Making decisions is one of the most important responsibilities for a product leader. They need to guide their team to make decisions and they need to make good decisions with limited knowledge. To accomplish this, we need frameworks and tools that’ll help us understand how to approach the problem.

This is a collection of resources, frameworks, and articles that I’ve come across. I’ll be updating it as I continue to learn more about decision making.

Making Hard Decisions

Hard decisions–the majority of decisions we face–are where there’s no obvious “right” answer. Almost every choice available to us has tradeoffs.

These are the decisions we are paid to make. As Peter F. Drucker says in the The Effective Executive:

Executives [Product Leaders] are not paid for doing things they like to do. They are paid for getting the right things done—most of all in their specific task, the making of effective decisions.

“On par” choices that shape our product

Ruth Chang, a philosopher, presented a framework for making choices on stage during her TEDSalon talk.

She describes “easy” decisions that are based solely on quantitative metrics where there are three choices: greater, lesser, or equal. But most of the decisions we face everyday are “hard”. None of the options available are better or worse or equal, Ruth Change calls these choices “on par”.

These types of decisions shouldn’t be avoided, they are necessary for shaping the product and experience. She advocates for celebrating these types of decisions.

Optimize for learning

If there’s no right answer, sometimes the best default is to optimize for learning. Take that path that’ll gain you the most knowledge.

Using principles to make decisions

Having an agreed upon set of principles to make decisions increases alignment and gives people the tools they need to make good decisions. There are two obligations between business leaders and the team with this approach:

  • The leaders trust the team to make decisions using these principles and will not get involved.
  • The team will discuss any decisions that break the principles with the business leaders.

Collecting and Processing Feedback

In an open and trusting organization, feedback is key to making good decisions. But how do you avoid getting bogged down in collecting and processing feedback instead of making decisions? How do you collect and give feedback?

Rough Consensus

Doist has shared their internal memo on decision making titled No Kings: How Do You Make Good Decisions Efficiently in a Flat Organization? It’s based on the approach taken by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) called rough consensus.

The goal of rough consensus is to get to the point where everyone can live with a solution, even if they still have objections. To get there, you need to distinguish between two types of feedback:

  • “Not the best choice”: When you believe there is a better way to solve the problem but accept that this approach works. This feedback is welcome but shouldn’t slow down a decision.
  • Fundamental flaws: Feedback that would disqualify the solution. All feedback in this category should be discussed before deciding.

To help facilitate the right conversation, the IETF recommends that folks ask “Can anyone not live with choice A?” not “Is everyone OK with choice A?”

Avoiding Design by Committee

Julie Zhuo, VP of Product at Facebook, answered the question How do you protect the product from being “designed by committee?” in her email newsletter:

Feedback is a gift. When you actively welcome opinions, advice, and even criticism into your work, you open yourself up to learning something new and making better decisions. The challenge is when opinions come in at the wrong time (when it is too late to be helpful), at the wrong level (discussing a tree while completely missing the forest), or with the wrong context (proposing an impossible change that lacks the background for why a decision were made).

To avoid the above, she recommends (I recommend reading her article for more tips):

  • Share your designs early and often for feedback
  • “Explore multiple options. Start broad and refine as you work. In the beginning, showing various approaches and flows makes it easier to have a conversation about the pros and cons.”
  • Get data.
  • “They say the customer is always right, but it’s important to give the customer “what they want”, not “what they ask for”. Don’t let your client design the product for you, that’s not why they hired you.”
  • “Don’t be defensive. The easiest way to shut down a productive conversation is to ignore feedback and repeat what you’ve already said more vigorously.”

Seeking Dissent

Alfred Sloan, an automobile executive, said to one of his committees:

‘Gentlemen, I take it we are all in complete agreement on the decision here.’ Everyone around the table nodded assent. ‘Then,’ continued Mr. Sloan, ‘I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting, to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain understanding of what the decision is all about.’

Seeking dissent helps to avoid confirmation bias. We need to make sure to find folks willing to disagree and treat their disagreement as a gift.

Ask yourself:

  • Who do I trust to disagree with me?
  • Where can I be the voice of disagreement within the organization?

Disagree and Commit

A well-known phrase coined by Jeff Bezos in his 2016 shareholder letter. He describes it as:

This phrase will save a lot of time. If you have conviction on a particular direction even though there’s no consensus, it’s helpful to say, “Look, I know we disagree on this but will you gamble with me on it? Disagree and commit?” By the time you’re at this point, no one can know the answer for sure, and you’ll probably get a quick yes.

When to make decisions

Make Fast Decisions

One of Reid Hoffman’s main tools to make fast decisions is a provisional decision. These are decisions he’ll make instinctually based on the current information and then document what information is needed to disprove it. This avoids delaying a decision to gather more information and potentially losing the opportunity. HBR has written about Reid Hoffman’s Two Rules for Strategy Decisions.

Gibson Biddle, ex-CPO of Netflix, has a related rule-of-thumb: “Get 70% of the data you need, then make a decision. If you have less data than this, you’re potentially reckless. If you have more data than this, you’re probably wasting too much time.”

When to defer a decision

It’s important to recognize if a decision needs to be made immediately or it can wait. The whole idea of agile is built around this concept, that some decisions don’t need to be made until the last minute. By making the decision earlier, you are eliminating options you may not know of.

Avoid making decisions

As a leader you probably have opinions and are ready to make decisions, after all that’s why you’re in this role, right? For a leader, the default should be to avoid making decisions and push their team to make them. The good leaders will recognize when it’s necessary to make a decision, accepting ownership of the results and unblocking the team.

Types of Decisions

Types of Decisions

Jeff Bezos refers to two types of decisions in his 2015 shareholder letter:

  • Type 1 Decisions: He calls these decisions one-way doors. They are consequential and nearly irreversible. These decisions must be thought through with deliberation and consultation.
  • Type 2 Decisions: Most decisions are Type 2, they are reversible or two-way doors. If you make the wrong decision, you can go back through that door. These decisions should be made quickly by individuals or small groups.

Cynefin framework (Complex, Complicated, Chaotic, Obvious)

The Cynefin framework is a tool to make better decisions by helping you understand which context you are in. The contexts described are:

  • Simple or Obvious (known knowns): The right answer is obvious and are generally based on best practices or process.
  • Complicated (known unknowns): There are multiple right answers and you generally require expertise to understand the options. It’s possible to reach a decision given enough time, but it can take significant time.
  • Complex (unknown unknowns): There is at least one right answer but it can’t be determined ahead of time, only by looking back we can see the choice we should made. These types of problems require experiments, patience, and accepting the chaos.
  • Chaotic - Trying to find an answer in a chaotic context is a waste of time because things are constantly shifting. In these situations, “a leader must first act to establish order, then sense where stability is present and from where it is absent, and then respond by working to transform the situation”

Product Decisions

The Customization Curve

The Customization Curve described by Aaron Harris provides guidelines on how to handle customizations (things that don’t scale). He writes:

I think about this optimization as operating along three variables: cost of customization, happiness generated, and cost to support that customization. The goal is to find a level of customization that makes as many customers as possible happy while not incurring support costs – through personnel or burn – that would kill your company.