Decision-Forcing Cases: Gaining experience without the hurt
Learning about learning from the USMC, applied to product teams
Product people play an amorphous, uncertain, and constantly renegotiated role on product teams. To do well in that role requires experience. To become a great product person, you need to be able to understand the signals of a new situation and match it to analogies that have happened in the past.
This isn’t easy by any means but as a product manager, product analyst, and product designer, you are asked to do this regularly. Your team benefits from your ability to seemingly see around corners.
In growing product people, I’ve found it more effective to bring them together for product critiques or to make learning look more like regular work than just asking them to take today’s online courses. Unfortunately, I’ve rarely seen product leaders integrate these practices but when they do, the whole team levels up.
How could we learn from each other more effectively? One more way I have found is in decision-forcing cases (DFC) as used in professional military education (PME) by the US Marine Corps (USMC). This is a step beyond the traditional case study as popularized in MBA programs and versions can be found in the legal and medical professions.
In this article, I’ll talk about where DFCs come from, why they work, and show you how to run your first DFC for your product team. By using DFCs, you will improve the capability of everyone on your team, together.
What Is a DFC?
I first discovered DFCs through The Decision Game Club, a group of people who play out historic military scenarios aboard Marine Corps Base Quantico, in Quantico, Virginia Quantico, VA. When I’ve attended, anywhere from five to twenty people have participated. Many military and military-adjacent professionals join on a weekly basis as part of their own continuing education. They find it valuable because it helps them practice decision making in highly uncertain circumstances without the danger involved in the actual experience.
The DFC, and its cousin the tactical decision game (TDG), are a story told in a way that you are the protagonist. You are presented with information that is incomplete and ambiguous (like the real world) and are asked to make a decision about what to do next. For the military, this would result in an order to give, a plan to brief, or an action to take. In my mind these are very similar to chess puzzles but in the military domain.
If you want to see some of the TDGs used by the USMC, there is a book of them available online called Mastering Tactics by John F. Schmitt from 1994.
Some key differences between the DFC and the TDG are as follows:
- DFCs will usually involve multiple decision points, whereas the TDG is usually one.
- DFCS are often more open ended, whereas the TDG is focused on troop movements/engagement.
- DFCs actually happened, whereas the TDG are typically a made up scenario.
DFCs help us understand very complex situations that would be incredibly costly to expose untrained soldiers to.
Why DFCs work
I’ve been talking with Damien O’Connell from DAO Consulting about his use of DFCs when consulting with the USMC (he has a great podcast called Controversy and Clarity about PME too). He had this to say about the benefit of DFCs for PME:
DFCs offer a wide range of benefits. The most obvious ones include developing a person’s skills to make tough decisions under pressure, communicate those decisions clearly and concisely, and then defend them under scrutiny. Skills like these are essential to success not just in tough professions like the military, but also life in general. Beyond that, I don’t think we yet know all the ways DFCs can help develop people. I’ve used them to try to help develop Marines’ capacity to think critically, practice empathy, ask good questions, appreciate history, understand concepts, and much, much more.
I’d add another reason why DFCs are helpful: they address the desire to teach people on how to deal with huge amounts of uncertainty and problems with alignment.
The uncertainty is part of a term used in military circles: VUCA. It is an acronym for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) in military education. Product people deal with lots of VUCA in their day-to-day decision making, especially because they have imperfect information about their customers.
Carl von Clausewitz is often cited writing about the “fog and friction” of war in his book On War. While the “fog of war” isn’t something he said, the concern with friction is real. Product people also deal with huge amounts of friction by working with cross-functional teams with sometimes competing, political priorities.
These cases compress often hard to understand lessons into those that can be learned by anyone without exposing themselves to the dangers of the situation. Let’s talk about why I think this is key for product people’s continuous education.
Product people get DFC benefits
I’ve found that product people need to build a breadth of possible experience. You could build your experience piece-by-piece by actually going through it, or you could accelerate your experience by learning vicariously through other people’s experiences.
Gary Klein and his work in expertise and naturalistic decision making (NDM) has often remarked that experts in fire fighting had a type of intuition (or even ESP) that they couldn’t explain. Through understanding the expertise of these people, we start to see that they are building “prototypes” of experiences that allow them to see important signals rather than all of the noise that could exist.
Even Gary’s training company ShadowBox uses this method by putting together various scenarios of the month like DFCs that take on traditional military tactics, child welfare, police work, and more. They have a set of options to consider rather than open ended prompts since people should be able to consider them along, like TDGs. They give options that are considered by different experts so that you can compare how your intuition compares.
Cedric Chin of Commonplace recently summarized the book Accelerated Expertise that discusses how you get people to a level of expertise faster than just letting them gain natural experience. In particular, we shouldn’t give them simple skills to develop but try to develop whole, complex skills:
Breaking a skill domain down into a discrete learning hierarchy is bad for one other reason: experts are able to see connections and draw links between concepts or cues that novices cannot. Teaching atomised concepts will prevent novices from learning these connections, and may in fact result in either subpar performance or a training plateau later on.
I’ve found this is the case for teaching product management. We learn the artifacts and processes but not how they combine in the real world.
Other people in the product world have seen this type of case work valuable too even if they don’t do DFCs exactly:
- Looking at Example Boards by John Cutler
- Product Case Camp by Giff Constable
- “Provisional decision making” during talks by Gibson Biddle
Damien has mentioned to me that there are no studies that show decision making and leadership benefits of DFCs. There is enough of a belief by the USMC and other military organizations that they make it part of their education and training. I agree that they are beneficial and let’s talk about how product people have reacted so far.
