Planning in Uncertainty: Considerations For Product Leaders

Humans are biologically wired for certainty. Certainty is safe. And what do we need more than safety? This need for certainty explains why we rely on familiar daily routines like a known commute route, which minimizes the decisions we need to make as we encounter the unexpected.  

In professional settings, this manifests as a gravitation towards detailed plans and known processes that promise control. But when we find ourselves in new territories – which is often true for those of us working in product – we will inevitably encounter significant unknowns. How can you use this uncertainty as fuel for innovation and risk mitigation? 

Let’s explore what uncertainty can look like in product development, how you can create greater confidence despite the uncertainty and some tools to help you along the way.

Uncertainty in Product Development 

Imagine you’re launching a new product. Early testing seemed promising until unexpected feedback from your first real users throw everything off course. This type of scenario is all too common in the product development world, and it can be paralyzing to your team and the business. But it doesn’t have to be.

We will never eliminate uncertainty, but we can work to limit the number of unknowns we’re faced with. In doing so, we equip ourselves with learnings and insights that enable us to respond and deliver better solutions.

So how do you get there? Here’s what we’ve found to help.

1. Understand (& Communicate) The Problem Space You’re In.

Not all types of problems we encounter are the same, and it’s helpful to know what type of problem you are working to solve. Dave Snowden characterizes problems into four main spaces within the Cynefin Framework. Problem spaces range from clear (little to no uncertainty) to chaos (where everything is uncertain). 

Dave Snowden, The Cynefin Framework

The problem space most modern product teams are working within is the complex problem space. Here, cause and effect are unclear, and effective solutions only emerge from patterns that cannot be fully realized or analyzed upfront. 

Working within a complex problem space means you will never be able to successfully plan everything in advance. It’s also why discovery plays such a critical role. Through discovery, interactions with the market provide real-time feedback that shape next steps.

In more traditional organizations where meticulous planning, documentation and processes are the gold standard, this can be hard to embrace. Use the Cynefin Framework to help facilitate the types of conversations that need to happen in order to invest in a more adaptive approach to product planning and development. 

2. Understand What You Know & What You Don’t.

Try as we might, we cannot create deterministic plans for what we know we don’t know. We can, however, reduce uncertainty by learning about the things we don’t yet know or understand. This is why it’s imperative to build learning into our plans and daily actions. 

For product teams facing uncertainty, one of the first things we recommend starting with is to intentionally categorize what you know and what you don’t know. This allows product teams to prioritize learning about the known unknowns through experimentation and discovery. 

Through discovery activities such as customer interactions, observation, prototypes, feasibility proof-of-concepts and beyond, you will be developing a muscle of continuous learning, which in turn enables us to plan with higher confidence. 

3. Leverage Tools to Help You Reduce Uncertainty.

There are countless tools you can use to reduce uncertainty and gather greater insights to direct where you go next with your product. Here are a few great discovery tools you could consider starting with to guide your learning and build your confidence: 

The Four Big Risks: Product Leader, Marty Cagan, promotes a model he calls the “Four Big Risks” to help you assess your product and whether it will be successful in the market. The Four Big Risks are:  

  • Value Risk – Will customers buy it or will users choose to use it?
  • Usability Risk – Will customers figure out how to use it?
  • Feasibility Risk – Will our engineers build what we need with the time, skills, and technology we have?
  • Business Viability Risk – Will this solution also work for other aspects of our business?

If we can work to understand these risks and reduce uncertainty, we will increase confidence in creating a successful product that customers want and use. If you can’t answer these questions about your product, these are good focuses for your discovery efforts. The “Value Risk,” in particular, is typically the biggest uncertainty to address for Product Managers and Product Teams. 

Prioritization Matrix: Use a prioritization matrix that charts perceived value against confidence to prioritize where you should focus your discovery efforts to reduce uncertainty. Discovery tactics can help you systematically build confidence in the highest-potential opportunities. We offer up five practical tips to prioritize product discovery for impact in this 16-minute Lean BYTES talk.  

Build Evidence: Itamar Gilad’s “Confidence Meter,” from the book Evidence Guided, visualizes types of evidence-based data points and a confidence measure of the likelihood a given idea will lead to desired outcomes. Internal data points like self-conviction, strategic alignment and project plans have a lower confidence to achieve outcomes. Gathering evidence from outside your organization, through techniques such as user interviews, surveys and usability tests will increase confidence in your plan and that you are building the right thing. 

Itamar Gilad, Confidence Meter

The more viewpoints you incorporate from outside your organization, the higher fidelity picture you’ll have of the real problem space – and the higher your confidence can be that you’re pursuing the right solution.

Story Mapping: Once you’ve settled on building a solution with high confidence, user story mapping is an effective visualization tool to map out a delivery path. By breaking down the target user workflow into thin, iterative slices, with clear user objectives you can incrementally release value while adapting as new information surfaces. 

We’ve found that story maps help teams keep their options open. As teams deliver and measure customer outcomes, they have the opportunity to determine if they continue investing in the solution, or if there are other ideas and problems to pursue. 

Embracing Uncertainty

No matter how sophisticated our planning techniques become, some level of uncertainty will always remain in product work. By embracing a mindset of continuous learning and adaptive planning, we position ourselves to navigate uncertainties more effectively, turning potential challenges into opportunities for innovation and growth.