Skip to content

Since You’re No Steve Jobs: 7 Decision-Making Hacks For Product Managers

Erik Larson Jul 18, 2017 8:12:08 AM

Steve Jobs with the Apple iPad, copyright Matt Buchanan

Steve Jobs was an iconic product genius. Many product managers want to be like Steve, but they’re not. And that’s not all bad. Aspiring to Steve's amazing product vision is laudable. But luckily most product people are not abusive jerks. This is because unlike Steve Jobs, you are a product manager, not a product tyrant. And as a manager, you understand that people skills matter, that your job is also about helping your product team be insanely great. You can aim higher than Steve.

Product management is a tough job. Part leader, part analyst, part therapist, product managers work at the intersection of many teams, on the hook for their business results but without direct control over what they do.

More demands come every day. Sales needs to close a big deals. Marketing must beat the competition. Customers want fixes. Engineering yearns for new architectures. The juggling never ends, and results always matter.

So it’s no surprise that a recent training survey by Mind The Product found that product managers’ biggest challenges by far were around “stakeholder communication,” “problems with alignment,” “difficulty getting buy-in from higher-ups,” and “keeping all the teams on the page.” The real surprise in that survey? Product managers didn’t think they needed training to help with those challenges. It’s just the way things are - smarts, charisma and hard work are all they need.

Yes, smarts, charisma and hard work matter, e.g. Steve Jobs. But product management is messy and complex, and decision making is at the heart of the challenge. Behavioral science reveals ways for the rest of us to speed up the process and consistently make better product decisions.

Below are 7 behavioral science hacks to help you drive better and faster product decisions with stronger buy-in from stakeholders:

1 - Align product goals with company goals

This is obvious, but nobody does it. Steve did it. Start by writing down and prioritizing five pre-existing company goals that will be impacted by your product decisions. Listing them out will help product decision makers keep the big goals in mind and widen the frame to include the most important outcomes. Without this list, most teams use very narrow criteria to make decisions, regularly miss better choices just outside their field of view, and end up rationalizing how their decisions align with big goals after the fact.

2 - Expand the options

It’s easy to come up with two options for a given decision. Should we build feature A first, or feature B? Should we prioritize this segment or that one? Teams commonly choose one and go. However, according to Cloverpop decision research, if you have the discipline to think through four alternatives, there’s a 56% chance you’ll come up with a better solution, and cut your risk of missed expectations by more than half. That’s probably worth an extra few minutes.

3 - Include more diverse people

It sounds crazy, because more people usually means more differing opinions and more time spent in meetings. However, Cloverpop decision-making research shows having 3 or more people weigh in on decisions results in better decisions 75% of the time. The more diverse the perspectives, the better. And of course these people need to actually weigh in on the decision. Having other perspectives in the room but just deferring to the senior executive or the loudest voice doesn’t count.

Diversity helps reduce bias and even helps with buy-in. If other stakeholders believe their views were represented in the discussion, they are more likely to accept the decision. But, yes, once you get up to six people in the decision, time, complexity and calendar overload take over. That’s where a solution like Cloverpop helps to automate the process.

So now we have more options and more people. This may mean more, better ideas, but how do you keep decision making from taking forever?

4 - Make smaller decisions more often

Many product organizations get stuck as they wait for alignment on major complex decisions. Stakeholders spend a lot of time in meetings trying to get to agreement so their teams can move forward. Instead, breaking the decisions down into smaller chunks often simplifies and speeds up the decision making, since less is at stake. It also enables the team to test hypotheses and have information to use as a basis for future decisions.

5 - Use a clear structured process

Define and share the decision making process you will use. Using a clear structured process helps ensure buy-in since everyone will know what to expect, what is expected of them, who will make the decision and how it will be made. The process can be as simple as this Harvard Business Review checklist, or you can use a platform like Cloverpop to step teams through the process and reinforce best practices along the way.

6 - Be transparent

People don’t trust what they can’t see. So use transparency to build trust by documenting all decisions. Download our free decision log or try Cloverpop to keep a record of what options were considered, what was decided, who participated, and the reasoning. Make it available to anyone interested. Having visibility, in and of itself, will help people get on board. This is especially helpful combined with inclusion. If I’m a designer and I wasn’t part of the decision, knowing that a designer was part of the process, is likely to make me feel more comfortable with the decision.

In addition, when teams know that decisions are logged and visible to all, the decisions tend to become more data-driven, and execution and follow-through tends to improve. Teams also react faster when decisions don’t go as expected. And common bad behaviors -- like conveniently “misremembering” certain decisions or reopening them for debate -- are reduced.

7 - Track and measure

Finally, keeping clear records of decisions enables you to track, measure, and assess those decisions. Product teams tend to document and track tasks obsessively, even measuring velocity to keep things moving fast. But they typically overlook one critical question: are they headed in the right direction?

Just like product teams track tasks, stories and features, they need to track decisions. They need to look critically at the impact of their decisions and have a decision-making roadmap that is as robust as their product roadmap. As the old adage goes, we are what we measure. Want to increase team decisiveness and improve decision making? Measure it.

Balancing Innovation and Execution

At the end of the day, great decision making is about quality and speed. To win in a competitive business, you need to move fast and be bold while staying focused on long-term goals. The behavioral science underlying Cloverpop reveals the patterns for success: open up creative thinking to expand what’s possible, and lock down pragmatic thinking to drive alignment and rapid execution.

Steve Jobs combined an incredibly innovative mind with obsessive and dictatorial control over what got built. But very few people are as innovative or have that kind of power. So good product managers artfully balance the conflicting needs to widen perspectives while focusing on results. And to be great, product managers can embrace science-based practices, like those built into Cloverpop, to lead their teams and their products to greatness. Steve did it differently, but it’s hard to argue with results.

This article was co-authored with Jill Soley, a product management and marketing executive and consultant working in Silicon Valley.