to think creatively with you. Crises tend to create a new reality, one where the old way of thinking may not be as effective. It’s important that your customers feel heard and that their priorities are valued, so instead of forcing them into doing something new, partner with them and think strategically together. Not only does this help both you and your client decipher what is important and urgent, but it also builds mutual trust and understanding. For example, perhaps we suggest to our customers that sending unsolicited emails and unsecured leads would cost more and instead they should rethink their workflow around digital fundraising or digital marketing. Therefore, it’s important to be prepared when approaching clients. Present a new plan of action, showing how this plan would increase positive outcomes more than the old plan of action.

Ask Yourself These 3 Questions

I would urge fellow market-driven CEOs and VPs of Product Management and Product Marketing to consider asking themselves these three questions:

  • Is what I’m about to do important or urgent, are we doing the harder ones, with greater unknowns, first?

  • Are the business priorities aligned with the skills of my teams and have I been radically honest about their ability to deliver?

  • Am I challenging my existing customers to do things differently? If not, how should your company approach their loyal clientele to partner with your company to think creatively and innovatively in times of uncertainty?

So, this is why it is hard to let some fires burn. In crisis, it’s our natural tendency to run into the flames and save whatever we can get our hands on, but just as firefighters do when faced with something aflame, we must stop and assess the situation, considering the best plan of action to protect our company and customers. That’s why we at WealthEngine believe triaging with empathy and prioritizing ruthlessly leads to flawless execution. Saving time, money, effort, and of course, lives!

Bon Triage!

PV Boccasam

CEO – WealthEngine

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