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Coping Through COVID: Shifting Focus and Acknowledging Unknowns "Product people - Product managers, product designers, UX designers, UX researchers, Business analysts, developers, makers & entrepreneurs 18 April 2020 True COVID-19, Prioritisation, Product Roadmap, Mind the Product Mind the Product Ltd 1691 USA Today Product Management 6.764
· 8 minute read

Coping Through COVID: Shifting Focus and Acknowledging Unknowns

Throughout this new series, we’ll be sharing the stories, learnings and experiences of product people dealing with COVID-19 right across the globe.

In this first instalment, Kara Chiles, Senior Director of Consumer Products at Gannett, explains how the product team behind the largest local newspaper company in the United States has been adapting.

Thankfully, for Kara’s team, there’s been one straightforward adjustment during this challenging time. Being spread across seven US states meant that much of the team was already distributed, giving them an advantage at the point of lockdown. The bigger shift, she told us, has been in planning, prioritisation and in dealing with the increased uncertainty.

Their work is now a ”constantly adjusting framework” as the team continues to move work towards their goals while continually iterating.

USA Today
Gannett is the largest local newspaper company in the US – its brands include the iconic USA TODAY

On a personal level too, everyone’s lives have radically changed and this, Kara believes, has been the biggest adjustment overall. “People quickly found themselves trying to work with their children at home, or while caring for an elderly family member. All of that combined adds this tension and for our team, it’s hit different people at different times,” said Kara.

Pre-COVID, managing to work with team members across different time zones was a minor challenge that ironically highlighted the spread of the virus in different geographies.

“We had people working in extremely hard-hit areas like New York, others in places like the Midwest where they were seeing some exposure, and, at the same time, some in Florida who could essentially see it moving from the tip of Florida up to the Panhandle.”

As their environment changed, they quickly had to figure out how to adjust their work and lives.

Breaking Down the Roadmap

Kara and her team are responsible for enterprise products at Gannett. They build products to serve hundreds of local news sites – sites that, during a crisis of this magnitude, are key to providing people with vital information every day. “We didn’t blow up our roadmap that quarter, but we did realise it was going to radically shift and we quickly switched our thinking to consider how we could help our other teams.”

They broke down the roadmap from a quarter to a month, focusing solely on April, confirming what items still absolutely had to be done. Next, they looked at the part they had to play in the crisis.

“We had to consider the things that we, by virtue of being a product organisation for a news network, needed to do to help and support. That’s where we really shifted our focus and adjusted our resources.”

Ordinarily, the team’s work would support the organisation with developing products like newsletters, new site features and native apps. Today, they’re much closer to the daily news operation. “We’ve tried to figure out how to best collaborate with our national and local news teams, all working on different aspects of the Coronavirus story with the tools we already had.”

We’ve tried to figure out how to best collaborate with our national and local news teams

Kara started out as a journalist so she’s mindful of the pressure on journalists and wanted to find ways to optimize their day-to-day work. “As a journalist at a time like this, it’s hard to feel like you can ever take time off, so I also want to make sure that the things that we’re doing are really about partnering strongly with them.”

At the beginning of March, the team created new interfaces for their native app, newsletters and web features, directly related to Coronavirus.

They also built an entirely new website to help communities support local small businesses during the crisis. The site, supportlocal.usatoday.com allows users to purchase gift cards from local businesses in their community for use at a later time and now has more than 10,000 listings across the US. Whitelisted versions can even be found on the Boston Globe, Dallas Morning News and Newsday. The UK version launched last week – Supportlocal.localiq.co.uk.

support local USA
The team built a new website to help communities support local small businesses during the crisis

Acknowledging Unknowns

Throughout all of this, and at the point we spoke, all of Kara’s team were safe and well. One member had been diagnosed with Coronavirus but fortunately didn’t need to be hospitalised and has since recovered. The situation, however, has been a struggle for everyone. “This is extreme and, of course, we don’t take it lightly,” she said. But she believes this challenging time is one in which many product managers will shine.

