Crisis Case Studies: Real Product Managers Share Their Tactics

There’s nothing like a crisis to separate the rookies from the pros! Everyone, at all levels, should prepare themselves to manage a crisis at some point in their careers.

Despite being brilliant, humans can be prone to panic, which is the least helpful thing for you and your teams. Knowing (at least in the back of your mind) how to handle it when things go wrong, will help you recover quickly and get development back on track.

Here are our guidelines for Product Manager Crisis Management…

Product Manager Crisis Management 101

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1. Have a plan

If you don’t have one, and you’re already knee-deep in a crisis, now is the time to make your plan! However, if you’re a forward-thinking PM, you’re just trying to prepare for the future.

While it’s impossible to plan for all eventualities, it’s good to have a structure in place for when things go horribly wrong. Make it accessible to those involved. You and your teams all need to agree on who will be the spokesperson for the crisis, who will need to be informed, and what specific damage-control actions will be taken.

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2. Get your internal communications straight

Before you tell your customers and external stakeholders about the crisis, you need to make sure that everyone within your teams are aware of the full situation and the next steps.

As part of your plan, make a list of the most important people who need to be informed, and spread the news in that order.

A crisis already causes a lot of tension within teams, it doesn’t need to be made worse by someone being kept out of the loop accidentally. If a miscommunication made it out of the office and onto social media, it’d only add to the problem.

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3. Be ruthless in your prioritization

If a crisis requires your full attention, make sure to give it just that. This is when the power of saying ‘no’ will really come into play.

While it might not feel comfortable turning down other tasks and commitments, if there’s a fire you need to put out, everything else has to come second.

Conversely, if there’s something unrelated that really needs to be done, you have to get comfortable delegating the crisis-tasks to someone else. Your prioritization must be absolutely ruthless until the storm has passed.

Don’t forget to make your apologies or say your thank yous afterward. If someone helped you out, make sure they know you appreciate it. There’s no point in ruining team relationships and burning bridges.

4. Data becomes non-essential

Such words you will never hear us utter in any other context! If you’re in a crisis, and you need to make a decision now, you don’t have the luxury of time to go through all of the necessary data. If you do, great! But you might have to run on instinct until the storm is over.

This is one of the reasons why Product Managers need to be data-driven. If you’ve been working closely with data and reports already, even your off-the-cuff instincts will be more informed.

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5. Don’t be afraid of going to the top

When we’re faced with problems, sometimes the last thing we want to do is to go running to management. We want to sort out our problems for ourselves and prove that we’re capable of righting any wrongs. We may also be worried that we’ll get the blame somehow.

Even if the crisis was caused by a mistake on your part, when the time comes to take it to management, don’t delay. If there’s a situation they needed to be aware of and they weren’t told, your head will be on the chopping block.

It’s also important to remember that your superiors may have seen a similar situation before, and have useful insights on how to handle it.

6. Be the leader you need

There’s no single way to be a good leader. A crisis might demand that you change up your leadership style.

Product Management is all about collaboration. But in a time of crisis, having too many people trying to decide what to do will only waste time.

While you may not have any official authority, you do have influence. You’ll need to use all of it to become more authoritarian and take charge.

It’s important to still be open to suggestions and advice. But ultimately, a crisis needs a decision-maker who can lead the way forward.

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You might also be interested in: How to Influence Without Authority

Crisis Case Studies

There’s no one better to learn from than those who have faced a crisis head-on and come out on the other side.

We asked our community on Facebook about the times they were faced with a crisis and how they handled it. (Entries may have been edited for clarity/anonymity.)

#1 Troubles with ML

“I faced a crisis recently.

Being an AI Product Manager, you mostly work with the ML team and run POCs with customers of what models you have developed and show the value to them. Once proven, it is now time to get the model as a feature on the Product.

It was proven that the model was working and we wanted to productize it, but there was no resource available as the sprints for quarter were already planned and backlogs groomed.

Hence, I had the data engineering team to come together and develop a feature for the product. Now we just need a QC to test it out and release.”

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#2 Legal Issues Anyone?

“Here is my largest crisis: Founders of the company were under legal investigations. Company revenue down by approx one third. Employees super insecure about the future.

First, we tried to get everyone together and create a plan for how we were going to move on and get out of this situation…while this helped to get everyone feel involved and calm down, we quickly realized that group thinking would not help to navigate our company out of the situation.

So I switched to a more directional leadership style, because I knew some unpopular decisions have to be made to rescue the company.

It worked out. 6 months later we were profitable again and could switch back to a more collaborative style. Ultimately this led to a high 8-figure acquisition 14 months after this rollercoaster started.

#3 The Regulation Walls

“I launched a digital payment product (QR based card payment option through an app). We went with a new vendor who developed this solution for the bank that I was working for. And, immediately after the launch, the Indian central bank came up with a new regulatory requirement: every bank has to offer a QR based payment solution that accepts all network cards (visa, Mastercard, etc.).

Through our app, you can do transactions only if you have visa debit/credit cards. Meanwhile, the senior management was not comfortable working with the vendor that developed our app. They forced the product to opt for a new vendor.

After 2 months, the new product is ready. Now, since we wanted to end the relationship with the vendor that developed the original app, the vendor wanted us not to use the product that they developed. Now, the funny thing is our customers already started using it for transactions. If we remove this feature from the app, it will create customer dissonance. This is the crisis.

Solution: Since our customers are already using the original app, I suggested not to remove it altogether. But, remove the backend solution developed by the vendor. We used the original app icon, but the backend solution is that of the new app. Please note that through the new app, you can do both Mastercard and Visa Card transactions. Through, the original you can do only Visa Card transactions. So, customers were not aware that the original app was sunset, but they were carrying out transactions through the new product.

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Do you have any experience handling a crisis? We want to hear about it! Join our community for Product Managers on Facebook.

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