Skip to main content

Craig Kerstiens

Guidance for Scaling - Reversible vs. Irreversible Decisions

Was having a conversation with a founder earlier today and the topic of hiring functional leaders came up. I offered one of my common pieces of advice which was don’t hold the reins too tightly once you hire them. It’s something I see happen over and over to first time founders. You hire a new VP of Product and then still continue to oversee so much of the product process yourself. It is understandable, it’s your baby, you’ve spent years building it to this point, they don’t love it the same way you do.

The likely outcome is your new VP of product won’t find success. They’ll feel they’re not able to execute on a vision of their own. They’ll feel micromanaged. Even the smallest decisions they’ll feel aren’t fully theirs and get second guessed.

Perhaps you could do it better, that’s not necessarily the question. What you’re focused on is growing and scaling, this is the reason you hired them. So how do you do this without the business careening off tracks? Well first, empower them to make decisions, but beyond that there are a few things you can do so you feel more comfortable entrusting them with their functional area.

Communication is key

First, clearly communicate your priorities and thought process. This doesn’t mean tell them what to do, but priorities… Bob Iger states it as “You have to convey your priorities clearly and repeatedly. In my experience, it’s what separates great managers from the rest”. I couldn’t immediately find the reference, but recall reading that he started each week with his execs communicating his top 5 priorities across the company. This gives you a line of sight into the leadership’s thinking. This could be as simple as:

  • I’m worried about our pipeline for next year
  • I’m worried about retention and how it affects long term growth
  • I’m worried that we have the tech stack to scale for next 3 years

Something similar to that last one came up in the conversation, which led us down a brief conversation of reversibles and irreversibles. In product management one of the most common mistakes I see of folks is not making a decision and heading in a single direction, rather they want all the info before they make a decision which can cause as much harm as good (but I’m getting off track).

Reversible vs. Irreversible Decisions

Communicating to new execs a framework around which decisions are critical to get right and which ones can be recovered from if wrong is huge. Not all decisions are critical to get right. If ship a typo in a blog post, you can easily fix it. If you send a wrong message to a single customer, it could create a bad experience for that customer but not impact all the rest. Knowing the scope and impact of a failure is important in a framework for decision making.

We discussed that architecture and engineering decisions it’s harder to reverse than say marketing. But I’m not sure that holds true, if you have a huge PR nightmare from bad marketing it can take years to recover and heavily set back the business just like a bad architecture decision. Even within engineering decisions you can use a framework of how costly is this to commit to and how easy is it to reverse.

One of the best engineers I’ve ever worked with, for going on 15 years now states it as not foreclosing future options. Leaving optionality open in engineering is one of those 10x things. It’s not elegant code or overengineering, it’s highly immeasurable (at least to me it is), but trying to grow this is huge to enable in your functional leadership as well as more senior individual contributors.

Which decisions can later be changed and the cost of that is a great framework for how involved you should be vs. not, and the more you can guide your team through that the smoother growing the team will be.