Product Management Marty Cagan

Coaching – Decisions

In the last article I discussed the importance of integrity, and how it is the basis for decision-making in an empowered product team.  In this article, I’d like to focus on how I coach product managers in making good decisions.

Remember that in feature teams, most of the meaningful decisions have been made upstream by executives and stakeholders.  In contrast, an empowered product team is all about pushing decisions down to the product team level.

When I say “good decisions” I’m not just referring here to logical, data-informed business decisions.  I mean decisions that the rest of your product team, your executives, your stakeholders and your customers can support and understand, even if they disagree.

You might wonder why we need to worry about all of these constituencies?  You may think that if it’s the right thing for the product and the customer, then this will all work out in the end.  But this ignores the realities and complexities of people and companies, especially if you’re striving for an empowered team of missionaries rather than mercenaries.

While making decisions is what empowered product teams do literally every day, how they make these decisions is often what separates the best from the rest.

First, we need to keep in mind that good decisions rest on a foundation of integrity – you are perceived as being dependable in your commitments; you are believed to be acting in the best interests of the company; and that you’re willing to be accountable to the results.

Second, we need to constantly keep in mind the outcome we are striving for when we make a decision.  We certainly want this to prove to be a successful decision – that is to say one that is timely and contributes to a good outcome; but beyond that, we want the leaders and stakeholders to understand and respect our rationale even if they might have chosen differently; and we want the parties to feel genuinely heard and respected, even if the decision ended up not going their way.

With these two points in mind, here are the five key behaviors that I coach product managers on when it comes to decision making:

1. Right-Size Decision Analysis

It’s critical to acknowledge that not all decisions are equally important or consequential.  We make decisions every day ranging from selecting what bugs to fix, to choosing the best approach to solving a problem.

I encourage the product manager to consider the level of risk and the associated level of consequence.

Consequence means that if you make a mistake, how big of a deal is it?  In many cases we can recover from a mistake literally in a few hours.  In other cases, the consequence may very well put the product or even the company’s future at risk.

Depending on the level of risk and consequence, you may feel there is critical information you absolutely need to collect before you can make a decision, and in other cases you may feel comfortable making the decision based on the imperfect information you have today.

Consider also the people that will be impacted by this decision.  Maybe there are revenue implications, or sales, or legal.  If you need the support of other key people – executives or stakeholders or customers – then you’ll need to elicit their concerns or constraints and also bring them along on the decision.

Good decisions, especially for risky, consequential decisions, begin by creating this plan of attack.  This is also where I spend the majority of my coaching because this is where my experience as a manager and coach can help the product manager get started off in the right direction.

As an example, it’s normal for a novice product manager to either seriously underestimate risk, or in some cases, overestimate risk and end up spending too much time in discovery on items that don’t really matter and then not have time for the risks that do.

2. Collaboration-based Decision Making

Almost every product manager I’ve ever coached has struggled with the question of what decisions she “owns,” and what others “own.” And I have to work hard to try to change this mindset.

I’ve written earlier about how important it is to coach product managers on what we really mean by collaboration.  In terms of decisions, I want the product manager to depend on, and usually defer to, the expertise and experience of her team – especially regarding design/usability and technology/feasibility.

Good decision making is not about getting everyone to agree (the consensus model), and it’s not about pleasing the most people (the voting model), and it’s also not about having one person that is expected to make all the decisions (the benevolent dictator model).

If the decision is primarily about enabling technology, if at all possible we defer to our technical lead.  If the decision is primarily about the user or customer experience, if at all possible we defer to our product designer.  And if the decision is primarily about business viability, we will depend on the product manager collaborating with the relevant stakeholders.

The hardest decisions are usually around value, as value is a function of the whole.

3. Resolving Disagreements

While collaboration-based decisions cover most cases, we will still face situations where there is disagreement.

For example, suppose your tech lead and your product designer disagree on the best approach to solving a problem.  Or, perhaps your CEO or another executive disagrees with your team.

It’s important to realize that in good organizations with strong, empowered product teams that genuinely care about their work and their customers, disagreement like this is normal and healthy.  Especially since we often have imperfect information to make decisions, opinion and judgement play a necessary role.

Suppose, for example, the tech lead and the designer disagree on an approach because the tech lead considers the design unnecessarily difficult to implement, yet the designer considers this design necessary to the experience.

This is where it’s critically important for the product manager to know when and how to run a test.

This is another area where an experienced manager can coach the product manager on the least expensive and most appropriate discovery technique for running this particular test and collecting the necessary data.

It usually involves the creation of a specific type of prototype, and then using this prototype to collect evidence or, if warranted, statistically-significant results/proof.

Note that if you make collaboration-based decisions, and run tests for cases with disagreements, there will be very few situations of the product manager needing to override her team or escalate a decision up to senior management.

4. Transparency

Keeping in mind our goal of bringing our team and our leaders along with us in understanding the rationale for our decisions, it’s important that we are transparent in our decisions.  We don’t want anyone to think we are making uninformed decisions, or ignoring important concerns, or pursuing our own agendas.

For minor decisions, it is often sufficient just to explain clearly and simply in a note why a decision was made.  For major decisions, I am a very big fan of the written narrative.  Especially with the FAQ section where each anticipated objection or concern is spelled out and addressed.

This is yet another very good coaching opportunity, and I do try to warn managers that many product managers initially resist the rigors of a written narrative, but this is precisely what is warranted for consequential decisions.

5. Disagree and Commit

As I said above, it’s important to acknowledge that in good organizations with empowered teams, we will often disagree, and sometimes passionately, even after running a test and collecting evidence.  Please keep in mind that this is a good thing and a clear sign of missionaries.

However, it’s also important to emphasize to the team that while disagreement and debate is necessary and good, at the end we may need to agree to disagree.  Most people understand this, and as long as they genuinely feel like they were heard and their views considered, they are fine with this.  But this is not enough.

We need the team – especially the product manager – to go one step further and agree to commit to the decision that was made, even if they disagree with it.

This can be hard for a new product manager to learn, especially because they are rightly concerned with their integrity.

But imagine how toxic it is to the team if the product manager were to say to leadership, for example, that she deferred to her tech lead but doesn’t agree with the decision.  Or, suppose leadership makes a significant decision that the product manager doesn’t agree with, and then she complains about that decision to her product team.

Compare that to the situation where the product manager shares the various views and opinions that were considered, and then explains the reasoning for the decision and instead shares how she intends to make that decision successful.

There is no need for her to hide what her personal opinion was, but she must demonstrate that she understands the various options and the reason for the eventual decision, and that she can and will do everything she can to make that decision successful.

Decision-making is a skill that will continue to develop over a career, especially as the product manager progresses in her career and becomes responsible for progressively more difficult, more important, and more consequential decisions and judgements.  This topic alone can usually fill up the weekly 1:1 with good constructive discussions and coaching.