A major part of a product manager’s day-to-day work is making smart decisions in situations that fall outside of normal policy. You know – those pesky decisions that come to you because no one else can (or will) make them. Requests for price discounts, special trade programs, product customization, customer service accommodations, product returns, etc. – these exceptions ultimately come to you, the product leader, because they aren’t covered by somebody else’s standard operating procedures. These odd-ball requests can be really frustrating and time consuming.
Many managers make the mistake of treating all decision requests the same. They try to create elaborate policies and procedures in the hope of covering all possible situations. That’s a mistake – you simply can’t hope to design standard processes that effectively cover every possible contingency. It’s better to separate decisions into 2 types: routine and non-routine. Then you can design specific processes to efficiently and successfully manage them separately. Here’s what you do:
First, make sure you have solid standard operating procedures for dealing with 95% of the decisions that employees routinely make. If you don’t have effective SOPs in place, EVERYTHING is an exception.
Second, flexibility is the key to being nimble with the remaining 5% of non-routine decision requests. For these requests, create a simple, one-page document that asks for the basic information needed to make a decision and execute it effectively. The document simply asks the requester to provide answers to:
1. What exactly is being requested?
2. What are the expected benefits of saying “Yes”?
3. What are the expected the costs of saying “Yes”? Will the costs be incurred in stages?
4. Who is being asked to make the decision? Who needs to be informed of the decision?
5. Regardless of whether the decision is “Yes” or “No” – who will be responsible for leading the next steps?
Super simple stuff. But a lack of basic clarity around these 5 points is usually what slows down decisions and responsiveness. None of this information needs to be incredibly detailed to make a good decision. The level of detail will vary depending on the situation.
In the beginning, employees may balk at having to document their exception requests, but I know from experience that the 30 minutes devoted to thinking through and documenting the 5 points above can literally save days or weeks in execution. It’s no secret that clear requests with clear approvals tend to get resolved a lot more effectively than vague requests with uncertain support.
In the end, your decision-making will be more nimble. Customers will like your quick response. Your co-workers will like your clear direction. Everybody wins.