Dealing With Uncertainty and Product Decisions in Large Organisations

13 Oct 2020 by Scott Middleton

Product and development teams often try to deal with the uncertainty they face with more research, more analysis, more process, more people and more frameworks. Organisations, especially the larger ones, intensify this rather than help navigate the uncertainty. 

Will customers want the feature? How many customers will like this new product? Is this a pain point? How well will our technical compromise solve the problem?

The temptation is to comfort ourselves as product folks in the certainty of interviews, surveys, experiments, committee discussions and frameworks. We’re only human, after all. But the reality is you can’t predict the future. You can never really answer the essential product questions until you do what you’re proposing to do (which is hopefully to release the product or feature). 

I think we all kind of know this and understand it but most organisations, especially larger ones, simply can’t do until there is some certainty. This leads to the chicken and egg scenario most of us will be familiar with: we need a decision to be made to see if something will work, but can’t get a decision until we’re confident it will work.

This inherent tendency within organisations for certainty isn’t a negative thing. In fact, it tends to come from a place of success. Organisations are often successful because they’ve become machines at doing something well repeatedly and with certainty. 

Side note: Interestingly, some organisations success seems to derive from becoming machines at repeatedly dealing with uncertainty, sometimes just in a particular domain. 

Fighting this organisational tendency for certainty before doing is often outside of our control. Many – if not most – organisations struggle with iteratively evolving through frequent decisions and course changes. 

Don’t fight it, but take control

So rather than try to fight it, focus on what you can control:

  1. Realise that process, frameworks and analysis aren’t going to get you closer. Don’t dance around the edges. You’re just wasting time, money and, sometimes, political capital.
  2. Recognise it for what it is and communicate this with those involved. Share that the key-decision needed can only be addressed by doing. Sometimes this alone will unlock a decision, but not always.
  3. Find ways to reduce the risk of doing. Can you lower costs, lower risks or lower impact to customers?

Further reading:

  1. Release Now or Later? How to Assess Risk
  2. User Behaviour: What Nokia’s Demise and Facebook’s Success Tells Us

Scott Middleton

Scott Middleton
CEO & Founder

Scott is the CEO and founder of Terem, Australia’s leading tech product development firm. Terem has featured on the Financial Review’s Fast 100 for two years running. Scott has been involved in the launch and growth of 61+ products.

Twitter: @scottmiddleton
LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/scottmiddleton

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