Decision Notes for Product Managers

Decision making is a crucial skill for Product Managers.

Great Product Managers excel at explaining clearly why they made a specific decision.

In short, sharing the decision making process with internal teams and external parties (e.g. stakeholders) is equally important as making decisions.

Recently, our product team had to build and release two products in less than two months.

In both cases, we took a MVP (Minimum Viable Product) approach to be able to deliver value quickly while keep iterating.

It was an incredible team effort that required a lot of decision making.

When you make dozens and dozens of decisions in a very short amount of time and that you have to share these choices with people who are outside your team, it could be difficult to capture all the granular details that lead you to make these decisions.

This is when Decision Notes come in handy.
I wrote my first Decision Note, for work, a couple of days ago and I found it incredibly useful.

I first encountered the Decision Journal technique through Farnam Street.

I decided to adapt it for work and to rename it Decision Notes.

Decision Notes can help Product Managers be at peace and be more confident about the decisions they make.

How Decision Notes work?

Here is a template showing how Decision Notes could look like and the key questions you need to answer.

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Product or Feature Name

The Decision
The decision that the product manager or the product team made.
Date when this decision was made.

Rationale
Why do you think, this was the decision to make at that time?

A sentence explaining the main reasons behind the decision. This can be short as the following sections will allow you to expand more and add more evidence to support your decision.

Data to back-this up
Which data (qualitative, quantitative) or lack of data have you used to make this decision?

A paragraph with key relevant data or information. There is no need to add a deluge of data here, only the most relevant pieces of information to support the decision.

It is important to note that a lack of data or knowledge gaps are valid reasons to make a certain decision and Product Managers should be comfortable using this to justify their decisions.

I also believe that the alignment with the wider product strategy or the alignment with the core user needs are key factors that can sway a decision. These factors should also be considered at this stage of the Decision Note.

Trade-offs
Which trade-offs, the team is willing to make?

Product Managers and Product Teams should be transparent and comfortable with the impact of their decisions.
There are no perfect products and Product Managers should be able to clearly explain the added value of the decision and at what expense. Cost versus benefits could be another way of expressing this.

In this section, I think, it is very important to start drafting ideas on how the team is planning to address these trade-offs, especially the important ones.

For instance, this could be:
- We are planning to focus on this on the next iteration…
- We know that there might be an impact on our customer service and we devised a contingency plan to mitigate this…

Feelings
How do you or your team felt when making this decision?

Product Managers and Product Teams should be honest about how the decision make them feel at that time.
Some decisions or choices might be challenging.
Therefore, it is okay to have some doubts on specific points.

In the spirit of honesty and transparency, it might also be interesting to note if there was not a consensus among team members.
This is not to point fingers but this will convey to people outside the team that there were different feelings and opinions about the decision.

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As time passes, you will be able to review your decision with hindsight.

Outcome
Evaluate the decision that you and the team made once your feature or your product has been live for a few weeks or months (depending on your type of product and the type of decision you made).

It is not about assessing whether your decision was right or wrong but this exercise should allow you and your product team to revisit the decision with today’s perspective.

At this stage, as a product manager, you should :

- Have more robust data to measure the true impact of your decisions. This could be a combination of the following: user/customer feedback, sales, customer service feedback, stakeholders feedback, true cost of tech debt etc.

- Review how you and your Product Team feel about this decision and how this differs to the previous feelings you experienced when you first made this decision.

- Review if any of the contingency plans you implemented were successful.

Whether you feel that the decision was a success or not, it could be highly valuable to share the outcome with internal teams and external parties. This could be a great learning opportunity for everyone involved.

Finally, once you finalise this process, you are either ready to write a sequel Decision Note or start putting together a new one.

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Decision Notes can have a significant impact on how Product Managers approach decision making. This technique can help Product Managers and Product Teams make peace with the difficult decisions or choices they have to make.

Further, I believe Decision Notes are great communication tools to provide more context on how a decision was made.

What is your process to document the decisions that your Product Teams make? Do you use a similar tool to document decision making?

Product Manager. Electron Libre. Nomad. Made in Martinique.