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A crisis – economic or otherwise – is an upsetting of the natural order, a state of rapid and turbulent change, the upheaval of established norms. And it forces all businesses to grapple with two elemental forces: challenge and opportunity.
As we fumble our way towards a post-COVID future, success will go to businesses that handle the challenges and quickly identify (and capitalise on) the opportunities. According to a new McKinsey survey of leading executives, most companies have accelerated the digitisation of their customer and supply-chain interactions, and even their internal operations, by three to four years. The number of digital products in their portfolio has jumped a whopping seven years.
Enter product managers.
As a discipline, Product Management (PM) is uniquely placed to help businesses respond to the impacts of the global pandemic. Product Managers ensure businesses effectively respond to rapidly shifting consumer demand and maximise the opportunities that new technology creates.
That’s what Product Management is for: the facilitation of rapid and effective change.
And rapid change is never easy. Forbes estimates that 70 per cent of all digital transformation initiatives will fail. In the wake of the pandemic, many businesses will attempt to digitise existing systems or pivot towards new technologies, but without skilled product managers, it’s hard to be sure that a) those systems are the best choice, and b) that they’re actually driving customer value and improving business outcomes. In other words: pivoting requires coordination, and coordination requires product management.
The reality of our rapid acceleration of digital means that we are increasingly living in a winner-takes-all world. As Kate Smaje from McKinsey so aptly puts it: “Simply going faster isn’t the answer. Rather, winning companies are investing in the tech, data, processes, and people to enable speed through better decisions and faster course corrections based on what they learn.”
Let’s start with the opportunities. Rapid digitisation during the pandemic has resulted in a massive increase in customer data, which skilled product managers can use to identify patterns in browsing and purchasing behaviour. This represents a potential gold mine. Between 2016 and 2019, high-performing companies were three times more likely to credit data and analytic insights for at least 20 per cent of their EBIT.
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Late last year, Daniel Newman wrote in Forbes, “Companies who aren’t heavily invested in analytics in 2020 probably won’t be in business in 2021.” And the trends seem to be bearing him out.
Big tech companies like Microsoft, HPE and Oracle are already developing data-driven tools to help their clients establish COVID-safe workplaces. Australian companies like Coles—historically resistant to tech adoption—have saved millions during the pandemic by relying on analytics and data-driven solutions (Coles is even rolling out new analytics tools for its providers, to measure and improve product performance).
Another thing to keep in mind is the pace of change. The faster the change, the more fluid and iterative product management needs to be. COVID-19 has shown us that the world can pivot overnight, and it’s no longer feasible for businesses to rely on 18-month tech rollouts. They need product managers who can oversee the entire end-to-end product lifecycle, deliver ongoing value, and adapt new technologies on the fly—all without disrupting the customer experience.
Expect this trend to vary across industries. Healthcare, ecommerce and professional service companies, for example, have already shown faster rates of product development than businesses in the packaged goods or automotive assembly industries.
That sort of thing requires investment in product management as a discipline. Not just a corporate buzzword. Companies will need to upskill existing staff, and look for new talent with formal PM qualifications, like RMIT Online’s Product Management Fundamentals. As tech teams become more and more business-critical, leaders will need to clearly articulate goals, and the roadmaps toward achieving those goals. Teams will have to focus on business and product problems first, then apply cutting-edge tech to solving them.
None of this will be easy, of course. The road to recovery might be “paved with data”, but its product managers who will handle the construction.