By Sooraj Rajmohan
Product Managers, in the words of Hotstar’s VP-Product Anshumani Ruddra, are like a glue that holds teams and organisations together. They are known to get out in the field, be the boots on the ground, look at user research, and take the calls that culminate in great products.
But what happens to them when all that goes out the window? What do they do when a deadly virus limits their interactions to video calls and renders user research insignificant?
That’s what Anshumani, Swiggy Product VP Anuj Rathi, and Zomato’s Head of Product Rahul Ganjoo discussed in the first edition of #FirstPrinciples — a series of webinars hosted by Gojek.
In the session moderated by Gojek’s Head of Mobility Products Vikrama Dhiman, the panelists decoded the impact COVID-19 is likely to have on the content streaming and food delivery industries, what kind of companies are likely to weather this storm, what this climate means for Product Managers in general, and what kind of PMs will thrive in challenging times like this.
Here’s a nugget from Rahul addressing that last bit:
When the late Kobe Bryant was asked how he scored a last minute game-winning three-pointer, he said, “I’ve made that shot hundreds of times in my head.” It’s people who’ve developed that kind of muscle — in the form of good mechanics and mental models — who will do well.
Act One: Where Are We Headed?
All three panelists agreed that it is near impossible to predict the kind of world we will emerge into post-lockdown. The function of Product Management, a large part of which depends on meeting and interacting with people, will see some shakeups.
One potential change, according to Anuj, could be decision making moving up the ladder. He emphasised how PMs rely on the feedback from being on the ground to make these decisions, and in the absence of reliable data and meaningful social interactions, the onus of those decisions may shift upwards to leadership. “It’s also harder to handle disagreements, as you cannot whiteboard and hash things out easily. So more people will have to adopt Amazon’s principle of Disagree and Commit.”
While there are such hurdles to be overcome, Anshumani pointed to how the pandemic has also “short-circuited” progress, accelerating our trajectory towards adopting frameworks and technologies that would otherwise have taken longer.
One of the things we’ll likely embrace faster? Remote Product Management.
In such uncertain times, PMs who are willing to unlearn old mental models, keep an ear to the ground and look for new opportunities, will emerge in much better shape than their peers who do not. Or as Rahul succinctly put it:
“Don’t have too many sacred cows.”
Act Two: Sink or Swim
A majority of people who follow video streaming witnessed an interesting event recently. The launch of Disney+ Hotstar in India (in the middle of a national lockdown) saw a virtual red carpet premiere, with screenings of the live-action Lion King movie and a season of The Mandalorian — complete with virtual celebrity interactions.
This idea — which galvanised an entire company — came for a fresh PM, says Anshumani. Decision making may have become more top down, but strategising is spread across more than ever.
So while PMs with Kobe-like practice may have an inherent advantage in the current war time scenario, younger PMs can use this opportunity to their advantage.
An additional piece of advice Anshumani has for young PMs — learn to write a great one-pager.
“With most people like me doing Zoom meetings all day, casual water cooler conversation isn’t happening anymore. That’s been replaced by a Slack message with a promise for a succinct one page follow up. This makes it easy for me to go on a forum, drop that document, and let institutional muscle take over.”
As for organisations, the ability to weather this storm boils down to one thing — DNA
These are the companies that look for new opportunities, execute fast, but still prioritise strategy over anarchy. Companies that have cultivated a culture of intellectual honesty among leadership, and have an agile mindset. Companies that acknowledge that all bets taken during this time may not pay off, and are able to overcome sunk cost fallacies.
With the right DNA, these are the companies that will overcome.
Act Three: The Global PM
India has been on the radar of companies in the West as a potential talent pool for great PMs. With COVID-19 accelerating the advent of remote PMing, Vikrama asked our panelists if this would make Indian PMs even more desirable for global firms.
Unsurprisingly, the answer was in the affirmative. Rahul cited the democratisation of knowledge, giving Indian PMs access to the best practices followed around the world as a key mover, while Anshumani offered an interesting take on the idea of India.
“India is not one country. It is multi-tiered and needs multiple products. So building products for India is the real challenge. Solve that and we become a Product Management powerhouse. If we are able to build good products for all of India and Southeast Asia, then we own the world.”
Epilogue: This Is Our World Now
One interesting side-effect of this whole situation is a role reversal between product developers and customers. Rahul and Anuj recounted instances of how customers now display more empathy for the complex logistics involved in getting a piping hot meal delivered home. Tipping has increased across the board, and customers enquire after the well being of the delivery executive bringing them food.
Whatever happens next, a lot of things will never be the same again.
“In all my years using Zoom, I never knew it had a ‘reactions’ feature,” Anshumani said in bemusement, “My mother told me about it.”
“That’s a huge delta shift you don’t go back from.”
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