How to Manage Uncertainty

Updated on May 24th, 2021
How to Manage Uncertainty

Every product manager faces uncertainty. Whether you’re launching a new product, scaling an existing product, onboarding into a new role, or tackling just about anything else as a product manager, you’ll need to manage uncertainty.

Why do I say that you need to manage uncertainty? Well, it’s not enough to just deal with uncertainty - it’s not about you being able to live with it.

What really matters for product managers is being able to drive decisions for your company, and knowing how to come back to revisit the decision.

Uncertainty carries risks, and the biggest risk is the risk of indecision. Product management is about shipping products to market so that you can capture live learnings and iterate. If you’re paralyzed by uncertainty, then you’re no longer able to drive an iterative process any longer.

Managing uncertainty can be broken down into a couple of components:

  • Reducing uncertainty to an actionable level
  • Crafting an action plan for when to revisit previous decisions

First, I’ll discuss a framework for how to reduce uncertainty. Then, in the next article, I’ll provide a structure for how to decide when to revisit a previous decision due to new developments, and how that enables you to manage risk.

Framework for Reducing Uncertainty

Sometimes, we’ll feel overwhelmed in dealing with the unknown. Maybe we just joined a new company, or maybe we’re tasked with leading an ambitious initiative and we don’t know where to start.

When we’re faced with overwhelming uncertainty, it’s not a good idea to make rash decisions or to take action for the sake of taking action. We don’t yet have enough information to make a decision that is directionally correct, and we might wind up harming our customers or harming the company if we act rashly.

But at the same time, we can’t just stew over the uncertainty. We have to take action to make the uncertainty manageable, so that we can make an informed “good enough” decision. So, how exactly do we do that?

I personally use the framework below:

  1. List out the information that you need to make a “good enough” decision
  2. Identify the information that you’re currently missing to make that decision
  3. Prioritize which gaps are most important to resolve
  4. Starting from highest priority, identify who or what can close the information gap
  5. Execute on a plan to track down the missing information
  6. Iterate on steps 1-5 until you can make a “good enough” decision
  7. Set up triggers for when to revisit your decision

Here’s how it works.

List out the information you need to make a “good enough” decision

First, we need to clarify - you can’t wait on getting enough information to make a perfect decision, or even a great decision. If we spend too long trying to gather information, we’re going to miss the opportunity to ship the product and get live learnings from it.

So, what does “good enough” mean? Conceptually, let’s say that you need to decide on something that has three choices. With zero information, each choice has a 33% chance to be “the right” decision.

You simply need to gather enough information so that one of the choices is now slightly better than the others. In other words, if you can get to a 34% chance on one of the choices, then that’s good enough.

But, what if you have nearly infinite possible decisions? For example, if you needed to sequence a roadmap with 10 initiatives in it, you have 10 x 9 x 8 x 7 x 6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1 = 3,628,800 possible roadmap permutations. How would you even know which one is the right one?

In this case, you need to break the problem down to be smaller. Rather than asking “what is the right roadmap”, ask “what is the correct first feature to ship?” Now you only need to deal with 10 choices rather than 3.6 million choices. 

When you have 10 choices, each one has a 10% chance of being correct when you have zero information. You simply need enough information to get one of them to be 11% correct, and then you should take action.

So, now we know what “good enough” means. Let’s now identify what information we need to make a “good enough” decision.

You might have a lot of different kinds of decisions to make. For example, which customer should I run a pilot program with? Which partner should I build an integration with? What feature should I build next for my product roadmap?

But, generally speaking, each decision needs the following kinds of information:

  • What is the problem I’m trying to solve?
  • Who am I solving the problem for, and what pains are they facing?
  • What does success look like?
  • What resources do I have to successfully tackle the problem?
  • What constraints do I have to account for when tackling the problem?
  • What risks might I run into when tackling the problem? 

For each category, list out all of the information that you do know. That will help you solidify your confidence, because you’re already making significant progress in structuring the uncertainty that you’re facing.

