Prioritising a backlog is a technically simple task, so why is it so hard? In this ProductTank London talk Emily Tate – Chief of Staff at Mind the Product, helps us embrace the art of prioritisation. Watch the video to see her talk in full, or read on for an overview of her key points.
When working on prioritisation Product Managers need to be instilling focus, getting our teams on the same page and focussing on the next most important thing to do – to do this, it can help to keep in mind that your roadmap is where you are heading, but your backlog is how to get there. Your backlog contains your features, bugs, maintenance, tech debt, research, etc and they all need to be prioritised.
Prioritisation, says Emily, is an art rather than a science and what works for one person might not work for another. Fortunately, she has a list of do’s and don’ts to help.
Prioritisation is an Art
- Don’t try to math your way into art
- Do research, and be able to explain your reasoning
There isn’t a magical prioritisation formula or framework you can follow that will always create a successful product. You should use research to help explain why you’ve chosen the next thing to work on as the priority.
Don’t Fly Solo
- Don’t prioritise alone
- Do prioritise together if possible
Bringing stakeholders into the prioritisation process helps them understand what’s coming up and when their thing is going to be done. In large companies where multiple teams work on the same product it’s useful for Product Managers to prioritise together so each teams needs and dependencies are taken into account while prioritising.
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
- Don’t let your tools do the talking
- Do talk to your stakeholders regularly
A lot of teams – especially management – want to be able to just look at a tool and have that tell them the status of what’s going on, but there’s no tool that can fully convey everything that’s going on. Communication is the job of a product manager, regularly talk to your stakeholders so they know everything they need.
It’s All About Opportunity Cost
- Don’t just assign a portion of each sprint to different categories
- Don’t give others a percentage of your capacity to prioritise independently
- Do always prioritise ‘the next most important thing’.
Chopping up your capacity loses your ability to be able to adjust based on priority. If you’re working on one thing then you’re not working on the next thing. Sprints should be focussed on the top priorities, so one sprint could involve a lot of feature work, while the next sprint the most important thing might be to focus on fixing bugs. Always prioritise like your budget could go away tomorrow, because it might.
Use the Backlog
- Don’t “squeeze in little things” that aren’t prioritised
- Do add them to the backlog, and decide where it fits
People walk over to developers and ask for minor changes, or developers rewrite a major feature behind the scenes. All work that happens has an opportunity cost, if something is being done then it’s stopping something else from being done. Instead, add these items to the backlog and decide where they fit. It stops you from looking at the backlog at the end of the sprint and saying “why did we get nothing done?”
Have the Hard Conversations
- Don’t avoid hard conversations with stakeholders
- Do work towards alignment early and often
The longer you wait to have a difficult conversation with a stakeholder the harder that conversation gets. We can get into a mindstate of ‘ask for forgiveness, don’t ask for permission’ because we’re afraid other people are going to say ‘no’. Instead make it clear what you’re going to do, which allows other people to open a conversation if they disagree.
Don’t Scrimp on Maintenance
- Don’t let maintenance and tech initiatives languish
- Do be your team’s advocate
Business people see maintenance work as time not spent delivering something sellable. Reducing the time spent on maintenance will mean you’ll have developers moving slower on the feature work so you end up delivering fewer features. As a Product Manager be the advocate for the technology team to everyone else who might want the team to spend less time on maintenance.
Emily says that prioritisation is a messy process and you should embrace that messiness rather than trying to find a way to make it easy. Having the conversations and figuring out what the next most important thing is is fun, you should enjoy the process. And finally, you should ‘prioritise your way to greatness.’