In this case study, Katerina Suchkova, Group Product Manager at 15Five, explains how she and her team devised a prioritisation formula to get them through the challenge of 2020.
As a remote company, our team typically gets together twice a year, at the annual company R&D retreat. In September 2019 we went on our last R&D retreat, pre-COVID, to Portugal.
That’s where, as a team of 10 strong product managers (most of whom were very new to the company at the time) we realized that going into our end-of-year planning we’d need to figure out our prioritization process.
We had two problems to solve:
- Identifying and aligning on a solid way of prioritizing the constant stream of inputs and data we get in, both internally and externally
- Building trust in the new product team that we were, by communicating our prioritization thought process to the rest of the company
In a two-day workshop, the team was split up into groups. While one group brainstormed to come up with a scalable framework that could be applied by any team, the other group explored different ways to start communicating that framework to internal and external stakeholders.
We started with our goals for 2020 and even though, at that time, we didn’t yet have solid OKRs from the senior leadership team, there was enough for us to be able to make pretty good assumptions.
After half a day of brainstorming and synthesizing all the themes, we were aligned on the core criteria of our prioritization framework. It would be centred around:
- Company Vision
Being a SaaS business, retention was a no-brainer, it was just a matter of the weight we should be putting on it when prioritizing individual customer outcomes. We also knew that we’d want to keep at least 50%-60% growth on an annual basis, which meant acquisition came next.
Being a mission-driven company whose vision sits at the core of all our products and initiatives, we recognized that whatever we’d be building in the future would need to be aligned with our company values and vision. Therefore, company vision was an important criterion to consider.
Finally, no matter what we were to do, we always need engineering input and so including effort in the future formula was necessary.
Together, these all felt right, given the priorities of September 2019 for 2020, and given the data and general direction from the leadership that we had at that moment.
We even ended up with a nice acronym – RAV/E – who in the product world doesn’t like a catchy name?!
In the second half of the day we worked together to understand the weights. Was retention more important than acquisition in 2021? And if it was, who could help us to figure it out? In the final formula, would vision hold as much value as we thought it should have and if so, what weight would we put on vision?
We did the best we could in figuring out weights for each criterion and calling out the assumptions. It was a very collaborative, engaging, and fun experience that helped to build our team which had a number of relatively new members.
During the same retreat, we treated the framework as we would any product by applying product discovery followed by testing our hypothesis. This was important because we realised that what we were co-creating was something that every team would use. It was going to have an impact on what we would go on to build, and on what type of outcomes we would drive, We also recognized that getting feedback on our framework as early as possible would save us hours and days in the future.
With the formula drafted, we enlisted a leader from the design organisation and engineering team to help us vote. This worked really well because it allowed for contribution on their part. They felt involved during this early stage and were able to participate and contribute.
Of course, we didn’t agree on everything. There was a constant back and forth, even internally within the product management team. Given that all of us are highly experienced product managers (Senior and Group Product Managers), we had to work together through each disagreement, argument, and perspective, most of which were very valid. However, no matter how strong our opinions were, we all agreed on the most important foundational things. By recognizing each other’s experiences and background, we developed a deep respect for each other, and where there’s respect, kindness and trust, conflict becomes just a lively discussion full of insight, reflection, and outcomes. In the end, this process alone brought the team together and showed how a team of passionate product managers can mastermind its own framework, guided by the company’s goals, mission and vision.
Communication and Buy-In
A couple of weeks later the framework was refined with the input from the rest of the senior leadership team including the CEO. It was committed to a document, along with an explainer saying what it was and why we were doing it. This was made available to the entire company and presented during one of our weekly company meetings attended by all 200 employees, including the senior leadership team.
In presenting the framework, our aim was to get everyone excited and to clearly explain our thought process. Given a dedicated product team was rather a new concept for the company, we needed to build trust and so transparency was the way to go.
Most of the feedback we received was very positive. The rest of the organization appreciated the transparency and couldn’t wait to see the outcomes of the prioritization.
Based on the feedback, we made a few changes in the weights and refined our story before going through the actual prioritisation process, listing all of the customer outcomes that would potentially make it into 2020. At this stage, we got several people – representatives – from each of the domains to participate and to help us shape our roadmap:
- Acquisition – representatives/SMEs from the revenue organization
- Retention – representatives/SMEs from the revenue organization and customer success
- Vision – both founders and senior leadership team
- Effort – the Head of Engineering and individual tech Leads
Again, there were some opinions (and in the product world we are trying to stay away from opinions). We didn’t agree with everything as some of us had additional context or data, and so some things naturally bubbled up. However, with the involvement of key representatives from each function, and the leadership team, we were able to draft the framework and formula with complete transparency which was so important for us. I believe it’s imperative to get all of your product managers not just to contribute to your own prioritisation formula if this is the way you decide to go, but to be part of the creation of the framework or model.
Throughout 2020, even more so when COVID hit, we have continued to ask ourselves if the framework we’ve developed still feels relevant. This was mostly done through informal conversations and on an individual basis by the team members.
Of course, COVID brought some strategy changes and most of us had to re-visit our short-term roadmaps, assess impact on long-term outcomes, and pivot in some ways. In retrospect, I wish we had created a more formal space to discuss our framework as a team, on a monthly basis. A quick check-in and discussion at one of the weekly PM Huddles would have been an excellent place to do it.
We had another virtual retreat in June, at the half-year mark, to talk about the plan for the rest of the year. We discussed whether we would use the same prioritisation methods and if we would, what things had worked well and what hadn’t? The agreement was RAV/E relied way too much on the opinion of stakeholders.
To mitigate this, we realised that we would need to bring in more quantitative data, and /or to look into criteria such as “reach.” Moreover, even if some product managers internally decided to use this framework for their 2021 roadmap planning, the weights would need to change. Our business and product goals are different from last year’s and the formula would need to account for this change.
Ultimately, the process involves looking at the framework that you’ve built, trying to apply a critical perspective along the way, as you assess, ‘Is this still the right thing for you to use?’ and if not, what would you change and why?
If you’ve created your own framework, or have a case study like Katerina’s, we’d love to hear from you. What worked and what didn’t? What did you find challenging and how did you overcome those challenges? Let us know in the comments section below or by emailing email@example.com
Read More on Prioritisation
This case study was created in conjunction with an extended report on prioritisation in which we explore how product managers prioritise. We asked 55 product managers to share their thoughts, feelings and frustrations on the process of prioritisation, as well as the frameworks they trust to help them get the job done. You can access an overview of their feedback here and, in an extended report, exclusively for members we cover:
- The frameworks they say are the most and least effective
- How you can make a framework that works for your team
- Why there’s no one size fits all approach to prioritisation
- The biggest prioritisation challenge and ho to overcome it
- Quick tips for prioritisation success
Our extended report also includes access to an open discussion board, giving you the opportunity to share ideas with your peers!
Go to the extended report to discover all of this and more.