A Product Owner’s Guide to Covid-19

A Product Owner's Guide to Covid-19

How am I supposed to build a successful product when my customer traffic has decreased by 400%?

This was an all-caps text that I received from a Vice President of a Retail organization in the Twin Cities.

But she had good news: She told me that they have budget to keep the Scrum Team in place since they fully funded her product in January for all of 2020.

I posed this question: “The main input for your product backlog is customer traffic. Now that it is no longer valid input for the short term, what do YOU want to do next?”

She responded:

But we just spent 6 weeks on an updated product roadmap and backlog. We can’t just “throw that away

With as much empathy as I possibly could muster up, I asked her:

“Why? The world no longer wants the product you are trying to build. The 400% decline in customer visits is empirical proof of that.”

We let that reality set in for a moment…

Then we started brainstorming with these questions:

Is there a feature that would bring back customers immediately?

What major pain point do we want to resolve that will make the customers happy when they come back?

What high risk/high reward features have you been wanting to try, but the timing just wasn’t right?

What has the Development Team been begging to do but the business case was not there to prioritize it?

Is there a system upgrade, tool change, or cloud migration that was too risky with a full set of customers using your product? Is now the time to invest in that initiative?

Setting aside the horrific impact to human life and the financial impact to families:

Covid-19 is the catalyst for the most impactful organizational experiments since Y2K

Let’s use the opportunity to FOCUS. Shed the time wasting bureaucracy and the “we always have done it this way” mindset.

The world and your business have fundamentally changed. The first ones to embrace it and leverage it, will be the ones leading the economic comeback.

Use this opportunity to create the product you have always wanted. The products your customers look forward to using.

Rahm Emanuel is credited with saying:

You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.

But in a recent Freakonomics podcast, he wanted to clarify the full quote:

.. what I said was, never allow a good crisis to go to waste when it’s an opportunity to do things that you had never considered, or that you didn’t think were possible.

Product Owners, Product Managers, and Organizational Leaders:

Often times, our thinking is constrained. Our current reality and perceived threats, impact us greatly.

Now the unthinkable has just happened. We can let the situation paralyze us or use it as a springboard to achieve outcomes we never thought possible. Our thinking is constrained to perceived constraints; real and imagined.

Let this Covid-19 moment free up your thinking and create the product(s) you have always wanted. The “new normal” is being crafted right now.

Ignore your current product backlog until you have had a chance to brainstorm your product in the new reality. Focus on just what is important now. Get that work to the scrum team as quickly as possible. Then you can open back up the previous product backlog and see if there are new and old ideas that can take advantage of this situation

Create the new normal that will benefit your Customers, Team and Organization.

Be Well, Stay Safe, and Make Valuable Products!


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Thomas (Tom) Auld is a Product Owner and Enterprise Agile Coach. Since 2006 he has been part of agile product development and organizational transformations resulting in over $400MM of value created (and counting). Tom is featured in “The Scrum Fieldbook: A Master Class on Accelerating Performance, Getting Results, and Defining the Future”.

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