“I like to think that product managers, and particularly those who work for news outlets, get very comfortable with being uncomfortable. It’s actually where their ability to work with uncertainty is what helps other teams to be successful. And so I think that acknowledging all of the unknowns is one of the ways that we’re coping.”

The team’s approach now, Kara explained, is to recognise that there are simply many things they don’t know, things they’ll pick up but later drop, and things that they’ll start that were never planned. They now move at a more thoughtful pace, actively looking for new ways to add value.

Now, more than ever, we need to be asking ‘does it add value?’

“Everyone wants to be able to do all of the things, all of the time, but it’s our job to say what things will actually meet the needs of the audience. Now, more than ever, we need to be asking ‘does it add value?’ and be responsive rather than reactive.”

Human Leaders,  Human Teams

As will be the case for many in a leadership role today, the challenge of COVID-19 is unlike anything Kara has faced before.

“Leadership is coaching, it’s managing, it’s guiding, it’s challenging your teams to deliver to whatever the goal may be,” she said. But with everything turned upside down, Kara believes there’s a fine line to tread between leading and nurturing.

“I’ve found that during this period, where people are being affected very personally, the desire to coach and nurture has really come on strong,” she said.

“You can see parents figuring out new ways of living and a lot more kids on Zoom conference calls. Not to mention more dogs and cats too! People are saying, ‘look I’m at home, you’re lucky I got dressed today’, and you want to acknowledge that part of the person who’s on your team.”

But along with this acknowledgement of the new normal is the need to maintain leadership and structure.

“We’re serving a really important function. Our work now is more important than ever because we’re providing information to millions of people who can’t get out of their homes. Part of my role as a leader is to create a sense of normalcy and the ability to meet our goals – even though they’ve radically changed – while also keeping the team focused.”

What Have we Learned?

At this point in time, it’s understandably hard to say exactly what we’ll all take forward from this experience, to the next product, role, or team. But we can be sure there will be many new and unique learnings that will shape our future work.

For Kara, while there are many things still unfolding, in true product fashion, a post-COVID retro is already firmly on the cards. What she can be sure of, without a retro, is how much she values her team.

“I’m very happy and humbled to work with people who, I know, rally on a regular basis,” she said. “It’s important for the team to realise and recognise that they can take a lot of pride and strength from the fact that their work has a lot of meaning and value right now. I’m amazed at what they’ve been able to do in six weeks and I’m so proud to work with these people who keep showing up in countless ways.”

I’m so proud to work with these people who keep showing up in countless ways

And it would seem Kara’s team are as inspiring out of their virtual offices, as they are in them.

“One of the things that has come out of this experience, is that my direct team now does an end-of-week stand-up,” said Kara. “Last week, we shared our professional wins of the week and also our personal wins of the week, some of which were very moving.”

Danny Sanchez, based in Florida, had been out walking around his community and found a strange picture of a warrior hanging on a fence, seemingly guarding the bins. He decided to photograph it and other unusual sites which had inspired him to look at his neighbourhood in a new way. Danny posted his pictures on social media not knowing they’d end up being covered on the local news.

Brad Jennings rock wall in northern Virginia
Brad Jennings and his family started this wonderful rock wall in northern Virginia (Photo courtesy of Brad himself)

Brad Jennings, with his wife and three young children, started a painted rock garden along one of their local walks. Now, their entire community has started adding their own rocks to this little area.

“It’s just amazing to see the way that people rally and engage at times like this.”

Share Your Story

If you have a story to share, like Kara, we’d love to hear from you.

Head here to complete our quick survey and, with the answers you provide, we will be able to create articles for those in the product community seeking professional insight, advice and inspiration.

We plan to publish these stories on an ongoing basis as a way of sharing vital learnings as we all muddle our way through together.


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