This post was inspired by Derek Siver’s recent Lifehacker post Decision Making: There Are Always More Than Two Options.
When [people} say they only have two options, beware. It means they got stuck. Once people get two options, they start comparing the pros and cons of those two, and forget to think of more options.
But remember those silly creative brainstorming exercises we did as kids? As adults, people let the “real world” wear them down so much, they forgot that those lessons were not just for kids.
As I read Siver’s piece, I thought this topic deserved some expansion focused on the types of decisions that product managers have to make. We have a lot of decisions, and many of them are presented as “either/or” – but if we’re good at our jobs we spend a lot of time finding our way out of either/or decisions into much more creative areas.
Sometimes a decision is an either/or, but often it’s not, and as a PM you’re being paid the big bucks to take a look at the bigger picture when considering a decision, to make sure you’re solving the right problem.
If you are quantitative (and I think you probably are, if you’re a product manager), you can think of decision-making as a multi-dimensional problem, where the dimensions include:
A critical question you must always ask yourself – for any of your options – is “what’s the worst thing that could possibly happen” if we do or don’t do some particular work? You need to always consider that question for the “do nothing” (or null hypothesis) option, since it’s always cheaper and easier to do nothing – and if you do nothing about this particular thing, it means your resources are available for something else that might be more important or have a better payoff.
Of course, figuring out the payoff for a particular set of work can be incredibly difficult, and there is no actual right answer – the payoff always comes in the future, and predicting the future is inherently impossible to do accurately. Or at least, it’s impossible to predict the future accurately enough to distinguish between two “pretty good” options. But you should be able to see the future well enough to tell which of the options are “non-starter” and “pretty good” (and discard the former).
As an example of all this, consider what happens when it comes to prioritizing performance improvements in your product. This is something all product managers face, and it’s often presented by engineering, as “either we can ignore the performance problems, or we can work on optimizing the queries.”
But because we know there are never just two options, we immediately try to see what other options there are – other possibilities that can result in improved performance, or that can take the effort that might have gone into the performance work and result in higher net value.
So, there are a whole lot of additional choices besides the “optimize or do not optimize” dilemma that was originally presented. Some are silly (cutting the feature might or might not fall into that category, for example), some are more or less expensive – rearchitecting might be very expensive, but it might also be the most cost-effective choice, because it enables us to sell twice as much when we have much better performance.
Predicting the future is a great topic for another day. But for now, suffice it to say that when you have to decide between a few pretty good options, you have to be prepared for uncertainty regarding which one is the better choice. But if you do have several “pretty good” options, there are even more dimensions on which to consider the decision:
There are so many dimensions that come into real decisions in the real world that it’s amazing anything gets done at all! But the point of this article is to point out the following:
Let me know in the comments if you have additional thoughts on decision-making in the product management realm. In the future I’ll talk more about performance optimization specifically, since that’s an area where there are a lot more options than simply “optimize the query” or “do nothing.”
Your host and author, Nils Davis, is a long-time product manager, consultant, trainer, and coach. He is the author of The Secret Product Manager Handbook, many blog posts, a series of video trainings on product management, and the occasional grilled pizza.
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