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👓 Product Management: Interpreting Blurry Situations
My path from a blind football referee to a quality decision maker
One of my first jobs in my freshman year of college was as an intermural flag football referee. My most poignant memory was when I missed a call in the playoffs – blowing a play dead after I thought a flag had been pulled halfway across the field.
This spurred a trip to the eye doctor, and unsurprisingly, I was told that I needed glasses for the first time.
I remember when I put them on – the real world now felt like a video game where everything had always been in focus regardless of distance. I never knew things far away could be so clear!
My optometrist was a bespeckled, older man in a white doctor’s coat – just as much of a caricature of his job as me, the glasses-needing ref. I asked him how I didn’t know until now that I needed glasses - I had always managed to decipher the writings on billboards and other in-the-field eyes tests, more or less. He shrugged a bit, and told me, deadpan, “Some people get really good at interpreting blur.”
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What does this have to do with PM?
I’m sharing this story today not only as a public apology to the Theta Chi Warriors (you deserved a shot to win the game, gentlemen) – but also because I think “interpreting blur” perfectly captures one of the most important skills of a great product manager: decision making under what will always be high ambiguity.
Yes, I’ve often described our job as PMs as “getting to play with Legos all day.” This speaks well to the creative part of our job – it’s a profession rooted in the art of creating & building. Yet I always felt it never fully captured what I do because so much of the job of PM is data interpretation and “Do we do A or B?” critical analysis.
Indeed, it’s our job to create clarity for the team by constructing a picture of the world the product will thrive in. Yet there is a lot we have imperfect information about: the future, our understanding of customer needs, our competitive situations, how our stakeholders feel about their relationships with us. We must interpret a blurry situation.
And I wish I could say PMs are a perfect pair of glasses for the team – but I’ve been doing this job long enough to know that’s not the case. We’ll never have perfect vision. Yet we must make decisions anyway.
We often lionize this skill and give it fancy titles like “product intuition.” But just like Marty Cagan encourages the rename of spec writing to “product discovery,” I like the framing of “interpreting the blur” for its inherent humility. It’s a reminder of our constraints and encourages us to have the right and healthy paranoia about our decisions.
Avoid the Blur Trap
Speaking of healthy paranoia, this wisdom of my optometrist - that some people get good at interpreting blur - is both an inspiration of a skill to be learned but also a cautionary tale of a skill unnecessarily overused. This judgment on if to use your product intuition + available data to make a call now or wait for more clarity is one of the most fascinating parts of the job.
It comes down to this critical question to be posed as part of important decision-making: When do you interpret the blur and when do you seek out ways of making the picture sharper?
Just because we’ll never have a perfectly clear picture doesn’t mean that we can’t take steps to gather better information. Holding off on a decision until another round of UX research, finding the right market timing to introduce a feature, and adding the instrumentation to collect key signals are all obvious examples of ways to drive a sharper image.
What all these examples have in common is a tradeoff of time: the decision to delay a decision. That requires intentionality and analysis of your own readiness, an often forgotten part of the process.
As my job has become more to be an editor of others’ work, one way I raise the bar on decision-making for the team is to seek clarity on this question of decision readiness. Are we prepared to make this decision today? Are you comfortable with the quality of the data you’ve collected?
I often find people are too quick to jump to an opinion on the solution vs. take a step back and examine first the quality of the data in front of them. I call this the Blur Trap: making decisions without first analyzing the “state of the blur.”
Highly fuzzy data might be appropriate for some decisions – the so-called “49/51” decisions where the outcomes either way are about equal. Or if the stakes are low anyway. But for the really critical decisions, a best practice is to examine the state of the blur before discussing which path to take.
So try it out next time you have a big, important decision. Don’t be the person who jumps in with their product opinion immediately without analyzing the quality of the data. Instead, use questions that are introspective first, like “Are we trying to interpret a blurry situation and we need to go get a clearer picture?” “What’s your confidence in the data we are using?” “Are we ready to make this call?” and “Why do we have to make this call today?”