But, you’re definitely still missing information, or else you wouldn’t be feeling so uncertain! Now it’s time to identify what’s missing.

Identify the information that you’re missing to make that decision

Once you’ve listed out everything that you know, take a step back and reassess the problem. What other information do you absolutely need to have to make a “good enough” decision? Get a piece of paper or a Word document, and get all of your thoughts down.

In this step, just list everything that’s on your mind. Don’t worry about prioritizing it yet - that step comes next. Get all of your concerns and unknowns out so that you can tackle them one by one.

Now that you have all of the unknowns in front of you, it’s time to prioritize.

Prioritize which gaps are most important to resolve

Not all information is created equal. As a product manager, your job is to prioritize. Which of the unknowns actually matter the most towards your decision?

I find that it’s most helpful to have a stack-ranked list. In other words, you can’t have multiple gaps all be the top priority - one of them is more impactful than the others. That way, I have clarity on which ones I need to tackle immediately, and which ones I can tackle later.

Starting from highest priority, identify who or what can close the information gap

Based on the 80/20 rule (a.k.a. the Pareto principle), you’ll find that the first 1-3 information gaps you’ve prioritized are the ones that are truly blocking your progress, and that the others are all just nice-to-have.

For these 1-3 information gaps, brainstorm ideas for where you can get the information that you need. Could you get it by talking to a customer? To a colleague? To an internal executive? From a market report? From a metrics dashboard? By running an experiment? By sending a survey?

You’ve now got lots of ideas for tackling the gaps. It’s time to come up with a plan.

Execute on a plan to track down the missing information

Create a plan for getting the information that you need, with a focus on speed to learning.

As you create plans for getting information, make sure that you have fallback options, in case things don’t pan out the way that you want them to.

I also strongly recommend sharing your progress with your manager. Give them visibility into the following:

  • What are the top 1-3 missing pieces of information you need to solve the problem?
  • What are your plans for getting this information, and by when will you have this information?

That way, they’ll be able to do the following:

  • Surface any missing pieces of information that they might already have on hand, which shortcuts the process
  • Identify other potential actions that you haven’t considered yet for closing the gap
  • Helping you follow up on people if your progress is being blocked

After all, they’re deeply invested in your progress - if you get stuck, then you can’t make effective decisions, and that means that your manager is unable to get the results that they’re responsible for.

Raising information to your manager shouldn’t be seen as a “cry for help”, but rather a mechanism to keep them in the loop on how you’re doing and as a way for you to hold yourself accountable for progress.

Iterate on steps 1-5 until you can make a “good enough” decision

About 95% of the time, running through this exercise once is enough to get you a solid decision.

But, there are some cases where getting the information you need dramatically changes the underlying decision. If that’s the case, you’ll need to perform this exercise again.

In that case, iterate again on steps 1-5 until you’re able to make a “good enough” decision.

Set up triggers for when to revisit your decision

It’s not enough to make a “good enough” decision, however. When we make decisions that we aren’t totally confident in, we should actively plan for coming back to revisit the decision, after we cross a particular threshold.

Given that this particular topic is meaty enough on its own, I’ll cover it in the next article separately.

So, after reading this article, we now know how to reduce uncertainty to the point where we can actually act on it. And, in a future article, we’ll discuss how to revisit decisions so that we don’t need to worry about making a permanently bad call.

That said, while product management is a profession, I’ve personally found that managing uncertainty can be emotionally draining.

In fact, sometimes it can get to the point where it impacts my own personal life. Sometimes I wind up having insomnia, and other times I become too stressed to have meaningful engagements with loved ones.

It’s important that we take care of ourselves so that we can perform our jobs at the highest level. So, as a bonus, I’ll dive into how to deal with uncertainty from an emotional self-care perspective. Feel free to skip this next section if you already have a strong grasp on how to manage your emotions.

