How product management teams can better make decisions
Today we are talking about disruptions that impact our product work. Whether it’s supply chain disruptions, the great resignation, AI impacts, market competition or something else, continued disruption is expected. How can we navigate such an environment?
To help us make decisions in this environment, Alexis Gonzales-Black joins us. She is an organization design expert and author, with experience in organization design, transformation, and team leadership. She is currently leading organization design at August Public and previously at IDEO, Zappos, and other organizations. She also authored The New School Rules: 6 Vital Practices for Thriving and Responsive Schools.
Summary of some concepts discussed for product managers
[2:13] What does an organization designer do?
We look at the factors of an organization like purpose, strategy, structure, process, systems, talent, and incentives. We make sure those factors are accelerating the organization toward its ultimate outcome— its mission and vision.
The cycle of disruption is so fast that it consistently pulls our structure and processes away from what we are trying to achieve. We need an ongoing awareness of sensing and adapting to change at all levels.
[4:35] Tell us about your framework for making decisions in turbulent environments.
First I want to talk about “Why decision making?” Why do we use that as a way to talk to companies and product teams? No matter where we go in any organization, folks have feedback about how decisions are being made. Typically, there’s a lot of dissatisfaction with the way decisions are made in organizations.
Decision making is a great proxy for many other factors in an organization, like trust, empowerment, psychological safety, speed, efficiency, power, and authority. We often use decision making as a concrete way to improve and accelerate teams because it brings in so many different factors of how teams work together.
When we look across all of the research about decision making, we see that three common levers emerge:
- Clear decision ownership
- Explicit decision process
- Decision capture
[6:49] Clear decision ownership
The most ubiquitous decision ownership tool is RACI. It falls hopelessly short of providing the type of clarity that we want it to provide. We end up just documenting the dysfunction of our teams rather than providing clarity about how the decision is made.
We like to introduce single decision ownership. That doesn’t mean that person is making an autocratic decision, but it means you have one decision owner. Who is responsible for shepherding the decision process, for getting the inputs and ultimately making the final call? That level of clarity helps accelerate teams. We encourage folks to consider who is closest to the work, has expertise, and is closest to the data.
A lot of folks default to consensus as the model for decision making because they’re afraid of being responsible if something unforeseen happens. Consensus is overused and misused. It is preferable is for one person to make a decision using the information they have at the time and to have an environment where it’s okay to say, “Oh, maybe that’s not what I would’ve done, but I trust you,” or “Maybe it didn’t turn out the way that we wanted it to, but let’s just learn and pivot moving forward.”
[10:04] What tools do you use for clear decision ownership?
Select the best decision owner for each decision. We use a proposal where somebody on the team says, “You know what? I think Chad is closest to this information. He’s been working on this project and driving this forward. I propose that Chad is the decision owner.”
Have a quick moment to see if there are any objections. As long as we agree that Chad is going to make sure that his stakeholders are heard and considered, we consent to Chad being the decision owner.
Then we do a really rigorous stakeholder map where the decision owner names his key stakeholders—the people he needs to keep in the loop and who will impacted by the decision. He doesn’t necessarily invite them into the decision-making moment, but he gets their input. The decision maker has to make a great stakeholder map, engage us appropriately, get our data, and make sure that the decision is considering the most relevant data.
[11:58] Explicit decision process
We use a disagree-and-commit process, where you detail the steps of a decision-making process.
The first step is a proposal. The second step is an opportunity for the stakeholders to ask clarifying questions. Often we jump right into reactions, but we need to understand and clarify before we get into our opinions. After we’ve clarified, we’ll have a round of advice or reactions where each person, one at a time without interruption, gets to say their advice. Then we will end the decision-making moment with an objection round, during which people say whether they have any data that this is unsafe to try. They put that dissent on the table, and we validate whether or not it is valid data. Then we leave that one-hour meeting having made a decision.
[18:36] How do we define the decision we’re making?
Before you name an owner or get into the decision making process, you must define the decision. Often, the decision we’re trying to make is a symptom of a bigger decision or we haven’t quite thought about the thing we need to be answering here. We have a tendency to bundle decisions together and to try to make many decisions all at the same time.
W need to first do some unbundling and look at the bigger picture to defining the parameters of the decision before we even get into the process.
[21:36] Decision capture
If it’s not written down, it isn’t decided. We use a shared document, in a shared space, in a shared log to write down the decision that was made. If you can, include context around that decision, other alternatives, trade-offs, and stakeholders.
A lot of teams use a simple template with five prompts:
- What decision was made?
- Who was there?
- What considerations?
- What trade-offs?
- When will we revisit this decision?
[25:05] What AI-driven tools help with capturing decisions?
Many new AI technologies like Otter or Fireflies that can record a conversation, summarize that conversation into its main themes and insights, and read out that summary at a high level.
There are tools for asynchronous decision making like Murmur and Hoop where you can input a proposal and it will move the proposal through a bunch of stage gates, where everybody on the team can write their questions and objections. Everything is documented in a decision making blog.
[26:53] Is there an example you can share of how an organization applied this framework?
I was working with the CEO of a large software company who was extremely confident in his decision making and not somebody who shies away from bold decisions.
We used an explicit process with the CEO’s staff. The CEO made a proposal, we had time for clarifying questions, and then we almost painstakingly went around person-by-person for the members of his C-staff to share their advice and reactions. It’s such a subtle but profound shift from what we’re used to, which is loudest voices in the room dominating everybody. It shifted the energy in the room to quiet contemplation. The CEO was having to listen intently to what each person said in turn, without being able to react or respond.
At the end of that meeting, the CEO said, “Not only did I make a different decision, but I heard from members of my CEO staff whom I would never typically hear from.”
We considered that a huge win for that team, not just in the inclusion of voices but also in the quality of data that he was able to use to improve his decision by simply using an explicit process.
Action Guide: Put the information Alexis shared into action now. Click here to download the Action Guide.
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms or books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” – Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet
Thank you for taking the journey to product mastery and learning with me from the successes and failures of product innovators, managers, and developers. If you enjoyed the discussion, help out a fellow product manager by sharing it using the social media buttons you see below.