As product managers, we very rarely operate in isolation, and we’re more effective when we’re able to influence decisions being made around us. In this MTP Engage Manchester talk, Lucy Spence, Associate Director, Product Management at Compare the Market, shares various techniques she’s found to help her make decisions in a more structured way
Match Effort to Impact
The problems and opportunities in front of you are functionally infinite, but you only have a finite amount of time and energy available to you. It’s important to inspect your decisions carefully in order to work out which are likely to have a significant impact and to make sure those decisions are getting more of your attention.
Identify Irreversible Decisions
Broadly speaking there are two types of decisions – what Jeff Bezos would call Type 1 and Type 2 – and they’re differentiated by how reversible they are.
Type 1 decisions are the highest impact decisions, which have far-reaching repercussions, are difficult to reverse and, if you do decide to reverse them, it’ll be incredibly difficult and / or expensive. Good examples of these are any kind of long-term commitments – customer promises, long-term contracts, or generating a type of data you’re going to have to store and manage to run your product.
Making a Type-1 “irreversible” decision is a big risk, so you should make sure that the chances of success are proportionate to the size of the risk you’re taking.
The 5-Year Test
There’s a useful question to ask when determining how much energy to spend on a decision, and whether it’s repercussions align with your goals: “Will this decision significantly factor into the company’s success in 5 year’s time?”
It’s not to say you should never tackle smaller issues, but this is another way of ensuring that you’re matching your effort to the potential impact, and thinking in this way can hopefully ensure that the decisions you’re making day-to-day will feed up towards the bigger picture.
Balance Speed and Accuracy
Generally speaking, it’s very hard to have both speed and accuracy in your decision-making processes, so you’ll likely need to optimise for one or the other at different times. Part of the skill to develop is knowing when to lean one way or the other.
In some cases (e.g. Type-1 decisions), it is really important to be accurate, because the cost of a sub-optimal decision is high. In other cases, it’s more important to simply ensure you’re maintaining momentum and exploring options, and the fine details can be worked out later.
In both instances, creating short feedback loops will allow you to develop new decisions based on actionable insights, which will help you to move faster, develop better instincts, and ultimately work towards better decisions in the future.
Ultimately, it is our job as product managers and product leaders to help our organisations to navigate ambiguity in a changing landscape. This involves understanding and learning from the past, being able to engage with customers to discover value, and clearly communicating the path forward to both your colleagues and your customers. Lucy boils it down as…
- Signal intent about how you’re moving forward
- While working backwards from customer outcome
- While reflecting back on what you’ve done.
… and these are some of the techniques she uses to achieve that.
Start at the End
Explain what you’re trying to achieve in a way that a customer can understand and engage with. Describe the final experience – you’re testing the desirability of your product while bearing in mind the effort that may be required to get there. Discuss opportunity and experience in a way that allows everyone to align around the desired outcome because that’s what ultimately matters.
Articulate the outcome you’re aiming for in complete sentences, avoiding bullet points (bullet points make it easy to hide complexity and assumptions), and ensuring that you can actually frame your product in a way that is simple to explain to a customer or a stakeholder. You should do this because it forces you to unpack your thinking, to focus on the outcomes, and it helps capture you to nuance and details.
Your job is not actually to make the right decision, but rather to make sure that the right decision gets made. With that in mind, it’s crucial that you signal your intended (provisional) decisions, and are promiscuous in gathering feedback! Other people will do a much better job at challenging your thinking and helping to identify potential blind spots than you’ll be able to do in isolation. Of course, this does mean you have to expose your thinking to scrutiny before it’s fully “done”, but that is a key part of the process of ultimately making good decisions.
Beware of Unintended Consequences
It is almost inevitable that there will be unforeseen outcomes from your product and strategic decisions. The world is a complex place, after all. While you should obviously try and plan for eventualities and knock-on effects, your goal is not to try and ensure these never happen.
Rather, your job is to be on the look-out for unintended consequences, to inspect them closely when they inevitably occur, understand the chain of events around them, and use that insight to better predict future outcomes.
Expose Invisible Decisions
We tend to make and inspect decisions about what’s actually in front of us, or what we’re actively pushing ahead with. However, we often don’t deeply consider the decisions we make about what not to do. It’s easy to be responsive to what’s present and known, but how do you account for the things that are not as obvious?
Compare and Contrast
Lucy offers a technique that has a wide range of applications. Inspect what you are proposing as your path forward, and compare that against the things that you are deliberately choosing not to do, as a result. The questions to ask are “What is the opportunity cost? Are you solving the right problem?”
Most people struggle to do this because they’ve already started down a certain path, and have convinced themselves (via the pitfalls of cognitive bias) that it’s the right approach. Which is to say, this is a tricky skill to develop, so you should practice it often.
Of course, once you’ve decided that you’ve identified the correct problem space, then it’s time to start investigating potential solutions to determine if they’re the size and shape you’re expecting. (If you’re unsure of how this might work, or need a masterclass in how to get started, Teresa Torres has a fantastic talk on the subject)
Finally – Beware of Pure Dumb Luck
There are a lot of things we can’t control that will impact the outcomes of our decisions – good decisions won’t always lead to good outcomes, and bad decisions won’t always lead to catastrophes. If you ignore the role of luck and external forces in the outcomes of your actions, you risk developing a skewed view of the quality of your decision-making. There are absolutely skills you can develop and hone, but be aware of the limits of what you can factor in and control.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that the playing field is becoming more level in terms of potential product decisions. More people are getting access to the same data, techniques and methodologies are being documented and shared… it’s less and less likely that you have a significantly privileged perspective.
As this happens, the role of luck increases, so we should constantly be asking “How can we set ourselves up to be lucky?” A crucial part of that is to be able to respond to unexpected scenarios faster, and to adapt your thinking as the environment changes. Hopefully, some of these mental tools will help with that, if you decide to use them.