Martin Eriksson – veteran product leader, and Mind the Product co-founder – presented his “Decision Stack” to ProductTank Lagos. It’s a way of connecting vision to action.
Martin says the most common thing he hears from product people is the question “How do we know if we’re building the right thing?” – this fundamentally comes down to the quality of our decisions. This might be decisions about execution, or decisions about research and discovery. So how do we improve the quality and velocity of the decisions that we’re making every day, which are shaping our product, while decreasing decision overload?
- What should we do?
- Why are we doing that?
- How do we want to do it?
More freedom to make better decisions. It’s not rocket science – you just need to have the right elements in place. The stack is made up of decisions. Every decision you make at one level inherently shapes the available choices at other levels, helping to constrain your option space and minimise the overhead of making the next decisions. Meaningful decisions actively close off certain options, and that’s a good thing!
The decision stack facilitates those decisions by offering clear structures for shaping each level of decision that you’re trying to make – understanding the “Why” from the bottom-up, and working out the “How!” from the top-down.
This stack exists at multiple levels – corporate level, each business unit, maybe even each feature team. But they all have to interlock and build into / out of each other. If you’re missing a piece, then the whole structure is weak and liable to collapse.
Vision leads to Focus. In fact, according to the Harvard Business School, roughly 75% of venture-backed startups fail due to a lack of focus. This is partially a case of having useful constraints to structure your activities, but it also gives your team motivation. It shapes the “Why” – which gives your team a purpose – and it creates alignment which helps keep your organisation in step both at multiple levels, and across multiple teams. A good vision is customer-centric, concise, and sets an audacious goal.
It’s not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are.
– Roy E. Disney
Your principles are a framework for your decisions. They’re specific and actionable rules which are a manifestation of your vision. A useful starting point might be to use “even over” statements, as these explicitly indicate what your organisation values in trade-off situations.
Good principles make decisions easy – they evolve slowly over time, are specific to your company, and are easy to remember.
Strategy asks the questions “What are you going to do to achieve your vision?” It acknowledges the problems facing you, and sets out a clear, actionable plan for how to overcome them. A good strategy takes into account your current situation, the outcome you’re aiming for, your opportunities, and sets out possible actions you could take.
Martin takes some time to unpack meaningful examples of what constitutes “value”, and how to think about it in a way that facilitates a good strategy. If you’re looking for another way of thinking about strategy, try framing your strategy as a series of product/market fits.
We talk & think about product/market fit a lot, and we need to understand that this is a moving target as the market – and your organisation’s capabilities change over time. So you might map out your initial product/market fit, and then decide what your next goal is from there – what is your next step without starting from scratch, and what actions might you take to achieve them? And, equally importantly, what should you not do? What distractions should you avoid?
Objectives and Impact
Declare intent, and offer autonomy. As a leader, your role is to set the context, structure and, ultimately, goals – not to tell your teams exactly how to achieve those goals. Given that your teams are the closest to the customer and the market, empower them to apply their insight and creativity to achieving objectives, or highlighting potential gaps in the strategy. As mentioned earlier, this structure gives both leaders and teams a way to establish and, if necessary, correct alignment.
Of course, it’s equally as important to make sure that we’re working on the right objectives. Are we having the impact on our customers (and by extension, the business) that we’d hope? Are there any unintended consequences? The decision stack is a great way to help structure and streamline decisions, but it also offers a way to help ensure that the decisions being made are meaningful, and aimed towards the right impact.
Open leadership is essential to making the decision stack work. The whole structure is predicated on a certain degree of transparency and shared ownership, so your leadership team needs to be willing to engage with that openly and authentically.
Achieve clarity – unless everyone is aligned on the same page, and has the same understanding of what they’re trying to achieve, you will always struggle to make good decisions without a ton of friction. To do this, you’ll need to err on the side of what you think might be overcommunication, and radiate your goals, vision and strategy at every opportunity.
Clarity = Transparency + Understanding
Think about your cadence. Change is the only thing that is constant, and so we need to be ready and able to adapt. Of course, the different layers of your decision stack should be changing at very different rates. Hopefully your vision is almost static, while your strategy and principles are changing very infrequently. At the same time, your objectives and specific epics should be in some state of constant flux. If you find your objectives to be static, and your strategy changing constantly, you need to reflect on what’s going on – trying to make good decisions in that environment is almost impossible.
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