Making good enough product decisions

Louise Schenk
4 min readMar 10, 2021

Deciding is a messy business. It seems to be all logic: Do things that will create a better customer experience. Don’t invest in features that won’t give us an appropriate return.

But logic is flexible. Customer needs are slippery. Even basic concepts like convenience are relative. My version of convenience is different from Barack Obama’s or Marge Simpson’s convenience. And value isn’t necessarily monetary. We often know that something will be worth doing but still can’t pinpoint how it will create business value. Even when the value of something is monetary, ROI predictions hinge on imagined numbers.

At work, I have been working with a product team to create their roadmap. We have a big messy backlog full of fixes waiting to be worked on, promises to other departments, and ideas big and small that we want to tackle but can’t quite get our heads around. Battling the backlog has consumed time but not yielded clarity. Debates about prioritization models get stuck in silence. Without a good answer, no-one can think of what to say. Nonetheless, decisions need to be made.

Complete clarity is an unattainable ideal. Rather than boiling the ocean down to a perfect decision, teams are more effective when creating order where they can. For us, this process looked like penciling in structures, cutting away ambiguity wherever we could, and filling them in, making something that felt workable. Here’s how we approached it.

Agree to the Premise

Without common ground, you risk wasting time talking past each other and having conversations that run in circles. Everyone in the conversation has a million things running through their minds at any given time. If you aren’t clear about the work to be done, all those thoughts will bleed into the conversation. Sometimes you’ll speak past each other. Sometimes their worries will veer the conversation off track. Counter this by quickly agreeing to the premise before diving into decision-making.

  • Delineate this decision from other decisions. Be deliberate about the task at hand to focus the conversation.
  • Define what action you want to take based on your choice. List what needs to happen next. Keep that goal in mind, so you can shortcut to the next step as soon as you have enough information together.
  • Sketch a framework. Teams have a hard time collaborating into blank space. Setting a template gives the group a common ground to work and think together.

Narrow Your Options

Most of us are rife with ideas for how to move forward. But in our heads, these ideas and strategies are rarely well-defined. Imagine trying to prioritize overcooked spaghetti! You can’t sort things that don’t start and end. Often I see clients trying to make decisions before laying out clear options. You’ll decide faster if you have clear options that also consider the ambiguity of the situation. We used brainstorming and ideation to devise cohesive, discreet solutions.

  • Take in all the information you can, then put it aside. Looking at a dataset doesn’t always give definitive answers. Numbers and comments can be interpreted in too many ways. Read as much as you can, then just put the articles and datasets aside while you work. Rely on your team’s instinct to decide.
  • Brainstorm everything. Work collaboratively to come up with every possible way forward, boring and bombastic. This is how you capture the full scope of what’s possible.
  • Create a narrow set of refined concepts/strategies. Use the ideas from your brainstorm as the components to create fleshed-out options. Make sure you cover the problem, your solution, and the outcome you want to achieve. (I’ve written more on this process here).

Create a Shared Compass

Directly tackling the decision can paralyze your team’s thinking. There are too many things to consider. Instead, work together to establish what considerations are most important. Use this as a shared compass. So each team member can work independently and ensure their decisions align with the whole.

  • Make draft decisions, then define your logic. Work backward to understand what’s more important to the team. Have each teammate make a gut decision, then describe their reasoning. Don’t pay attention to what everyone picks. Look at trends and themes in their logic.
  • Cut the decision in different ways. Repeat the activity above with multiple versions of the question. What should we do next? What is your absolute favorite? What is optional? What is necessary? What would customers like best? What will leadership want? Cutting your considerations in different ways will help the team see the various facets of their thinking.
  • Use your logic to create a framework. It should encompass everyone’s considerations and capture the essential themes and priorities.
  • Backfill the analysis. Revisit the datasets and articles you left behind to verify the validity of your decision. Use these facts to defend your thinking to (yourself and) stakeholders.

Following this process has accelerated our client’s ability to act. Within just a few collaborative session were able to select which features to build next, and set up a framework to sort and prioritize our other ideas.

We picked the next feature using our guts, but we also know we picked well. Both customers and executives have requested the concept we selected. We have comprehensive data to back up the choice. And we dared to take on an initiative that wasn’t captured in the backlog before. Faced with the ambiguity of what to do next, we considered all the options and designed a viable way forward that wasn’t in the plan.

While in-depth analysis is tempting, taking time to explore every possibility stops you from taking the next step. Instead, build a shared compass and use it to make imperfect decisions. Then create space and momentum for your choices and outputs to get better and better over time.