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4 Product Management Lessons from PM Modi’s Lock-down Strategy

Here are 4 lessons to take away:


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Anirudh S

3 years ago | 6 min read

While watching PM Modi’s national address on Tuesday night, I couldn’t help but analyse the Prime Minister’s lock-down strategy from a product management lens. Here are 4 lessons to take away:

1. Minimum Viable Product/Pilot Program for gathering data

By now it’s pretty obvious that the voluntary curfew on Sunday was an attempt to understand how the public would react to a lock-down, what kind of measures the state and central government would need to take to enforce it and how to ensure that the essential services keep running.

This could very well have been the world’s largest MVP or Pilot experiment. In a situation where time is extremely critical, the roughly 48 hour period from Sunday to Tuesday gave the authorities time to monitor and collect relevant data on:

  • How and Where to deploy resources and manpower
  • Will the public follow social distancing and isolation voluntarily
  • Was the messaging clear enough for the public to understand the seriousness of the situation
  • Will a shutdown of services and amenities like Public transportation be necessary
  • … and much more

Collating all this data gave PM Modi a clear picture to decide if a nation wide lock-down would even be necessary.

Perhaps a vast majority of people understood the gravity of the situation and stayed indoors even after the Janta Curfew — maybe a lockdown would not have been required in this case.

Keep in mind, a lockdown is one of the strictest measures a country can take against a pandemic like this — the effect on the economy and the livelihood of millions of people is unparalleled.

However, PM Modi’s Janta Curfew Pilot/MVP gave enough insight that this was absolutely necessary and the right direction to go in.

Now imagine, instead of asking people to voluntarily confine themselves first, PM Modi immediately declared a total lockdown on Sunday at 8PM without any prior intimation — the shockwave this would send down the economic and social chain would have resulted in an absolute frenzy.

Yes, ideally the lock-down should have gone in stages over a longer period of time, but given the rate at which we are getting information about the COVID-19 spread, locally and globally, crucial decisions need to be made quickly.

Every second any citizen, infected or otherwise, spends in a public location puts the entire country at risk. Time is critical here and 48 hrs was the maximum we could afford.

Yes, there was still panic buying and a frenzy on Tuesday night in some localities, but this would have been far, far worse. The Janta Curfew gave an opportunity to citizens to acclimatize to a lock-down type situation.

Keep in mind, just 2 weeks ago, though there was only a growing awareness of the virus and things were still quite normal in India. As the saying goes, hindsight is always 20/20!

Key Takeaway : De-risk your product/feature by building MVPs. Constantly monitor metrics, measure adoption and incrementally make changes.

2. Prioritization

Every decision we make comes with an opportunity cost i.e. what we lost because we did not take the alternative.

Without doubt, Tuesday’s lock-down decision comes with a slew of associated opportunity costs — corporates facing a hit especially SMBs, livelihood of daily wage workers affected, people stranded in various parts of the country unable to return home, to name a few.

However, the lesson to learn here is that of “Prioritization”. No leader, let alone the leader of one of the fast growing economies in the world, would want to willingly put their people and country through this economic hardship. Yet, our scenario is such that it has come down to a literal life or death decision.

The right question to ask here is — What is the opportunity cost of NOT imposing a lock-down? In this case, it would be the possibility of deaths of thousands, perhaps millions, of citizens and many more falling ill for days together. Can we put a monetary value on this?

As PM Modi put it himself:

The nation will have to certainly pay an economic cost because of this lockdown.
However, to save life of each and every Indian is mine, Government of India’s, each state Government’s, each local unit’s top most priority.

True leadership is understanding how to prioritize amid difficult and conflicting options, setting the direction for the team and being the frontman in leading the team down the chosen path.

With the lock-down decision, PM Modi has set an example of this leadership quality.

Though in no way tantamount, as Product Managers everyday we are faced with requirements from multiple stakeholders and a list of hundreds of interesting features to build.

In a scenario where both time and monetary resources are limited, it becomes critical to understand the opportunity cost of each and every feature/requirement to be built — What will happen if we don’t build Feature A now? What about Feature B ? Using this information it becomes much easier to prioritize what needs to be built.

Key Takeaway: Understand the opportunity cost of building features and prioritize based on outcome.

3. Crisp Communication —Focus on one point.

In the book “Made to Stick“ the authors’ write about an advice Bill Clinton got from his campaign manager during his 1992 presidential campaign:

If you say three things, you don’t say anything.

For a message to stick with people it’s extremely important to keep things as simple as possible and focus on one core point. The more unconnected things you try to talk about the less likely people are to remember them after your speech, especially if its a public address to a large audience.

During PM Modi’s address it was clear that he was trying to get one, and only one, message across — “Stay Home”. Every single point he made in the 28 mins:

  • What will happen if you don’t stay home?
  • How will you staying at home help the country?
  • How staying at home helped other countries?
  • Understanding that staying at home is painful and an inconvenience
  • Why do you have to stay home for 21 days ?
  • Appreciating people for staying at home during Janta Curfew
  • How the government is supporting healthcare facilities while the public stays home

….. all of these revolved around the central concept of “Stay Home”.

He could have talked about how the government is planning on reviving the economy after the lock-down, how it’s planning on helping the daily workers, the economic stimulus package and many other important topics.

But he intentionally chose to focus only on the message of “Stay Home” since it was extremely critical that the public understands the importance of the current scenario and follows it diligently.

In a way, this ties back to the previous point of prioritization — effective communication is about forcing yourself to pick the most important idea you want to get across whether its the value a new feature brings, how it solves customer pain points or any other message.

Key Takeaway: When communicating understand the core message you want to get across. Force yourself to prioritize ideas you want to communicate and understand what you choose NOT to say.

4. Empathize and Speak the Customer’s Language (literally)

For people to follow social distancing it becomes important to get the message across explaining how it helps in the fight against COVID-19. In an extremely heterogenous society like India this becomes a challenge as people come from very different backgrounds- educationally, economically, linguistically and even culturally.

One of the interesting ways PM Modi achieved this was by relating the concept of social distancing to “Lakshman Rekha”. The story of “Lakshman Rekha” or “The Protective Line” is something that’s passed on from person to person for generations in our country and almost everyone regardless of language or educational background is aware of.

He explained that by social isolating ourselves its akin to drawing a “lakshman rekha” outside our homes not allowing the virus to enter inside. But by crossing the “lakshman rekha” of our homes we risk exposing ourselves.

Another way PM Modi ensured the concept sticks in the minds of the public is by showing a poster where the word Corona is an acronym for Koi Road pe Na Nikle (no one should go out on the road)

Apart from these, throughout the speech he empathized with the public, understanding the difficulty this lockdown would bring, he expressed the tremendous effort the medical staff, sanitation workers, law enforcement and the thousands of other people are putting in, working tirelessly to ensure the nuisance of the coronavirus is eradicated.

Product Management at the end of the day boils down to how well you empathize with your customers. If you do this well you understand their problems at a deep level and can communicate the value your product, brings in a language they understand.

Key Takeaway: Simplify your communication in a way that your customers understand. Put yourself in the shoes of your customer and understand their problems at a deep level.

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