Posted on
November 4, 2023

Decision-centric product operations

With the recent release of ‘Product Operations’ written by Melissa Perri and Denise Tilles, I thought it would be valuable to expand on a few important principles of product operations and surface a few implicit challenges from a ‘decision architecture’ perspective.

ProductOps glosses over the complex subject of decision making - often assuming that effective decision making is simply the result of better access to information. The new book ‘Product Operations’ covers quite a bit of ground and is a landmark piece in bringing better definition to the role of ProductOps, but does not go deep on decision making as a capability - so we figured we would explore that subject deeper.

This post covers the current challenges with decision making in product-led organizations and proposes an opportunity for product operations leaders to assume responsibility as shepherds of the decision making process - to become the decision architects.

What is a decision architecture? It’s creating the explicit scaffolding that promotes and enables effective, decentralized decision making. It’s not a process, but a support system for deciding how to decide.

We believe this is complimentary to the principles of product operations (as Perri and Tilles describe it) and addresses a key competency that is often overlooked - our ability to create an environment that fosters sound decision making.

This is different from ‘making better decisions’ or ‘data-driven decision making’. Of course we want to be informed by data, but data alone does not suffice. Of course we want to make better decisions, but the pursuit of perfect information cripples speed and decisiveness.

What is product operations? Product operations helps define an explicit backbone for the product management function across various capabilities.

As Melissa Perri & Denise Tilles define it:

“Product operations is the discipline of helping your product management function scale well - surrounding the team with all the essential inputs to set strategy, prioritize, and streamline ways of working” - Melissa Perri & Denise Tilles, Product Operations

It’s worth pointing out that historically, there seems to be quite a bit of turbulence around the role and definition of product operations, but Perri and Tilles have put together a thoughtful and explicit foundation for how the model should be approached.

We won’t go into detail, but the book is definitely worth a read. In this post, we’ll go a bit deeper on an underrepresented theme throughout - decision making.

Reading between the lines…

We’ve written about the dangers of implicit factors impacting day to day decision making (whether data-informed or not). In applied product operations, these challenges still exist, but there’s an opportunity to manage them in an explicit way.

In this post, we’ll try to provide a decision-centric point of view to Perri and Tilles’ four pillars of product operations and make the case for a dedicated group responsible for decision making capabilities of the product organization.

Historically, at the intersection of decision sciences and and management, leaders in the field, many have suggested that leaders (who we would think of as the ‘decision makers’) be responsible for designing the decision architecture.

From both observation and personal experience as a product manager, I feel this role should broaden along with changes in responsibilities Perri and Tilles suggest - transitioned to a group operating at a higher altitude of problems.

This perspective is not explicit in the book, but we hope to read between the lines and highlight how the product operations model has a significant opportunity to shepherd better decision making processes practices.

Empowered decision making comes first

I believe that the greatest challenges we face today as product leaders stems from our natural resistance to operating in complex, adaptive environments and embracing uncertainty.

This resistance ultimately produces the delusions of plans and predictability - because certainty, consensus, and validation feel great (they’re also highly addictive).

“Traditional management is addicted to grand plans. However much executives claim to want and support innovation (and so called transformation), much of their enthusiasm runs tepid and cold. They want safety and certainty, not the creativity and risk that comes with experimentation. The irony is lost on no one. The more they demand certainty, the more they constrain their chance to discover a safer future.” - Margaret Heffernan, Uncharted: How to Navigate the Future

The result of being incentivized by this addiction is complacency, risk aversion, performance theater, and the simplification of complex problems.

Why do I believe product ops can combat these challenges? Because there is an opportunity to explicitly design an approach to decision making both in the product function as well as cross-functional groups engaging with product decisions.

Specifically, an approach that supports autonomy (not chaos) and provides the tools needed for effective decentralized decision making. You’ve likely heard this before in different wording - ‘empowered product teams’.

Empowered means ‘to give someone the authority to do something’ (do what?). It can also mean ‘to make someone stronger and more confident’ (confident in what?). Authority and confidence take on real meaning when we talk about decision making.

Decision authority grants us the right, in a specific context, to exercise judgment and make decisions while we use a confidence threshold to determine when it’s appropriate to exercise that authority - but decision making is a team sport and as organizations get larger, it’s more difficult to preserve the cohesion that produces sound decision making.

That cohesion emerges from factors like authority, trust, principles, beliefs, assumptions, intent, biases, incentives, etc…

I believe this is an opportunity for product operations - because individuals are not particularly effective decision makers, but diverse groups are when these implicit factors are made explicit, challenged, and improved.

My challenge to product operations leaders is to be explicit in the approach to decentralized decision making and thoughtfully design the architecture needed for an effective decision making environment.

We should be digging deeper into the problems that hide behind the phrase ‘make better decisions’. Can product operations systematically improve decision making? I think the answer is yes.

The responsibilities of product ops in decision making: Decisiveness over process

“As companies get larger, they start to value the importance of process over product… Over time, as organizations grow …the process people dominate management, and the product people end up reporting to them” - Steve Blank

The fear for individual contributors operating in an environment that’s layering on more structure is bureaucracy that comes with it.

In principle, the introduction and growth of the product operations function should help the product org function more effectively, but all processes (assuming no malice) intend on improving the effectiveness of the environment in some way - as we’ve all experienced, it’s often an unintended consequence that the process become ‘the thing’.

How might we avoid this with product operations? I would argue that we should include decisiveness as a signal of effective product operations - and consequently, of a strong product organization.

Decisiveness does not mean fast - it means appropriately fast. the US Navy SEALs adopted the phrase ‘Slow is Smooth, Smooth is Fast’ to emphasize the importance of balancing technique (slow), intensity (fast), and consistency (smooth) - not just speed. (source: Navy SEAL Jeff Gonzales)

In software development, slow has become a dirty word, so I personally like the terms ‘deep’ and ‘shallow’.

Stripe, a payments platform and one of the most effectively run private firms, adopted the principle of 'Think deeply to move quickly', Which along with their other decision-centric principles (be accountable, bias for action, disagree and commit) gives space for appropriate deliberation.

A better way to answer the question, ‘are we decisive’ isn’t to look at speed, but to look at practices:

  • Decision Rights: Is it clear who makes what decisions in which contexts? Is it clear they have that authority?
  • Disagreeableness: Is consensus and complacency the norm or are perspectives consistently challenged?
  • Divergence: Are multiple options being considered when appropriate or are leaders anchoring to their original ideas?
  • Q&A Cycles: How quickly can teams get answers to their questions and access to the information they need to influence/challenge their perspectives?
  • Communication: Do others feel informed of decisions made with enough information to act/respond accordingly?
  • Recall & Learning: Are teams able to learn from their own decisions and the decisions of others throughout the organization?

In the future, we’ll explore ways to measure and improve these practices - but believe this is in the wheelhouse of product operations for a product-led organization.

And if we believe decisiveness improves with practices, then we should propose decision-centric responsibilities for the product operations function through the definition of decision rights, pre-decision activities, post-decision activities, and the development of practices (decision architecture) across the organization.

The proposed responsibility of product operations as it relates to decision making:

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The truth is that every organization has decision making practices in place - unfortunately they’re just implicit. It’s rare (and unnatural) for individuals to recognize and improve factors that inhibit decision making - it must be architected explicitly and cross-functionally.