How to Combat Decision Fatigue

Decisions. We all have to make hundreds, if not thousands, of decisions throughout any given day. You just made a decision to click on this article and you’re about to make another if you would like to continue reading.

I’m a product manager for an enterprise cloud networking and IT company. This means I get to work on things like licensing, cross-product UI/UX, cross product features, performance, back-end performance/scalability, and APIs, infrastructure. Given the breadth of areas I work on across multiple engineering teams, departments, and customers, I have to make quite a few decisions. Some small, some large, some that affect one piece of the pie, some that affect the entire pie. One minute I have to make a decision about marketing and outreach, the next minute a decision about how a specific feature is going to work.

Much of the work that I do is not only across several engineering teams that work on the cloud infrastructure, but across other products within the company. This means that not only do I have work to align one engineering team, but sometimes three engineering teams, three product managers and all the other functional teams within the organization. Needless to say, there are many decisions that have to be made. At the end of the day, as a Product Manager, you are on the hook for both the decisions you make and the decisions you help inform.

When I was asked to review research done on making decisions and write an article about it, I got pretty excited. Much of the report was around who, what, and how people make decisions. Alpha was generous in providing me a sneak peek of their research and asked if I could write some thoughts around the results. Here we go!

The Results of a Survey of 300+ Decision Makers

The first interesting thing I found was the breadth of participants of Alpha’s survey. Every organization is different, and every level makes different types of decisions. It was great to see that the Alpha team found respondents across all sizes of organizations and across all levels.

One of the interesting pieces of information uncovered was the types of decisions people had to make on a monthly basis. Respondents most commonly make product, strategy, and design decisions, so it was easy for me to relate.

My personal experiences match the data. The one thing that I found shocking was that only 33% of the respondents had to make an engineering related decision every month. Personally, I work with engineering on a daily basis and would estimate that I help make engineering decisions at least once per day. With ⅔ of the respondents being in a product role, I would have thought this number would have been much higher.

Product managers don’t (and shouldn’t) tell engineers how to design or build something, but I believe the best ones understand the technical side and can help inform decisions. For example, recently I was white boarding a potential solution with the engineering team on how to transfer data between one database to the next on a different server. Together, we came up with three solutions and discussed the trade-offs, before I made the decision to go with a particular solution. I find myself doing these types of sessions and decision-making exercises a couple of times per week.

I am a big proponent of data-informed decision making. There are so many ways that one can take in a set of data, slice and dice it, and come up with a different interpretation.

Formulate a hypothesis, analyze the data to help revise (prove or disprove) the hypothesis, and then get ‘real-world’ data by talking to customers, support, or sales. Once you have those pieces of data, you can then make a better informed decision.

Data-Driven Decisions

Most participants (91%) look to leverage data to make decisions, but only half of them use data to actually make the decision. Naturally, the next question I asked myself was “Why aren’t they using data?”

Digging deeper in to the survey results, I found that they didn’t have enough or the right data to make the decision. This is very common in companies that are just adopting the use of data. Either (1) They don’t have data because they are just starting to collect it, (2) They have the data, but it is not in a central place so it is hard to analyze, or (3) There are several ‘copies’ of the same data that are seem similar on the face but, in reality, are different which causes inconsistency within an organization.

More often than not, I see #3 being the most common. One person does a data analysis, presents it, and other parties respond with “Wait, I pulled X data from here, and I got different results” or “Did you think of including Y? That would paint a better picture.”

Not surprisingly, the survey captured that almost 50% of all respondents said the lack of quality and reliability of the data was a challenge in helping them make decisions.

Another unsurprising result was that most respondents did not share a common understanding of how to use data to make decisions within the organization.

I could write a series of posts about this, but Harvard Business Review wrote a great article around this. I highly encourage that you take a look.

Take Ownership of Your Decisions

As a Product Manager, you have to accept that when everything goes well, it’s the people and the teams around you that get all the praise (and should). But when things go wrong, you are the sole owner of that failure. Be it a bad decision, bad data point, or lack of execution. What I found that was common in both this survey and my experience was the desire for people to better use data to make decisions.

Surprisingly, however, most respondents said they wanted more autonomy rather than having to accept mandates from top level executives without getting proper recognition for good decisions. When seen in the context of top-down management that is still prevalent throughout the business world, it makes sense that this would be the number one concern.

At the end of the day, decision making is not easy. We suffer from decision fatigue, and as a result, sometimes we fail to make crucial decisions. But, that could have a large impact on others, your product, and your organization. If you decide to not review a piece of customer facing communication, it can cause you and many others in your organization a headache. Trust me, I have personal experience with this one. Every time you are posed to make a decision, take a step back, understand the impact it will have, ask yourself if you need more time or more data to make that decision and proceed.

It is ok to not have an answer on the spot. Commonly, I say “I don’t have enough information to make that call right now, let me do a little digging and get back to you by [date].”

I’m very happy that I was able to get early access to this data and could relate to many of the findings. Please leave your comments below, read through the full analysis here and give the Alpha team feedback on the survey.

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