I originally wrote the following post back in December 2010. It was entitled “A call for Product Managers Without Borders”. I believe it’s even more relevant today than it was back then.

I had forgotten about this post, until I read this piece from Tolpagorni in Stockholm. Thanks to Magnus Billgren who shared their initiative called Sustainable Product Management.

Humanitarian disasters are growing and scalable solutions are still hard to find. Using our skills, knowledge and networks, we (Product Leaders) should be able to apply the same processes and methodologies we use to build successful commercial products to systematically help address some of the most pressing humanitarian issues people face. Are we up to the task?

You’ve almost certainly heard of Doctor’s Without Borders; the international humanitarian organization of doctors and other medical personnel who help those in need in war zones or after natural disasters occur.

Another group, Global Medic, sends Paramedics and other similar emergency medical professionals to people in need around the world.

And of course, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of other NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) world-wide the step up to help when disaster strikes. These include other medical organizations, search and rescue teams, charities that distribute food and other humanitarian aid and much more.

But, what struck me this past year, seeing the awful devastation that took place in Haiti (after the enormous earthquake) and then in Pakistan (which saw unprecedented flooding covering almost 20% of the country), was how almost completely REACTIVE the humanitarian response was, especially with respect to collecting, transporting and distributing food, water, shelter and other supplies to the needy.

Of course, no one can predict an earthquake (yet) and, while much slower than an earthquake, it’s virtually impossible to stop a flood once it starts. But in virtually all natural disasters, the needs of the affected and displaced are well understood.

Affected and displaced people need clean water, food, shelter, clothing and basic necessities until they can return to their homes or until new lodging can be found.

In Haiti, tents were in short supply given the approximately 1,000,000 Haitians suddenly homeless.  2 months after the quake, thousands still had not received a tent. Now cholera is spreading in Haiti, mostly likely transmitted by foreign troops stationed there, almost a year after the earthquake.

In Pakistan, the irony of the flood was that even though 20% of the country was covered in water, clean drinking water was in high demand. The army resorted to dropping bottled water from helicopters to people in need.

These are not problems that happen simply in poor or remote countries. Closer to (my) home, for those who remember Hurricane Katrina and its devastation of New Orleans, a lot of the same dynamics applied.

In all of these cases, the pattern of need was the same:

  • Fresh water
  • Nutritious food rations
  • Baby food and formula
  • Blankets
  • Temporary shelter
  • Hygiene products
  • Clothing
  • First aid supplies
  • Portable lighting and energy sources
  • Cooking fuel
  • Etc.

and unfortunately, the (reactive) pattern of response was the same with minimally coordinated drives to source, transport and distribute these products to the needy.

Perhaps I’ve been a Product Manager for too long, but when I see repeated problems that are going unaddressed, parts of my brain automatically start working on potential solutions.

Here’s the challenge

Let’s put our collective brains together and see how we can start to solve this problem, so that those unfortunate enough to be caught in the next natural disaster, whether flood, hurricane, typhoon, earthquake, wild fire etc. can get the help they need as quickly as possible and as efficiently as possible.

How can we — as thinkers, analysts, problem solvers, innovators and cross functional leaders — apply the same skills we use everyday in our jobs, to benefit those most in need around the world?

How can we counter the reactive nature of the response to natural disasters, and minimize, if not eliminate, as many barriers as possible that prevent or delay aid and supplies from reaching those most in need?

It’s a big challenge. I’m not underestimating that. But, I’ve tried to define the problem and key requirement as simply and clearly as possible.

I want to hear how you think we should begin decomposing the problem to start addressing it in a repeatable, scalable and effective manner.


Saeed Khan is a founder of Transformation Labs and has worked for over 20 years in high-technology companies building and managing market leading products. He speaks regularly at industry events on the topic of product management and product leadership. You can contact him via Twitter @saeedwkhan or via the Contact Us page.

Image sources:

  • https://www.tes.com/lessons/BJdb7l6t2iK9ZQ/river-floods-in-pakistan
  • http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_58eOM8Ne2EA/THqxjaj7MkI/AAAAAAAAAeg/y6Nln_8vIcQ/s1600/Pakistani+Floods-water+bottles+from+helicopter.jpg
  • http://archive.boston.com/bigpicture/2010/08/continuing_pakistani_floods.html