The COVID-19 crisis is more than a serious health threat, it’s a challenge to the entire business and social ecosystem. There are no doubts that an economic crisis will come. However, this article is about opportunities and solutions, not about problems nor predictions.
Here, in this two-part article series, you’ll find my thoughts about how the product community can help humanity, by sharing their experience in dealing with uncertainty, difficult decisions, emotions, and data. We’ll start with some prerequisites, and then jump into execution and implementation of frameworks.
The Novel Context
The situation is pretty clear and we feel it already, at a personal, professional and public level – nothing will be the same after the tide has gone. Quite soon, there will be a shore full of ancient relics from the pre-COVID era.
Is it the end? Definitely not.
COVID-19 is an opportunity to learn, to understand what we did wrong and how we can improve. Actually, this is the day-to-day job of product, design and agile practitioners all over the world. We call it an iteration when it’s an incremental improvement, or a pivot when it’s a major change.
COVID-19 is an opportunity to be united, to work together: doctors, scientists, engineers, journalists, and the public, as a team. Is it hard? Yes. Is it impossible? No. For people in tech, it’s just our daily environment, nothing too fancy, nothing too hard. We call it cross-functional teams.
So, how can the tech product community help the world to pivot, work as a cross-functional team and make this place better prepared for the times to come?
Before jumping in more details, let’s do something simple and very actual → sanitization.
First, Buzzword Sanitization
I think that the biggest opportunity we have is right here – to wipe out the nonsense we have surrounded ourselves with. Think of all that lingo we hear and speak in business meetings, like agile, digital transformation, leverage, etc. and the associated outcome, if any. Is there any outcome, any added value in our efforts, or is it just plain output, checkmarks on a piece of paper, and vanity metrics? So, let’s throw away all these say-nothing words and be minded on the job to be done.
Let’s take an example, innovation, one of the most buzzified words in business. Some companies think that innovation is a switch button, and outsource the job of finding it to an innovation lab or accelerator. Some think it’s about wearing jeans to work and having a private chef. But as hard as it may be to hear, innovation theater isn’t innovation.
When effective, innovation and digital transformation are starting small, emerging on an individual level. For example, blend a small team of internal employees and external consultants and let them use digital tools of their choice, see what’s happening and which are the possible security threats. Maybe there are not so many; maybe they can be mitigated. Then, let those people fail a bit through low cost pilots geared for testing minimally, and praise the learnings. Then, let them plan small – in quarters not years, in objectives not features. One technique we use here at Modus and we advise for is the featureless roadmap – it helps teams to concentrate on objectives and outcomes rather than create granular pieces of deliverables that don’t fit together.
Second, Ego Sanitization
We live in times of introspection, times when we really understand that there are forces much bigger than us, the mere humans. Corinavirus has shown that no matter how much we think we are above the natural world, we are still part of it and still subject to its whims. And because we are intelligent, we acknowledge we are not always right and we are able to bring a bit more honesty and humbleness in our public, business, and personal lives.
Here at Modus, and in many other digital companies, the engineers, designers, strategists and data scientists work together and share their learnings on a daily basis. This empowers trust and psychological safety, trust that people working from home are doing their jobs, for example. In the last few years we saw many companies operating under the mentality that “working from home is not our policy”. Well, surprise, that policy just changed, suddenly, without being noticed.
An ego sanitization done well helps build trust. This applies not only in tech, but also in politics and society. Imagine a world where all the actors are sharing their work and asking for peer reviews, a world where HiPPOs (highest paid person’s opinion) are an extinct species and where we are happy to receive and give feedback with no fear. Yes, I mean the government and politicians, who are more focused on elections as a vanity metrics than people, the users of the policies they create – what if we all would start to think of the public policies as state features made to solve people’s problems?
Third, Debt Sanitization
“Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt is paid” – Valery Legasov, Chernobyl Investigation Committee
Having grown up in a communist country myself, I can confirm, this is all it was about behind the Iron Curtain: lies → debt → collapse
Technical debt is a very common concept in the development teams, but there are other kinds of debt: product, business, and strategic debt. Maybe social and political debt also. So, It’s not only about nuclear plants, despotic regimes or engineering teams, it’s also about how we are building our societies and how many debts we leave behind.
Building a world with fewer lies and less debt is one of the key opportunities in the COVID-19 crisis, and the most important goal for times to come. It may sound cheesy and idealistic, but how often are we, as product and tech practitioners, doing retros and improving team performance for the next iteration? Yes, you’re right, every two weeks. So it works, and it’s not so hard.
Last-but-not-least, Improved Diversity
Diversity started as one of the most important human-centric approaches in modern history but it landed, too many times, as a checkmark and a new structure in the organization’s chart. What is diversity truly about? It is just diversity, nothing more. Diversity of all kinds, diversity of thinking, diversity of being different. To better understand the world as a whole, society and businesses will have to forget about cultural fit and go after something else – a wingman fit.
Wingman fit is camaradship, it’s about working well together to get the job done – because it’s more important how well we fly together than how similar we are. If the cultural fit is about sharing a common set of values, wingman fit is far more beyond that – is about sharing what is essential to succeed in our mission.
Every failure is an opportunity to learn and every crisis is a system failure. So let’s see the opportunity, sit with the team, evaluate the situation and prioritize the next moves. For me everything changed when I decided to read “the novel context” instead of “the novel coronavirus” in the news.
In the next part we are going to discuss something that we all love: frameworks. So stay tuned, stay safe, and be happy.