Proactively Managing COVID-19 Risk

How should Product Leaders prepare for the global health crisis?

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Article: Proactively Confronting COVID-19 Risk
The Water Cooler


Proactively Confronting COVID-19 Risk

Before digging into the product management perspective, a short recap of the situation we find ourselves in…

The World Health Organization was informed about an outbreak of “pneumonia of unknown cause” in December 2019, originating in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China. Today, less than 3 months later, we have now identified the virus as SARS-CoV-2 and named the infectious disease it causes, coronavirus disease (COVID-19). Further, we have amassed some significant health impact, including 3,254 confirmed deaths globally.

Global Confirmed Cases: 113,603

Total Deaths: 4,012

Total Recovered: 63,625

Countries with cases: 112

Source: Coronavirus COVID-19 Global Cases by Johns Hopkins CSSE (as of March 9, 2020, 9:14p ET)

These numbers are small in comparison with the seasonal flu. According to a 2017 study in the Lancet, the seasonal flu kills 291,000 - 646,000 people each year. In the US this we have experienced 12,000-61,000 deaths annually since 2010 (Ref: CDC). With 9.3m - 45m people showing symptoms, researchers estimate a <0.1% fatality rate.

However, the seasonal flu is well understood from decades of research. COVID-19 is novel and the fatality rate has varied from 1-4% (Latest estimate from WHO is 3.4%). We don’t have sufficient experience to know the true fatality rate. We don’t know exactly how easy it is spread within communities. We don’t know if it will disappear in the spring and roar back in the fall. This list of unknowns is large and the fear is high to date.

Government Response Recap

Countries directly impacted began testing and quarantining possible cases quickly. As with any response by governments and NGOs, there has been plenty of debate on actions taken and success so far. Has it been aggressive enough? Is test roll-out taking too long? Can’t we do more to fast track vaccine and treatment development?

This article will not dig into those debates but will instead try to focus on what companies and, in particular, product leaders should be thinking about as we enter into the unknown of a global health crisis.

However, some general actions by governments are worth highlighting.

  • Travel restrictions and screening of travelers to/from possible hot spots

  • Quarantine individuals, groups, and entire cities

  • Communication of situation, risks, and safety precautions to the public

  • Increase testing capacity

  • Support accelerated efforts to develop vaccines and treatments

Business Response

Unless your products/business is engaged in the development and provisioning of treatments, or management of the response to this crisis direct impact has been very much focused on travel restrictions and social interactions.

Some of the immediate impacts include:

  • Cancellation of major industry events

  • Restrictions on travel - both for internal and external meetings

  • Work from home requirements in some countries

Many companies are also imposing social distancing policies, like no handshakes and video conferences whenever possible over face-to-face meetings.

These fears and restrictions have had significant impacts already in industries that rely on travel, events, live entertainment, and in-person meetings.

Whatever type of business you are, McKinsey & Company has released a general COVID-19 contingency planning guide now that outlines three different scenarios that businesses should be planning for. These scenarios are the Quick Recovery, Global Slowdown (most likely), and Pessimistic.

I will leave the high-level business contingency planning to McKinsey but the rest of this article focuses on some of what we product leaders should be thinking about.

Insights for Product Leaders

The most basic insight is that product leaders should not be passive witnesses to what is happening. According to Marty Cagan, we should be continuously evaluating four types of risks to our product success: value, usability, feasibility, and business viability.

External market events, such as COVID-19, can have a significant adverse impact on all of these types of risks. Here are some high-level examples:

Value - If your product typically relies on in-person activities to convey value messaging, such as sales meetings and demos, user group meetings for customers to share success stories, and marketing events your risk of customers discovering value has gone down.

Usability - Both usability and value may be derived from meeting with users and performing various forms of customer and user research. If these activities are dependent on you visiting users in their offices, homes, or having them come to your office this will become much harder with travel and social distancing policies.

Feasibility - On the surface, feasibility is the least impacted risk. However, if your team is used to co-location or periodic co-located activities as part of the product development process this may become harder or impossible. Suddenly, you are faced with adopting remote working practices which may be counter to the typical workstyle of your product teams.

Viability - Most business models and budgeting processes are based on specific revenue targets. COVID-19 may cause businesses to reassess these targets depending on their industry, market, and unique situation. If certain hiring, investment, or other activities are curtailed this can have a direct impact on revenue forecasts and prior budgeting decisions - especially in smaller growth stage businesses.

Given the potential impact on key areas of risk for your products, let’s take a deeper look at some product organization activities.

Market & Customer Research

Product teams that rely heavily on in-person research activities will need to identify alternative approaches to gather market insights and design usable products.

Generally, this means that teams will need to shift to more practices that can be accomplished remotely. Since these may tend to be less expensive to execute, there may be a positive budgeting impact.

  • Rather than attend industry events in person, consider attending virtual events. Many types of events previously scheduled at a specific venue may shift to virtual mode. You may be able to shift budgeted travel expenses to attend more events and while benefiting from the reduced travel burden.

  • Consider investing more in market research services that enable to you target audiences for surveys and remote interviews, buy market data, try premium competitive intelligence services, or gain insights from industry analysts.

