Indecision in Product: How to Avoid Becoming a Bottleneck

A few years ago, comedian Aziz Ansari released a Netflix special called “Live at Madison Square Garden”. During his set, he joked about the effort required to buy a new toothbrush. Not just any toothbrush would do, he had to have the best. He researched for hours, Googling “best toothbrush” and reading articles on the pros and cons of bristle strength. As he reflected, he questioned his indecisiveness and his desire to have the best when any toothbrush would have done the job.

For most of my 20s, I did the same thing. I researched every purchase – headphones, winter jackets, coffee grinders – in painstaking depth before making a decision. But, as I’ve learned, the quest for a perfect decision often does more harm than good.

Time is far more valuable than a marginally better solution. And if you’re leading product, the sooner you learn this lesson, the better. As a product manager, the worst position you can put yourself in is creating a bottleneck by making slow decisions.

A Case Study in What not to do

When I started my career, I joined a team building a web-based patient portal for healthcare providers. At the time, I was unaware “product” even existed. But I was forced to learn the space out of necessity. My first manager, Eric, was a walking case study in how you shouldn’t handle product decisions.

With something as simple as our landing page, Eric went back and forth for months. His opinion fluctuated on a daily basis. Without the autonomy to make decisions, our development team wandered without any real sense of direction or progress.

Each week followed the same pattern. The team would align on the problem, collaborate on ideas, prioritize features to build and test, then have the tables turned on them a few days later. Eric was obsessed with surveying every available option. He operated with the constant fear that we might have missed something better. As a result, we wasted months of time and energy considering alternatives with negligible differences.

And if we were unable to make decisions on something as simple as the landing page, imagine what that did to our product which was heavy on integrations with practice management and electronic health record systems. Not to mention the most important piece–the user experience of patient-facing features.

The lesson: hesitation kills creativity, morale, and momentum.

Be Wrong as Fast as you can

Leaving your team in limbo without a sense of direction is a far worse position to be in than taking a wrong step. It’s easier to forgive a wrong decision than it is a painstakingly slow decision or the failure to make a decision.

For extraordinary outcomes, seek conviction in your work and build teams that value conviction over consensus. Scott Belsky

If you’re wrong, you want to be wrong as fast as possible. Andrew Stanton, director at Pixar, uses a similar model to evaluate decisions on his films. When faced with two hills and you’re unsure which to attack, the best course of action is to hurry up and choose. If you discover it’s the wrong hill, you can always turn around and attack the other. But you will fail for as long as you continue standing still or running in between the hills.

There will be things you miss and ideas you haven’t thought of. But you’re going to learn more by putting yourself and your product out there than you will trying to make the perfect decision each step of the way.

How Reversible is This Decision?

For many product managers, faster decision making is the most significant improvement you can make. Especially when it comes to the trivial.

While somewhat elementary, the Pareto Principle should be foundational to your decision making. Which solution generates 80% of the value? Forget the other 20%. As Aziz points out in his toothbrush dilemma, perfection requires far more deliberation and research than it’s often worth. If your default position is hesitation – pausing to consider every alternative – you’ll stifle creativity and lose your team along the way.

You can also make immediate improvements by asking yourself a single question, “How reversible is this decision?” Tobi Lütke, Shopify’s founder and CEO, uses a similar strategy by asking himself, “How undoable is this decision?” Decisions that are reversible – most of the ones you make on a daily basis – deserve quick answers.

Better yet, if you have other product managers, developers, or designers coming to you with trivial decisions, empower them to make the call. Performance will improve when there’s a greater degree of autonomy and teams have more creative control over the product.

The decisions that aren’t easily reversible are the rare ones that Lütke spends his time deliberating before coming to a decision. In 2008, he had to decide whether Shopify would remain the lifestyle business he set out to build or shift towards a growth company. With venture capital implications, it warranted thoughtful consideration.[1]

Slow, deliberate decision-making can be a significant advantage in avoiding massive mistakes. But the reality is that most decisions you have to make on a daily basis aren’t permanent in nature. There’s a time and place to use this level of deep thought and consideration. Not when it comes to buying a toothbrush or choosing between two styles on a landing page.

Far too many product managers are focused on perfection from day one – an impossible task. Instead, with proper context, you should focus on making faster decisions. You’ll always be able to adapt along the way as you learn.

If you want to avoid becoming a bottleneck, just keep things moving forward. You’ll be better for it, your team will be more engaged, and you’ll be able to build better products. Decisions lead to progress because they improve the rate at which you learn.

Both life and product become much easier when toothbrush decisions aren’t monumental efforts. Learn to value your time over a marginally better solution. People appreciate decisiveness. And above all, that’s the sign of a true leader in product.

If you do not take risks for your opinions, you are nothing. Nassim Taleb

[1] Lütke still felt like he was far too slow in coming to this decision (lifestyle vs growth). To help speed up bigger decisions, he now tries to get as far ahead as he can in terms of vision and where the company is heading. In other words, being less reactive to inevitable, significant decisions that need to be made.

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