Prioritization techniques such as RICE, MoSCoW and Value versus Effort are not complicated in theory but in practice, most Product Managers struggle with prioritization and research such as The state of Product Leadership 2020 shows that we’re not especially good at it. However good foundations can help teams to focus on what’s most important.
Start With Strategy
Firstly it’s critical to have a product vision and strategy in place that defines your target market, the problems you’re trying to solve, how you will differentiate yourself and your business goals. You need to get buy-in on this strategy and review it on a regular basis; the market, technology and competition will not remain static.
On SVPG, Marty Cagan recently wrote that “most product organizations I meet don’t even have a product strategy” and, at a recent ProductTank where I presented on the topic of this blog, roughly half the audience had a defined strategy, but none said that they reviewed it regularly.
The strategy also needs to be shared, communicated and re-communicated; people come and go from our product, sales and marketing teams, yet we often assume that everyone knows what we are building, why and for whom.
Your roadmap represents a high-level view of the themes and objectives needed to implement your strategy. It’s a living, breathing document, not cast in stone; not only might your strategy change, but you will also uncover new insight and alternative ways of achieving the same goals. As with your strategy, sharing and communicating your roadmap is vital to getting everyone on the same page.
How Will You Measure Success?
What are the key metrics you want to achieve, that you will measure your progress against, give you insight and guide your decision making? Whether you have a north star metric or use OKRs, these goals combined with a vision, strategy and roadmap, form the basis for effective product prioritization by defining what’s important.
Analytics platforms are key to helping you measure product health and progress towards goals, but you have to put in the effort to gain the insight; too often I see initial excitement at setting them up, only to not make time to look and learn from what is happening with your product.
Upon joining one startup where a new product had recently been launched, I heard lots of differing opinions on the success of the launch and marketing campaign. But on looking at the analytics tool, it seemed that not only was I the first to do so, but all the data was lost, due to the short-lived retention policy of the license being used.
Align you Strategy and Execution
Separating strategy from execution is good practice, but it’s surprising how easily these can become disjointed. Is your roadmap aligned with the strategic goals? Do the items on your backlog relate to your roadmap? Unchecked, you can find you are not advancing towards your goals quite as you should. Therefore your backlog also needs some TLC. It should not be a dumping ground for every idea, but only contain the things you are definitely going to do. When you add items to your backlog, cross-check them against your roadmap for strategic relevance.
Backlog pruning is a good exercise, It helps to keep things manageable and focused. You might find it hard to delete items but, if they still exist after a long time, they’re obviously not a priority. If they are important, they will come back.
You will also need to balance strategic and tactical demands, such as having to react to important sales opportunities. However, there’s an opportunity cost to everything you do, and you should communicate and discuss the impact on your roadmap and strategic goals when you start to deviate from those goals and plans.
Know Your Customers
Understanding your market, customers and users is also crucial to understanding what’s important, how your product is used, what’s liked and what’s not liked. Access to users can sometimes be difficult, with overprotective sales managers or a lack of travel budget often stated as barriers. You can be creative in the pursuit of user feedback, but you shouldn’t have to. It’s vital that management is supportive, understands the value of meeting customers, and empowers and encourages you to do so.
The customers you lost or didn’t win can also provide a lot of important insight into your product that can inform and impact on decisions and priorities. This information is just as important for product teams as it is for sales.
Just Say No!
Steve Jobs once said, “It’s only by saying NO that you can concentrate on the things that are really important”. This can apply to those tactical sales-driven requests, as well as features asked for by customers and stakeholders. It can be difficult to say no but pick your battles carefully, and if you can back it up with sound reasoning that relates back to your product vision and strategy then you will gain credibility, even if you don’t always achieve your desired outcome. You will also gain more trust and respect with a qualified “No” than a hollow promise to add to an already bulging backlog.
It’s Not All About The Delivery
Product Managers wear many hats. In addition to the aspects covered above, you need to consider product messaging, go-to-market strategy, pricing, market research, product documentation, sales enablement, competitive analysis, stakeholder management and much more. You may not be responsible for some of these activities, but they all play an important part in the success of your product. So prioritize these activities accordingly and ensure you collaborate with (and form good relationships with) sales, finance, marketing, legal, support, Customer Success and anyone else who contributes to the success of your product.
There are many different methods for prioritization, and which you choose might come down to personal preference or specific situations. The above groundwork is crucial in helping you understand the things that are important and why, and eliminating the things that are not.
You can’t hope to effectively apply some of the techniques if you can’t determine business value, reach or impact for example. But if you truly know your market and customers, and have a strategy and roadmap that everyone is aligned to, you will instinctively make the right decisions, and there won’t be a formula in sight.