Good Product Decisions Need Velocity

Many companies think about developer velocity and story points, but never focus on decision velocity.

Image of a revolving door to symbolise the metaphor Bezos uses about the two types of decisions.
Photo by McGill Library / Unsplash

As product leaders, one of the most important things we can do to help ourselves and our organisations is create clarity around what makes good decisions. I find that in bigger organisations, the risks people focus on when asked about risk are external: Market share, security, new technologies and competitors usually top the charts of risks.

Many companies think about developer velocity and story points, but never focus on decision velocity.

However, product management requires a different risk mindset. We have to manage internal processes and external risks to maximise value. What defines the role of product manager more than many other roles in modern business is taking ownership for how we get to good decisions. Slow decisions are one of the many barriers that can make a workplace culture stagnant. Many companies and their leaders think about developer velocity and story points, but never focus on decision velocity.

Decision velocity is one of the key measures of a successful business culture. In fact, McKinsey, Bain and even Jeff Bezos have focused on it quite a bit. Jeff Bezos spent much of Amazon's annual shareholder letter talking about decision making in 2016. He wrote that "Most decisions should probably be made with somewhere around 70% of the information you wish you had. If you wait for 90%, in most cases, you’re probably being slow."

So, how do we improve decision velocity?

Identify and eliminate decision barriers

The less important a decision, the faster you should get to it. One of the easiest things product leaders can do to start helping improve decision velocity is to identify barriers to decision making.

Make it easy for your team to make decisions clearly and effectively by proactively removing barriers to empowered decisions.

Common barriers include:

  • Needing "all the data" to make decisions
  • Decisions are based on influence rather than customer and business needs
  • Decisions with long-lasting consequences for the company are made without the right stakeholders
  • "Too many cooks" mean decisions end up happening by committee

To tackle these, ask your team where they struggle with getting to the next step right now, and do some investigating.

Create room for structured input

In my time as a product person I've noticed is teams or executives have a lot of clarity up front about what's absolutely critical. Over time more and more risk factors pile up to the point where teams are juggling 12-15 diverging opinions, risk factors in the dozens and an approval process that takes months.

The decisions that have to be made to ensure a product makes it to market and do so successfully usually include just a few key things.

Marty Cagan defines these as The Four Risks: Value, Usability, Viability, and then Business Feasibility. These risks and their impact should be obvious and referred to often when making decisions.

Having clear input on just 4 risks is a great way to create what I've come to call structured input. Structured input is creating clear conditions for stakeholders to weigh in on what's most important and letting teams and others decide the less critical things.

How are you helping limit barriers to decisions as a product leader?

Establish a decision making approach

The reality is most of the decisions many leaders weigh in on at work are not important enough to warrant the meetings they generate.

Lay out a simple process to go from input/idea to decisions to outcomes. Define major decision milestones up front. I've seen many times people want to define time-based milestones, but what's often more important early in a product lifecycle is . In the double diamond method of discovery, it's fairly easy to gather important stakeholders and set expectations on their input at the same time. Keep it simple.

Clarifying the decision to be made and the boundaries for input from stakeholders as part of your meeting agendas. Whether the decision comes from an executive, a product manager or someone else, everyone needs to understand their role in supporting or influencing decisions and a responsibility to commit to them once they're made.

Whatever your approach to decision making, make it clear, limit inputs, and focus on eliminating barriers to decisions in your process approach.

Thanks for reading. I would love your comments and feedback.