I was working with a future mentee last week and we noticed a recurring theme to some of our discussions — that a large part of good Product Management results from limiting the number of choices that our teams and our executives have to choose from, so that they make decisions that reflect the actual priorities that should be driving our next moves. In most organizations, there is an almost unlimited number of ideas, concepts, directions, and motivations from which to choose — and trying to manage all of them at once is certain to drive any Product Manager insane in very short order. Rather, in order to ensure that we’re doing the right things at the right times, we need to be constantly limiting the possible permutations upon which we drive decisions so that we can be sure that we’re moving in the right direction while being open to new ideas and concepts!
Limiting Choices Drives Knowing Decisions
A few jobs ago, I landed in an organization that had a backlog approaching 1500 individual items, all organized and listed in a gigantic spreadsheet that the Product team would review with stakeholders every two weeks to try to determine “what’s next” for the teams to work on. There was little rhyme or reason to these requests — they were of various shapes, sizes, and levels of effort. But they were organized by “theme” or “product area”…for what little difference that made. It was no wonder that the sprint planning sessions for these teams took hours — because there wasn’t a clear set of prioritized work that could be easily picked from. Fortunately, there were some changes that occurred — some spurred on by me, others by changes in the management teams — that brought us into a world where each team had a very short list of ten things that they needed to be aware of, in priority order. When something came off the top of that list, we decided what amongst the vast universe of requests needed to take its place. We narrowed the choices by insisting that there only ever be ten things on that list — never 9, never 11, and certainly not 15 (there was no “One, Two, FIVE!” permitted — Product Management was constantly reminding our stakeholders that you shall count to “three” and “three” only.)
What we found in making this happen was that we were less distracted by all of the possible “shiny things” that came across the Product Management teams’ desks. Because every time something did, we could ask the person making the request whether it was more or less important than any of the current ten things we were concerned with. The vast majority of times, it simply wasn’t — and it was as obvious to them as it was to us. And, because that ten-item list was essentially a 6-month roadmap, managing expectations became a lot easier as well — if it’s not on the list, don’t expect it to be delivered anytime soon; and if you want it on that list, you’ve got to explain to everyone why it’s more important than one of those existing ten items. This methodology forced people to consider the impacts of what they were asking for; it forced them to seriously weigh their personal pet project against other projects with considerably more general support; and it ensured that there was something concrete against which to bounce their requests off of.
We were able to stop saying “Probably not” and instead say, “What is that more important than?” And we could always revisit it at any time, if someone really wanted their “shiny object” to be put on that short-list. You’re able to engage with the stakeholder in an informed, considerate manner — and the burden of shifting priorities now falls on them instead of you.
Limiting Choices Reduces Distractions
The other side-effect that we noticed was that we had a lot fewer questions about the big list of requests that we were always trying to manage. When you’re constantly reviewing a list of 1500 items, everyone’s going to want to have their say; the same holds true at 1000, 500, or even 100 items. Everyone has their pet project or request, and nobody wants to admit that it’s just not that interesting or important. So, when you have such a large list of items, everyone’s going to be poking and prodding, and asking why their item is number 148 on the list instead of number 133.
Which is fucking ridiculous.
The reality is, anything that’s beyond the top ten — maybe twenty — things on your radar just aren’t that important. And burying them into a graveyard of ideas that can be mined at any time for future improvements removes them from general visibility, which removes them from constant pings and status checks. Which directly relates to a decrease in the amount of distractions and disruptions that you and your team will experience. You’ve got a tool that allows your team to point to a list, ask whether whatever distraction coming up is on that list — and permission to say no if it’s not.
Once this becomes a clear and definitive part of your culture, you’ll still get input and suggestions but they are far less likely to be disruptive to your ongoing work and your strategic plans. Don’t get me wrong — distractions and disruptions are part and parcel of being a Product Manager, but any method that allows us to reduce these randomizations is a welcome change of pace.
Limiting Choices Empowers People
I know, you read that and said, “Hold it — that makes no sense. How can limiting choices empower people? Aren’t you necessarily restricting their knowledge and options?”
Yep — but limiting choices is empowering; there’s a well-known concept known as the “Paradox of Choice” — most popularly explored in the book of the same name by Barry Schwartz. The simple fact is, the more options that a person is exposed to, the harder it is for them to make the best decision, and the more likely they are to respond emotionally rather than rationally to whatever question is being posed to them. More choices also leads to people being more likely to question the decisions that they do make, which leads to the various forms of “buyer’s remorse” that any Product Manager is intrinsically familiar with.
Providing people with the right choices, so that their decision points are clear and straightforward, allows us to give people opportunities to make decisions with confidence and makes them more likely to stick to those decisions. We also reduce the possibility of analysis paralysis by limiting the number of choices, as people will feel more confident in knowing enough to select one of five choices, rather than try to determine the optimum choice from a list of twenty. By reducing the number of options, we reduce the amount of research, and drive people to more quickly make decisions that they’re more comfortable with.
Limiting Choices the “Right” Way
But how do we know what the “right” choices are? Simple — we derive them through existing processes of communication, prioritization, and vetting. You can’t just jump from a 1500-item backlog to a top-ten list overnight; you have to demonstrate the value of doing so, and carve the 1500 items down to 500, then to 100, then to 20, and finally to 10. You need to bring reality into the room with you — that there’s simply no reasonable way that item number 137 is going to be done tomorrow, so why should we be concerned about it right now? You need to bring your Agile mentality with you, and acclimatize people to the concept that a prioritized list is a snapshot in time, that can change tomorrow or the next day or the next week — so long as what’s currently being worked on is allowed to finish before starting on the next most important item. You need to empower your teams to point to the backlog and ask what’s more important — what’s on the list or this new “thing” being proposed by the CEO. And you need to have constructive, facilitated meetings to make sure that it’s very clear what is on the backlog and why it’s in the position it is on the priority list.
This is one of the skills that separates the “master” level Product Manager from the “beginner” — so learn it, live it, and love it my friends. Once in place, you’ll wonder how you ever got anything done without it (hint: you probably struggled mightily!).