Learning to rely on more remote research capabilities than you are accustomed to will improve your toolkit and broaden your options in the future when business as usual returns.

Product Design & Development

Agile product teams, often work in a co-located environment. If your teams work in this manner and are faced with the possibility of remote work this can be a daunting and scary shift. Even if your teams are generally remote but periodically get together, this will be a disruptive period.

As a product leader, you need to be preparing for the possibility that this situation will occur. Luckily there are lots of resources available to coach teams in healthy remote work practices and tools are getting better all the time.

  • Designers probably already rely heavily on software-based prototyping tools. If they do not and prefer paper-based early design iterations, they will need proper tools and training to be effective should remote work be required. Don’t wait for the day your CEO orders everyone to work from home, start working with the team to identify tools and practices now.

  • For Kanban, spring planning, retrospectives, brainstorming and more, many teams rely on big information radiators in common office space. Great tools are starting to appear that can really make a transition to remote work painless. In fact, some teams may begin to prefer the workflow that digital tools provide and you may never go back to the old ways.

  • Training, Technology, and Domain-specific industry events used for developing the skills and technical expertise of the team will need rethinking. There are many remote networking and training opportunities available today. Some may already be made available to your teams, but this is an opportunity to review where you are investing such team development money, ensure you are providing them with the best opportunities to learn and then promote usage.

(Some useful Product Management Tools can be found here.)


Activities associated with bringing products to market vary significantly for each business. Common activity types include marketing events, sales training, and sales meetings.

  • Even if you believe you can pull off your big annual marketing event, you may find that your customers can’t come. It may be smart to redirect that massive event marketing budget toward other market education and lead generation activities. Try to focus more on upping your online event quality, bringing in great guest speakers, and increasing the production value. Importantly, if you want to go this route, plan early because the best guest speakers make be asked to do multiple events and will be a constraint. Remember that all of your competitors will be redirecting their marketing spend as well.

  • Sales and Services Training Events are common in enterprise software companies. They may happen multiple times throughout the year and double as team-building events. Realistically, you need to plan for remote-only internal activities. Pulling this off well takes significant planning just as destination events might. Engaging, keeping team members focus for long periods of time, and replacing some of the team-building benefits can be incredibly difficult remotely. Without the travel expenses, you probably can afford to develop better training materials and engaging with an outside expert in such events.

  • In-Person Sales Meetings will be limited for some time. Whether because people won’t want to travel, external restrictions may be in place, or customers will all be remote working. Consider what tools and training you can provide to sales that will make them more effective in this environment. Better video conferencing tools and training? Interactive online collateral over print materials.

Other Disruptions to you Business

It is important to spend some time thinking through your business model and potential impacts to it beyond the obvious. Here are some additional areas that may impact your products and services.

Hiring Practices - The vast majority of hiring practices include in-person interviews. If you have hiring plans, that do not get frozen, it is prudent to consider how to adjust your practices now for remote only hiring.

Delivery Challenges - Any online services that ship physical products to customers may eventually face disruption due to shipping issues. Frequently, we see disruption in overseas products arriving through ports of entry, this just another potential hiccup. Even domestic shipping may be impacted if your local distribution center is directly impacted. How will this impact your customer experience? Can you prepare a mitigation plan now?

Supply Chain Issues - Whether a hardware component or software, if your supplier is having difficulty coping with the impact of COVID-19 it may impact delivery schedules and typical work practices. Do you have a back-up supplier, where possible? Have you spoken with key partners?

Regulatory and Compliance Disruptions - If your business is reliant on regulatory approvals, legislation to be passed, or in-person audits you will have a higher risk of delay than usual. Government agencies may not be ready for remote work or may face pressure to focus on other priorities during this period of uncertainty.

Customer Budgets - Business customers may already be expecting lower revenue or have direct exposure to primary impacted industries like travel, expect this to have a major impact on your ability to close deals. Assess if your customers have significant operations that rely on face to face activities as these will very likely be curtailed.


As product leaders, we must think strategically about our products and business they support. This is a period of uncertainty that you and all of your competitors and customers are also faced with. Passively watching as market conditions change will lead to poor outcomes. Use this as an opportunity to improve your remote processes products while minimizing downside risks. There is still time.

With any luck a year from now we will all be complaining about how the news made too big a deal about this whole coronavirus thing…


A weekly shortlist of resources worth checking out.

  1. Distributed Teams: How To Mitigate A Significant Business Risk Of The Coronavirus - Free webinar hosted by Jeff Sutherland and JJ Sutherland to help scrum and distributed teams be more effective.

  2. - Remote tools for collaborating effectively with your teams. I have not used their offerings yet but they look very promising. Everything you can do with post-it notes can be done here.

  3. Allen Holub (@allenholub) - He is a consultant that helps agile teams become more effective and a very active tweeter. I sometimes disagree with his strong views on agile and scrum. However, he always makes me think. Worth a follow.

The Water Cooler 




Don’t be shy. Please hit the heart and comment to share your feedback. If you want to reach me directly for evaluating your organization, recommending better practices, training, or coaching your product leaders schedule an appointment now. Sean Sullivan.