Sidebar: How to Deal with Uncertainty Emotionally

Managing uncertainty as a professional is significantly easier when you’ve equipped yourself with the emotional skills needed to deal with uncertainty as an individual. Below are some tips for how to deal with uncertainty.

Tip #1: Accept that some things are out of our control

While as a professional we are fully accountable for our products, as an individual we cannot change the way that the world works or the way that the market evolves. In other words, while it’s our responsibility to manage our products when the world has changed, it is not our fault and we shouldn’t feel like we’re failures.

As an individual, learn to let go of the things that you cannot control. You can’t control competitive action and you can’t control the market, so don’t beat yourself up for it and don’t stay up all night worrying about things you can’t influence.

When I find myself worrying over uncertainty, I use this Buddhist mindset: “If a problem can be solved, what reason is there to be upset? If there is no possible solution, what use is there in being sad?”

Tip #2: Remind yourself that you’ve survived uncertainty before

We live in a world that’s become less and less certain. New technologies, new trends, and new competitors appear all the time, and that can create a lot of anxiety for people.

But, we’re more resilient than we think we are.

Take the time to reflect on past decisions you made, and on past experiences where you felt uncertain. You’ll find that uncertainty doesn’t have as big of an impact as you think it will.

Tip #3: Frame uncertainty as opportunity

Product managers deal with constraints and risks all of the time, and we use these constraints to innovate. That’s why lean mindsets are so valuable - it forces us to move quickly, to ship imperfect products, and to commit ourselves to learning from real results.

It’s precisely because there’s uncertainty that there’s a need for a product manager. If your company already knew all of the things that were going to happen, they wouldn’t have needed to hire you. 

By being uncertain, we’re putting ourselves in a position of humility where we’re eager to learn, experiment, and iterate. That’s a good thing.

Plus, the great thing about being uncertain is that we now have the space to revisit the decision over time. 

Tip #4: Separate emotions from self-worth

Just because we feel uncertain doesn’t mean that we’re bad or ineffective. You are not your emotions. If you practice mindfulness, you can take a step back from your emotions and let them go.

Here’s a guide on how to distance yourself from your emotions.

  1. Name the emotion that you’re feeling
  2. Observe the emotion’s physical impact on your body, and focus on physical sensations
  3. Observe the thoughts that you’re thinking, but don’t engage with those thoughts

I regularly feel emotions such as anxiety and panic. It’s okay to experience those feelings - product management can be a difficult profession at times. When I feel these emotions, I take a step back to observe my feelings as a neutral third party.

By doing so and accepting myself for who I am, I can then identify which worries I’m feeling, and why those worries are surfacing. I can then target the root cause of each worry and come up with concrete action plans for resolving those worries. That then helps me calm down and move back towards taking action, rather than being paralyzed by emotion.

Tip #5: Invest in a support network

Find friends, peers, and mentors to talk through the uncertainty that you’re facing. You’re not alone!

By investing in a support network, you ensure that you have people who will help you work through the emotions of uncertainty. And, by supporting your network, you’ll also be asked to help them work through their emotions of uncertainty too, and that will better equip you to tackle future instances that you face down the line.

Summary

Use this framework to reduce uncertainty, to the point where you can make a “good enough” decision:

  1. List out the information that you need to make a “good enough” decision
  2. Identify the information that you’re currently missing to make that decision
  3. Prioritize which gaps are most important to resolve
  4. Starting from highest priority, identify who or what can close the information gap
  5. Execute on a plan to track down the missing information
  6. Iterate on steps 1-5 until you can make a “good enough” decision
  7. Set up triggers for when to revisit your decision

By leveraging this framework, you’ll find that you’ll be paralyzed by uncertainty less frequently, and you’ll gain confidence in navigating the ambiguity and uncertainty that comes with the product management role.

In our next article, we’ll discuss how to revisit past decisions, which helps to further mitigate risk and uncertainty.

Want to learn more about how to manage uncertainty? Chat with other product managers around the world in our PMHQ Community!