Let’s set the scene. Your team is prepping for a major product launch. Marketing has been working on the go-to-market activities for weeks. Sales has been teasing the new functionality with customers. And engineering has been polishing the experience. Then the worst scenario — two days before launch, a major bug is revealed. A stop-everything-you-are-doing kind of bug.
It will take days to fix. No way the launch will happen on time. You get busy hustling and rallying the product team around what needs to happen. After all, your focus is on the product, right? Yes. But you also need to get in front of all cross-functional teams involved — otherwise, chaos will truly ensue.
Chaos does not happen simply because the plan changed — it happens because you have lost control and stop communicating what’s next.
This can happen all too fast. The plan changes, and instead of going to teammates immediately with the update, you begin to work on the new plan. In the absence of hearing from you, teammates turn to each other for intel. There are whispers — but no concrete information. Rumors start to swill, and before you can explain what has happened and what it means for the launch, there is chaos.
As a product manager, you need to take control. This starts with thinking through who will be affected by the change and how to communicate that efficiently. You need to give the same attention and consideration to this that you do to working with engineering to solve the underlying challenge. In other words, you need a crisis communications plan.
Start by considering and writing down these four factors:
Think broadly about your stakeholders — who will be affected by the change? This can often be dozens of cross-functional teammates. To keep things organized in your crisis communications plan, document every team that will be impacted and the names of their team leads. Each of those leads can serve as a point person for delivering the information and making sure everyone has the resources they need to change course.
Once you have identified your stakeholders, you need to know the best way to communicate with them — whether it is a phone call, instant message, or a quick web meeting. Ideally, you are working in a company that has a functioning product team, so you have open channels to communicate with the larger audience simultaneously. Otherwise, document how to reach out to each person using via their tool of choice. This will help ensure that they are responsive.
Quick action is the key. Nearly everyone will want to know right away, but there are some people who have more immediate dependencies. Think through all the cross-functional work and how it will be impacted by the change. Then, include in your plan the order in which people need to be told. For example, if marketing is ready to push an announcement about the new feature that day and that feature gets delayed last minute, they should be at the top of your list.
Communicate the “why” behind the change as clearly and directly as possible. And share everything you know about what will happen next. Not immediately sure of the exact next steps? This is okay, but at least give a timeline of when you will know. This will help everyone feel secure in the plan — even if it is different from the original one — and prevent people from spreading their own stories behind the change.
Change is almost always inevitable — but chaos does not need to be.
The way that you communicate unexpected events can prevent or prompt team chaos. So, think beyond the bits that make up your product. Consider a crisis communication plan so you can be the team’s greatest defender against the chaos.
Not only does this keep the work moving forward, but it also shows your teammates that you value their time and work. And that is something worth planning for.
What else should be on a product manager’s crisis communication plan?
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