So what do product people think about DFCs?
I’ve run product-oriented DFCs over the last couple months and found that product people are excited and interested in participating. Afterwards, they were excited to do more and felt it had a real benefit to their practice.
One of the benefits is that they got to see how peers would consider the situation differently than them. They got to see how some people may orient towards experience issues vs. business model changes. Or that they may focus on the team’s interpersonal problems vs. external customer problems. Everyone benefited by seeing more angles to a situation than they would be initially inclined to.
Also, there was a benefit to see what “raw” output was during a part where everyone was asked to put together a slide. Due to the time constraint (5 minutes in this case), everyone couldn’t over-polish their slides. They had to get to the core concepts quickly after synthesizing the situation, which is an important capability for product people to have.
Finally, gaining some experience in another context let’s people prepare for different types of decisions than they may be on right now. In the first DFC I wrote, the situation involved a well-known technology company. The people I facilitated the discussion with were working in smaller teams in a consulting practice. They were able to see similarities and differences that applied to their current way of working that they found very valuable.
Writing a DFC for product people
To write a case, you need to start with a real story, someone’s actual experience. This is some type of struggle that happened where there were tradeoffs that needed to be taken into account. These can be small moments or big ones.
The ideal experiences for DFCs are ones that are not black and white. There should be nuance and complexity in what needs to be considered. In fact, the more complex the better. The discussion with the group will be more interesting and people’s assumptions will be challenged.
The best type of experience is one that has a surprising outcome. It will show that even with the information that was known the end result would be hard to predict. Product people need to constantly be questioning their own biases.
Damien has a great video discussing DFC development:
I was lucky enough to come across Shishir Mehrotra’s story in a valuable article in its own right about “eigenquestions.” He talks about a particularly tricky discussion that needed to happen at YouTube over a decade ago.
The key to writing a great DFC is to put the person in the shoes of the protagonist. From there, you give context and then ask important questions that could be answered in a myriad of ways. I’ve found that reviewing the questions asked through the Socratic Method is a great starting point.
There are a few components of a full DFC:
- Context setting as a story
- Questions to explore the context as a group
- Prompt to make a decision to compare/contrast between participants
- Repeat 2–4 for as many steps as appropriate
- Discuss the actual outcome
In addition to these steps, I like to make sure that the work we are doing is contextualized in the regular work of a product person. This could be preparing a key slide for a presentation, writing an email, or drawing a diagram.
In this YouTube DFC titled “To Link or Not to Link?” we ask for a slide that would be presented at the meeting. You’d be surprised what you get when it is open ended with little explanation from product people. It is truly interesting to see the breadth of responses.
You can find the first DFC I wrote about Shashir’s case on Google Docs. Please feel free to try it out with your team and let me know what you think!
Running the DFC for product people
When running a DFC, you are a combination of a dungeon master (from Dungeons & Dragons) and a facilitator for a workshop. There is no right answer for people to give even if what happened already happened. The goal is to explore people’s mindsets and considerations when applying process/technique/framework/etc.
There are a few key aspects to prep before you give the DFC:
- Understanding the case yourself is important so you don’t give anything away. I always read through the case again before I facilitate it.
- Ask open-ended questions, not closed questions.
- Ask multiple people each question. Rephrasing the question can be helpful in getting different responses.
- Ask “why” they believe what they believe–a lot!
During the DFCs, product people tend to want more information and they ask great questions. A common request is to do “more user research” during the DFC. The response I usually give is a question “what would this help you decide?” and “what do you think you would learn from this?”
Through the DFC, everyone should not only get more ideas of what they should consider, but they will also get a better idea about how each person would approach a particular situation. By doing this, junior people learn from senior people and vice versa. The more we know about other people on our teams and the way they approach problems, the better we can work with them.
Scenario planning and wargaming
I do want to make a particular distinction about DFCs vs. other methods for future circumstances that haven’t happened yet. I’m a huge fan of future-looking workshops like scenario planning and wargaming as they explore a hypothetical scenario. Those types of workshops are meant to provide thought on how we might act in a situation based on some constraints.
It won’t tell us what will happen exactly in that scenario (or the future). As Herman Khan of RAND Corporation has said in his seminal paper about wargaming it simply helps us explore the space of possibilities rather than predict the future.
In addition to this, because the cases in wargaming may not be real there may not be enough cues for an expert to make a decision like they would in reality.
This is very different from a DFC, where we need to understand the context and how our decision making differs from what actually happened and why. The fact that it is a compressed version of a real story makes it different.
I’m a big fan of scenario planning and wargaming for product people, so I’ll write a post on those in the future.
DFCs up level your product thinking
As you can see, DFCs for product people are incredibly helpful to the ongoing education and enablement of the team. You not only learn about novel situations that you could be in, but also learn how other people (both junior and senior) might react in that situation. This is the core of gaining mastery in a very tricky profession.
If you enjoyed this article, I hope that you will try out DFCs with your team. If you are interested in writing a DFC or if you want to try this out, please reach out to me. I’m happy to get a session together, for your whole team or as a band of interested individuals.
I hope that you try DFCs and other ways for product people to learn together and from each other. It is the most powerful tool we have as product organizations to more quickly build expertise and more cohesive teams.
Special thanks to Damien O’Connell for all of his DFC expertise, Cedric Chin for his NDM expertise, and Shashir Mehrotra for his help in building the YouTube DFC.