Brett van Zuiden

Avoid single-pronged decision making

The decision to build a particular feature or pursue a certain goal is at the core a prioritization decision: should we go down this path as opposed to all the others. It is considerably easier to make a good decision if those alternatives are presented explicitly, rather than just the single-pronged “should we do X?”

Prioritization is relative: you can only prioritize something over other things. And yet, I often see statements like “we should prioritize reliability” or questions like “should we improve our new-user onboarding?” It’s tempting to want to say yes - reliability and improved onboarding both sound like good things! But hiding in both is an implicit “rather than anything else we could be doing,” and when you factor that in, it makes the decision much more nuanced[1].

When you see statements or questions like this (or catch yourself making them!), push to make the alternatives explicit. Doing this well is hard work, but without it you are unlikely to make the right decision. When choosing to invest time or money in a particular initiative, first pause to make sure you are really clear on what the other possible choices are, and that this is still the best choice. In product specs or goal planning documents, ask “what other options did you consider?” And the next time someone asks “should we do X?”, pause for a moment to consider “versus what?”


[1]: Beware that single-pronged statements can be used intentionally e.g. “No new taxes!”. Most people would agree that they would rather not pay more tax - the important question is how to prioritize that against all other causes and considerations.