In his keynote session at #mtpcon London 2022, Martin Eriksson, Product Partner at EQT Ventures, co-founder of Mind The Product and co-author of Product Leadership: How Top Product Managers Launch Great Products and Build Successful Teams, discusses how clearly articulated Product Principles can result in strategy-informed decision-making.
Watch this video or read on for key highlights from the talk.
- You can better understand the interplay of decisions across your organisation by using the Decision Stack, which helps you visualise issues from the top-down ‘how’ to the bottom-up ‘why’.
- Product principles codify past decisions and strategic intent, allowing teams to make better and repeatable decisions faster
- Good principles are simple, memorable, actionable and highly specific to your business and strategy
Martin begins by describing how, as product people, we spend more time making decisions than almost anything else. He references the Venn diagram he created that defines the product role as the intersection between customer, technology and business, ‘part of me thinks I really should have just drawn this Venn diagram’, he says, ‘it’s decisions, decisions, decisions’.
Referencing a recent poll which showed that 74% of people found themselves overwhelmed by decisions at least once a week, Martin introduces two concepts from the psychology of decision-making: the first is decision fatigue, a concept introduced in Willpower, a book by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney, is that the more decisions made the harder decisions become. The second is decision overload, where every decision made gets harder – something worth noting, when the average person makes over 35,000 decisions a day, consciously and unconsciously.
An important factor in decision-making is the ‘the paradox of choice’, a concept described in a book of the same name by Barry Shwarts, where every new option adds to a mental list of trade-offs. Trade-offs, Martin says, actually make you feel worse and grow with a network effect, resulting in real psychological consequences. ‘Simply put, the more choices you have, the worse you feel.’
Reducing product decisions
Martin explains how when people are given a small number of options, they are more likely to make a choice, they are more confident in their decisions, and they are happier with that choice.
Martin looks at ways to reduce decisions, or make ‘deliberate decisions’, pointing to the more extreme cases we see in high-profile leaders that’ll wear the same outfits most days. Reducing product decision overload looks like offering a limited number of decisions in your product and rethinking how you make decisions about your product. Jeff Bezos said, ‘success comes from aligning on high-velocity decisions’, demonstrating the importance of asking where we need to go, limiting the decisions needed to get there, and removing choice. ‘It’s not about removing autonomy’, Martin says, ‘but it’s [about] giving direction’.
Martin then introduces the Decision Stack, a ‘mental model’ he created that categorises decisions made across an organisation based on their relational impact to each other.
Ordered top-down from the overarching business vision, each layer cascades to the next, defining ‘how’ something will be actioned. Vision informs strategy, which organises objectives that frame opportunities, founded on principles. Martin explains how, when using the Decision Stack bottom-up, we can understand the overall connection between decisions and vision, and answer the ‘why’. For instance, we can determine the reason why certain opportunities are prioritised by reviewing our objectives, which are assigned to strategic initiatives.
Principles and strategy are the two layers that Martin most commonly identified as missing when looking at a business’s Decision Stacks. Strategy is often inadequate or unclear – choosing one is definitely challenging as there are over 100 product strategy frameworks to pick from.
Martin recommends making it actionable, asking ‘what actions can we take?’ in order to ensure the work we’re doing is valuable, usable, viable and feasible. Martin says strategy is everyone’s responsibility regardless of role, ‘go out and learn how to be a great strategist, and how to talk about strategy, and make sure that that conversation is happening’.
The need for product principles
Martin shares a quote from Roy E. Disney, former senior executive of The Walt Disney Company, who stated: ‘it’s not hard to make decisions when you know what your principles are’. Principles, help codify decisions and as a result increase a team’s decision-making velocity. He recognised how impactful they are first-hand while working at Monster, a two-sided online marketplace made up of job seekers and recruiters. Martin describes how, while trying to build new features and make improvements, repeated discussions would often surge over which user group should be the main beneficiary or focal point for every new development. After pulling Monster CEO and founder Jeff Taylor into a meeting and asking him to help with a decision, Jeff stated: ‘Job seekers always come first – build an amazing experience for them and the recruiters will follow’. Martin explains how this principle, ‘stopped the debate’ and from then on everyone knew what to build first.
Past decisions focus or inform your future decisions, Martin explains, stating that ‘these are your principles’. That said, companies often mistake generic and nonspecific values for principles instead of looking to their own specific strategy or work experiences, Martin says, reminding us that while we all want to ‘build a delightful user experience’ or ‘make something people want’ these statements do not allow us to make better, more informed choices.
A framework for decisions
According to Martin, just like design has design systems and engineering has coding principles, product needs product principles. ‘Your principles have to be a framework for decisions’, Martin says, as they help you answer the question ‘what are you actually trying to do?’. He shares a series of ‘even/over’ statements, such as ‘conversion, even over revenue’ and ‘job seeker, even over recruiter’. These declarations trade off a specific user, outcome, or action, prioritising one over another, without negating the importance of either. Google, for example, looks to ‘focus on the user and all else will follow’, while Shopify’s principle ‘put merchants first’ speaks to their virtual experience.
Principles align with your Decision Stack, Martin explains, and they are specific to your company vision (and also reflect all the things you say no to). He shares examples from CodeSandbox, a next-generation collaborative development environment company, and part of the EQT portfolio, that defined principles such as ‘teams over individuals’ and ‘sensible defaults over configuration’. The latter, Martin says, is a ‘two-for-one, right? Because it’s helping them make decisions, but it’s also helping reduce decisions for their end users’. He also explains how principles should be assessed and adjusted over time, referencing VeV, a next-generation web design tool, which updated the principal ‘product engagement over revenue optimisation’ to ‘predictable ARR growth over product enhancements’ after the markets changed.
How to get started?
Martin recommends creating principles from the bottom up and using reflections and retrospectives to codify learnings, understand where trade-offs have taken place, or recognise which debates are being repeated. From the top down, as product leaders working with teams, Martin recommends providing focus and reinforcing your strategy by articulating clearly what trade-offs can be made and what’s going to lead to success.
Summarising each section of Decision Stack, Martin explains how strategy allows you to reduce or gauge the kinds of decisions being made, while principals reduce the choices and options. The cadence of each level can help you understand how regularly you will need to manage decisions, for example, vision is static, while strategy may be renewed every 18 months to 3 years, objectives are set 6 or 12 weeks apart and opportunities are in constant flux. This is grounded in principles which evolve slowly.
Martin shares a quote from Peter Drucker: ‘Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision’. He ends by explaining how you can ‘Make better decisions faster with the Decision Stack, it will help make room for more courageous decisions’.