The Art of Decision Making – Part 4: Identifying alternatives

This article continues the discussion from Product Anonymous back in June.  Full credit goes to the team and the attendees for providing key steps, insight and critical analysis.

In the last two posts we talked about defining the problem and addressing the right stakeholders.  The next step in the process is to identify some alternatives.

You’ve got your problem identified, and you immediately think of alternatives A, B and C. Is that enough?

What are the unwritten alternatives?

Remember that the status quo is an alternative, and not necessarily a bad one.  Any changes should always be judged against the current operation.  You need to justify why the new solution is better than what you have now.  After all, what you are doing now probably worked for a reason.

What about alternatives that allow you to learn quickly or even fail fast?  A clear decision to research an issue (by allocating a small amount of resources within a short time frame) might be the best way forward in a complex situation.  The research project may fail, but at the end you will be in a better place than before.

Delaying the decision is also an alternative, but be careful that you are not just being indecisive.  Product management is about getting out there, deciding on product issues and then making sure it happens – product managers are naturally biased towards action.  Sometimes it can be too early to decide; either you don’t have enough information or a short delay will have no effect.  It is important that any delay should be for a good reason (i.e. key information will become available), and not just due to indecision.  Not only is indecision bad for the project, it is bad for the team.  Your team needs to see you as understanding the problem and not just delaying everything until it is too late.

Valid alternatives can also include areas of uncertainty; either the details can be worked out later, or the uncertainty won’t have a big impact. Both Waterfall and Agile use this uncertainty, but in different ways.  Waterfall might simply define high level requirements without defining how they will be implemented, while Agile might define a solution for the current sprint but not expect it be the final solution.

Get out and ask a customer. 

If possible, get out an investigate the market place.  How have your competitors or customers solved this question in the past? For a more lateral approach, identify a related industry and look at how they solved issues. Remember that Nothing Interesting Happens in the Office (NIHITO).  This is a good time to collect some new ideas as well as the usual ideas.

A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.”
– John le Carre

Sources of ideas

The obvious way to identify alternatives is brainstorming.  This can be the classic ‘get everyone in a room’ method, or it could be a simple chat with a colleague.  The usual brainstorming is to be completely open, or it can be bounded towards the alternatives required.  Both methods have merit, but I prefer everyone facing the same direction.

One way of doing this is SCAMPER which prompts people to alter different aspects of a product.  SCAMPER is a mnemonic that stands for:

  • Substitute.
  • Combine.
  • Adapt.
  • Modify.
  • Put to another use.
  • Eliminate.
  • Reverse.
An example of applying each of these is on the great MindTools site.

(Brainstorming is such an interesting  and detailed topic that I’ll leave it to another blog post)

Your team and colleagues are naturally a good source of ideas for alternatives, and this is also a good time to share decision making with the team.  Ensure you get their ideas and input will help them feel like they are part of the process.  It is also a good coaching opportunity to involve newer or junior team members.

Larger projects will now start their process of generating buy-in.  Start early.

This is a good time to start any engagement and, if necessary, pre-meetings.  These are less-formal meetings where you socialise an issue and build consensus among your stakeholders and team.  Identifying alternatives is a good place to start involving the right people at an early stage.  The challenge is working out who are they.  You may get someone from the shop floor who may give great insight into what might go wrong, or they just become baggage by sticking to the “ways we do thing around here.”  Start with the RACI list you generated in the last section.

If it is for large decision making or large corporates, then ensure that all the alternatives are writen down.  Not only does this help formalise and share the alternatives, some extra thinking goes into writing things down.  Your brain needs to choose words that represent your thoughts and it is only when the ink hits the page do you discover whether you are using the right words.  This is just like those times you have to explain something to a bunch of people – it is only then when you discover you don’t really understand the topic.

Hopefully now we have more than options A, B, and C.  There are lots of alternatives out there.  Some of them are right in front of you, and some may need some new innovation.  After we consider the above, we should have D, E and F now. The next step will be evaluating those alternatives.

Have you got any suggestions in ways to generate alternatives? Please feel free to comment below to add to the discussion.

Go back & read part 3 on defining the people in the problem  or go to part 5 on evaluating alternatives

Steve is a Product Development Manager at Telstra Wholesale.  The views expressed in this post are his only and do not necessarily reflect the views of Telstra.

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