I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead. Mark Twain
At its core Product Management is about making choices between countless possibilities to deliver value to the end user while meeting organisational goals and constraints.
Simple huh? But not straightforward, nor easy to achieve. Indeed, this is the single most difficult feat in product management.
It is easy to conflate simple with being straightforward, but they are not the same. Something is simple when it is obvious what the outcome should be, even if you have never done it previously or only just heard about it. However, doing it is completely different. It is not straightforward, and in fact it is both difficult and time-consuming to master.
Straightforward, on the other hand, means that once it has been explained, it is very easy to achieve, for example assembling a car, even though it is not necessarily obvious how you go about it by just looking at it – in our example looking at a car doesn’t make it obvious how to assemble one. Straightforward is repeatable, easy to describe, and possible to automate and optimise.
Back to product management. It is simple – it’s making choices. But let’s unpack how hard that actually is. While making a choice is straightforward, making the right choice is not. How do you know you’re making the right choice? How do you pick between choices in a very uncertain environment?
Making the right choices or simply reducing the impact of bad choices is hard. Very, very hard.
Many of the frameworks, methodologies, and silver bullets which supposedly make decision making easier often add complexity and become the means by which people try to avoid making hard decisions. Yes, you make “decisions, but in the alternative reality of the frameworks, methodologies, and silver bullets.
This is the core of why timeline-based roadmaps are so dangerous. They give a false sense of security about making those decisions – you’ve made the decision that X feature will be released by Y date, without actually considering whether X is the right thing to build. However, you have made your decision and so you find comfort in that (and so do your stakeholders). You end up spending more time making fictitious decisions in the alternative reality that is your timeline roadmap because they are easier than making real decisions in the real world.
The beauty of thematic/horizon roadmaps is they force you to confront that you have to make decisions between possibilities.
Why do we Fear Decisions?
Complicated prioritisation methods also mean you can avoid making a decision. Here, the hope is that if you plug in all the numbers, the algorithm will tell you what to do. The much simpler method of using an impact and effort matrix exposes you to making nuanced decisions in the real world.
Why do we fear decisions? Ultimately, because we could be wrong. It has implications not only for our product and our organisation but also for our ego.
The boundless possibilities at the start of a new product push you into decision paralysis – although with a blank slate/early product the impact of bad decisions is low. For mature products it is often the opposite – fewer possibilities to choose between but the impact of a bad decision is far higher (revenue, ego, professional status etc.).
Whatever the maturity of our product, we still fear the consequences of our decisions.
Is There any Hope?
Yes. Confront the fact that the core of product management is making decisions that have impact.
This is the art of product management. Making decisions. The science (the frameworks, methodologies, and silver bullets) can help you gather the information you need to make decisions, but they can’t make decisions for you. They can help you determine whether your decision was good or bad after you’ve made it, but not before.
Product management is simple but very, very hard to do well. It takes time and practice to master. Frameworks, methodologies, and complicated prioritisation algorithms won’t make decisions for you. Help yourself by framing and contextualising your decisions. Ensure you have a strong product vision, a workable product strategy and sensible objectives. Use all of these to aid your decision making by combining it with continuous discovery through your customer feedback. Combined, these will help you to produce a roadmap that reflects the real-world decisions you’ve made, for better or worse.