Product Marty Cagan

Framing Product Decisions

Judging from all the feedback from the last posting, it sounds like quite a few of you are struggling with your company’s process for product decisions (or lack thereof!). Lots of complaints about endless meetings without structure or decisions, second guessing earlier decisions, vetoes, politics and what I call “drive-bys” (when a manager just drops in every so often, shoots down your progress, and then is gone again without providing the feedback or guidance that could help you address his concerns).

While this type of situation can occur with virtually any decision a company must make, I think it’s true that with product decisions this is an especially common problem. As I see it, there are several reasons for this. First, everyone has an opinion on the company’s products; it is probably what attracted them to join the company in the first place. Second, everyone feels strongly about the product since at some level we all realize that companies need money to survive, money comes from customers, and customers come for the products. Third, many of your colleagues view themselves as much more like your target customer than they really are (or think they understand the target customer much more than they really do).

Combine this with the fact that in most organizations, the product team doesn’t actually report into the product manager, so the product manager must persuade the team and not dictate to the team. The result is of course what makes product management so difficult and at times extremely frustrating.

In some teams, the product decision process can become so contentious and deadlocked that the decision must be escalated to a senior manager in order to move forward. If this happens (and sometimes it is unavoidable), I consider this to be a very bad result. You want the debate and the arguments. And you want everyone on board at the end. In most cases, a much better product will result. A senior manager can always go and make the call for you, but besides the resentment this creates, the product is the biggest loser.

I suppose it’s little surprise that so many of you asked for help on an effective process for making product decisions.

I will not pretend that there’s a way to make the product creation process painless. There isn’t. And further, constructive debate and argument is I believe an essential ingredient to coming up with a great product. While I know those arguments are necessary, it doesn’t mean I always enjoy them.

That said, as product manager you can make a very significant impact on this process; minimizing the churn and maximizing the creativity and the quality of the result.

For virtually all product decisions, the key is in properly framing the decision to be made, and first getting everyone on the same page in terms of:

– what problem exactly are you trying to solve?
– who exactly are your trying to solve this problem for – which user profile?
– what are the goals you are trying to satisfy with this product?
– what is the relative priority of each goal?

In my experience, most of the time there’s strong disagreement in the product team, it’s not really over the facts of the situation; it’s because each person has a different interpretation or weighting of the goals and the priorities.

For example, you should be arguing about what’s most important to your target user: ease of use, speed, functionality, cost, security, privacy? This is the right argument. Once you’ve agreed on what the goals are and who exactly you want to satisfy, and just as important, the relative priority, then you all have a common basis for evaluating and assessing the options.

Note that it is extremely important to take the prioritization seriously. You should get the team to agree on a specific ordering, 1-n. Don’t just wave your hands and group the goals into something like “critical” and “very important.” Be sure you can all identify what is the most critical, and then the second most critical, and so on.

I would say that when I am called in on controversial product decisions, all too often the group has effectively skipped this step, and is deep in the weeds of each option, everyone passionately arguing his case but without the common basis for evaluation. Everyone is assuming the objectives and the priority. Even if you have done a great job developing these objectives you should remind the team prior to the decision process – put it up on the white board so that the team can see the exact framework for evaluating the options and making the decision.

Moreover, I think it is very important for product managers to be completely transparent in their decision making process and reasoning. You don’t want the team thinking that you’re shooting from the hip or just following your intuition. Every member of the team should be able to see the goals and objectives you are using, and their priority, and how you assess each option, and therefore the decision and the reasoning behind how you got there should be clear to all.

So the next time you find your product team battling it out and getting into that unproductive and demoralizing state, bring the team back from the edge, and revisit the goals and priorities. Make sure you’re all on the same page before returning to evaluating the different options.