Four Questions That Will Lead to Better Prioritization

BY Lisa Long ON MARCH 28, 2018

Making sure that you and your team are working on the most important thing at any point in time is part of the fun and headache of being a product manager or a product leader.  Many times looking at the backlog list or strategic priorities will just cause your eyes to glaze over as you consider the actual time and effort that those lists represent. Rik Higham had it right when he said that prioritization is more about guesstimates than being a precision art.

Given that this is the reality of prioritization work – it’s all a bunch of guesswork on top of guesswork –  why bother with it at all? In the world of uncertainty that is product management, prioritization helps us move forward so that we can learn. By learning, this helps us narrow the uncertainty of the next round of things we need to build… or not build.

So let’s take a look at some of the questions that can help you find the thing that should be on the top of your list.

What is Your Product Meant to Solve?

The first step in pulling back is to remember the purpose of your product.  It was designed with the intention of resolving a certain problem for your user, and perhaps serving the needs of stakeholders around that user. By returning to the core value proposition of your product, you can ask whether the proposed work would further this goal. For example, if you make a communication product, will this change make it easier for existing users to communicate? Will it make more people use the product? Will it be less intrusive in their life but get the relevant information to them in a good way? The original intent of the product can serve as a useful set of boundaries to pare down the candidates for the number-one slot.

In older products or B2B products, there can be a number of features used by different user groups or stakeholders. How to prioritize features between these different groups? Take a look at your company’s strategic priorities. What goals is the company as a whole trying to reach – increased customer loyalty? New sales in a different vertical?  Increased brand recognition? Through the lens of what the company is trying to accomplish, you can determine which of the user groups or stakeholders that your product serves may be the best group to target as contributing to one of these goals.

What‘s the Most Important Problem You’re Trying to Solve Now, and Why?

For any product, there is typically a list of things that people would like to fix. Engineers want better tools to manage configuration changes. Design wants to reconsider the colour palette.  Support wants to move the fields around in the forms. You need to hear the pain points that are behind these wishlists, and get at the problems behind them.

Gather the stakeholders with the ideas and ask them to give you their top two problems. Then drill down into why these two were selected on their lists. Is because of the number of errors in configuration?  Is it from user research showing people can’t see the contrast? Is it the number of support cases? Once you understand the context, move them forward to the idea of what the solved state would look like. Can they explain what behavior change would come from resolving this issue? Are there fewer pages to engineering in the middle of the night? Is there less frustration from users leading to shorter session times but more efficient sessions? Are users able to solve their own problems and so reduce the number of cases to support? These outcomes can then be weighed on the desirability of the behavior change they would cause. To help with tiebreaking, look back to the company strategic goals – what will drive the company further by solving this issue?

Are There any External Factors You Need to Consider?

Whether it is GDPR, a hardware ship date, or a marketing launch date, hard deadlines are a reality and need to be considered in the prioritization process. There are real world consequences to not having relevant features in place – legal fees, missed marketing opportunities, and government fines are just a few of the business consequences. Keep a calendar of important dates in a visible place when having your prioritization discussion. Make it physical – put the calendar up on a wall or on a shared monitor with the number of working days until the deadline occurs. Holidays, internal company events, and team away-days can obscure the actual time left to address the relevant deadline. By having the number of working days shown along with the deadlines, this gives a more visceral understanding of the capacity available to complete the work.

In addition to deadlines, availability of relevant resources to complete the work is another factor in prioritization. A team of expert developers in Russia is unlikely to be available for critical work the first two weeks of January, as a team of Chinese designers will be away sometime in February for new year. Being aware of availability of resources as part of the prioritization process can prevent disappointment and delay by ensuring that the right team is available for the work when it needs to be done. While some instances may require less than optimal resources to complete the work, it typically more efficient to wait until the expert resources are available to minimize risk of rework.

If You Didn’t Do Something, What Bad Things Would Happen?

This is the anti-pattern question. While many things that call for our attention imagine a new and better world as a result of doing the work, there are things that require a more defensive mindset.  Security teams tend to revel in the terrors of the possible, but we also need to consider the probable when it comes to assessing the results of not doing the work. In demoting an item on the list, are we putting more work on another department? Are we opening ourselves up to potentially overstretching the capacity of our system? How widespread will this impact be when it comes to customers, stakeholders, and will the rest of our company be willing to trust us as a product team to make the right decision next time? Humans are better at remembering things that harm them than things that benefit them, so take a hard look at what damage may be unintentionally (or intentionally…) caused by not putting something in the top slot.

That’s a Wrap!

The path to success in the complex environment that is product management is to learn as fast as possible. Prioritization is a way to help you find the one thing to work on, and focus on that. Accept that it’s OK that you only ever do the top item on the list before you have to rearrange the list again. It’s not a broken system, it’s an adaptive one. Humans generally don’t like uncertainty. Reframe your expectation to worry most about what is on the top of the list right now, and this should save you some anxiety about the next reprioritization.

Lisa Long

About

Lisa Long

Lisa would like more people to focus on building things the world needs. She's the cofounder of Six to Start, makers of Zombies, Run!, the world's most popular fitness game for people who hate exercising. As the former VP of Product Management and Innovation at Telenor, the world's seventh largest telco, she is very familiar with the challenges of cross-cultural product development and bringing agile methodologies into the emerging markets. To further the cause of product management, she is one of the co-organizers of ProductTank Oslo. Stop by and say hello!

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