Same expectations, half the team — now what?
June 21, 2023

Same expectations, half the team — now what?

by Brian de Haaff

Are we in the middle of a “Patagonia vest recession?” That is what NYU Stern professor of marketing Scott Galloway has been calling the waves of massive tech layoffs. The moniker certainly captures the imagination — conjuring the prototypical software worker clad in a company-issued fleece. But more than 200,000 software folks were laid off this year alone. While those fuzzy jackets were once coveted, many are now wondering when the next round of layoffs will unzip.

Tech companies once desperate to secure talent are still shedding staff in high numbers in an attempt to regain balance.

Many software companies were incentivized to show growth above all, which led to overstaffing and bloated teams. Not all though. Some of us kept talking about the value of bootstrapping. And we put profit and sustainable growth first, operating within our means even when it was not a popular path. (Aha! is just one among many such bootstrap-minded organizations.) But a great number spent the last 10 years — the entirety of some folks’ careers so far — building without much thought to cost.

The resultant suffering is deep on many sides. Certainly there is pain for the individuals suddenly thrust into a job hunt. There is also hardship for those left behind — survivor’s guilt and the nervousness of looming layoffs ahead. Customers facing similar issues are distracted and less engaged. And more broadly, there is tension as folks reckon with a shift away from wasteful abundance and back towards delivering sustained value.

There is a lot of pressure to streamline while still achieving results. The squeeze is extremely tight for product development teams, whose efforts consume significant resources and directly impact business outcomes. But how do you meet company and customer expectations with fewer resources without adversely affecting one or the other?

One of the most important things that a product manager can do in today’s environment is to organize your thinking.

Keeping goals at the forefront is essential. But there is so much else that is beyond your control. So I suggest narrowing in on what you can impact wholly — keeping the team and the product moving forward towards those goals is a conscious decision that you make each day. Here is what you can do to get your mind right:

Organize your info

Product development is information intensive. One of the areas where I see product teams churn the most is in chasing down what they need to move forward. Set aside some time to think through all of the data that you rely on most — a comprehensive list of all the thinking and process that goes into planning and building your product. Cataloging now will help you ensure that the information is appropriately accessible, no matter whether the team size shrinks or swells.

Connect the dots

Everyone needs to be on the same (virtual) page. Now that you have everything in one place — you can mentally start to think in terms of trends and themes. Ideally you are doing your early info capture and thinking in the same tool that you use for detailed prioritization and planning. I used a static notebook for years, but now rely on the digital notebook that our team created in Aha! software. Whatever tool you choose for corralling, you want to have the rest of your product data (strategic objectives, backlog, roadmap, customer interviews, etc.) easily accessible so you can link up relevant content for context.

Create guardrails

Unstructured work comprises a significant amount of your time. Thinking through product direction and what your customers need is not linear or easily contained. You can help yourself and the team by finding consistent templates that help you structure that thinking in a repeatable way. Brainstorming sessions, prioritization matrices, mind maps — whatever your team needs to channel mental energy towards creating the most value.

Take 15 twice

Deep thought requires focus. Aim for at least 15 minutes at the beginning and end of your day. In the latter, you can organize everything that you jotted down in meetings or conversations and make sure those notes are recorded where you will need to find them later. Add anything urgent to your to-dos. Save a few moments for reflection as well — open-ended thinking. Then in the morning you can update with any new insights (I often have my best breakthroughs on days that I am out on my 6:30 a.m. bike ride) and ready yourself for what you need to accomplish next.

The expectation is that product teams right now will deliver with smaller teams and fewer resources. It will not be easy, but you can still make space for bold new thinking.

I also know the pressure that so many product teams are feeling right now is not unusual. The work challenges you, which makes it so rewarding. Learning to distinguish what is relevant and what is noise is critical — this is true whether you have a product team of 50 or five. There is strength in resilience and you can choose to see this as an opportunity to grow even stronger in your skills.

Many of the best-known software companies emerged during downturns and became stronger. As an individual the best thing that you can do is to organize your mind and encourage others to do the same. And before you know it, you will be asked to start investing in future growth again.

Product teams increase planning efficiency by at least 20 percent with Aha! software.

Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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