We talk to some product leaders to find our how they manage prioritisation in their organisations and learn about their strategies for success
All product people need to be able to work out their priorities. They need to know what to work on next and how they can bring everyone else along with them in a way that ensures that no one feels left out or overlooked.
Firstly though, we can all agree that working out your priorities is hard – but there are lots of frameworks available to help you and give you some structure for prioritising your decisions about the work you do.
A couple of years ago we ran a survey asking for your views on prioritisation, and found you gave it an average weighting of 3 out of 5 for difficulty, with the biggest challenge being communicating priorities to stakeholders and getting buy-in. Other issues raised by the survey respondents were lack of commitment to priorities at the leadership level, a focus on outputs rather than outcomes, shifting resources and planning ‘what to build’ instead of tackling consumer problems, need, and value.
With all this in mind, we thought it would be helpful to talk to some product leaders to see what techniques they use and how they manage prioritisation in their organisations.
How they do things at Yelp
Local business review site Yelp was formed in 2004 by two former PayPal staffers. It aims to provide a one-stop local platform for consumers to discover, connect and transact with local businesses. It’s publicly quoted and in 2021 recorded revenues of over $1 billion.
Shubhansha Agrawal is Yelp’s Head of Product for Contributions and Community. She leads a team of four product managers who are scattered around North America and Europe. They’re one of three teams in Yelp’s consumer organisation (there’s also an advertising focused business organisation to address the businesses on the platform).
The team is responsible for the user-generated content of reviews, photos, videos, Q&As and so on (the contributions part of Shubhansha’s job title) and for building a community of contributors who interact with each other (the community part of her job title). She explains: “Let’s say you want to find a plumber, and your search results don’t land you anything. You can ask other Yelpers and local experts to help you find one.”
So how do they prioritise? Shubhansha says at the top level they put together a yearly plan: “That’s a bird’s eye view, where we spend time in understanding the user needs and problems, doing research and surveys and lots of data analysis.”
Then they do quarterly planning for more executable work. This means, she says: “Out of all the problems we’ve identified for the next year, all the things we want to do for the next year, what is it that we want to do now?.”
Strong collaborative culture
Yelp’s consumer organisation has a strong collaborative culture and product development is very experimentation heavy, Shubhansha says, so nothing is launched without thorough testing and analysis.
She and her team use a 50/30/20 framework to help them prioritise their work. “We are solving user problems, but we’re also a business that works for profit. So numbers and metrics and revenue are also important.” Using this framework is a relatively new departure, says Shubhansha. “Until two years ago we were just in execution mode. And that led to very delayed decisions.”
Now, Shubhansha says, 50% of the team’s work is spent on metric-moving projects, so that they stay on track, and moving the metrics are supposed to help revenue, keep them moving forwards and keep the business growing. “This is high-confidence, high-impact work, things we’ve tried before that we know are going to work” she adds. Then 30% is work with a lower level of confidence, “where we’ve done some surveys or some research or analysis that points us in this direction but we’ve never really tried something like it before”. It’s where hypothesis testing and experimentation comes in. Then the remaining 20% or so is what Shubhansha calls North Star work, looking at horizons and plans for the next five years.
She likes to keep to this framework and says that her team regularly checks and measures that they’re working on the right things. But they will move away from it when they need to, if there are quality issues or an hypothesis that is shown to be incorrect, for example.
Frameworks are helpful but there’s still a big element of guesswork and estimation in the work the team does, says Shubhansha, and that’s the hardest part. “I used to spend a lot of time planning and making sure my plans were perfect but I’ve learned I can’t do that. The hardest part is getting people to accept the ambiguity of your plans, I find.”
How they do things at Shipt
Shipt is a US same-day delivery service, delivering groceries, home products, and select electronics. It’s big business: formed in 2014, it was acquired in 2018 by US retailing giant Target for $550 million, and now delivers from over 200 retailers. It’s a three-sided market, with retailers (whom Shipt calls partners), independent contractors to fulfil orders (whom Shipt calls shoppers and who pick up boxes from retailers and deliver to customers) and end customers, whom Shipt calls members.
Vishal Kapoor is a Director of Product Management at Shipt. He points out that customers aren’t aware of how many teams might be involved in delivering their experience, all they want to know is that they can place an order and get the right selection, delivered with a good quality of service. And if there’s a discrepancy in their order, then returning it must be easy.
He says product management at the company is multi-faceted because all three sides of its market are interconnected, and the product teams that deal with Shipt’s tech are divided according to the three markets – partners, shoppers (where Vishal’s responsibilities lie) and members. Then there are also customer service teams, marketing teams, finance teams and so on. Shipt has time-boxed roadmaps and work is split into quarterly periods, though naturally some items are carried over from previous quarters and carried forward to the next quarter.
This structure means that shared goals are absolutely vital to success. The customer experience can suffer if goals are not fully aligned. “When our roadmaps are aligned, our goals are shared, when we solve all the problems simultaneously, that’s when we deliver the best of the best experiences,” he says.
Vishal says that, in general, some sort of framework is essential for planning work, though he adds that if you’re just being reactive and serving your internal customers then it may be less of an issue. Some teams at Shipt, like legal and customer service for example, play a support function and are more reactive, but the product teams try to “anticipate where the business is going, where the competition is going and to try to plan for it”.
OKRs rule OK
At Shipt, they use OKRs (objectives and key results) to plan their work and measure success. OKRs enable the teams to look at metrics and work out how they can move them within a given time period, Vishal says.
“For some of the teams – that do plan-oriented development – we try to have shared OKRs,” says Vishal. By this he means that they try to share the same OKR between different teams. He gives an imaginary example: if the company goal is to save 10c in every dollar, an operations team might commit to changing its spending and to saving 3c, a technology team might commit to saving 4c through work on its algorithms, and so on.
Shared OKRs and collaborative working
“It’s all about collaboration,” Vishal says that if he feels there is an important company OKR that everyone should focus on, he takes the initiative to get buy-in from every team involved to share it. Then everyone can focus on it collectively. “I tell others that we want to share an OKR. I’ll talk to other leaders to understand their goals. Then we negotiate, and look at how we all need to adapt our roadmaps to be able to focus on the same thing. It’s not rocket science. It’s just people talking to each other and fostering alignment across the company.”
He adds that there’s always an opportunity cost to consider with this approach – if teams are focused on one piece of work then something else will get left behind to be worked on at a later date. “It requires a unified stand and being able to agree that the next thing will have to wait another few months. But that means that we’re going to make substantial progress on the piece of work we will be focusing on.”
Some dos and don’ts for successful prioritisation
Lastly, Vishal and Shubhansha have a few pieces of advice on how to set yourself for success.
Measure properly. The saying goes that you can’t improve what you can’t measure. Your company needs to develop the discipline to measure properly, Vishal says, or you end up making subjective decisions on the fly, which is very hard at scale. He says that even at Shipt there have been projects where they’ve missed metrics and been unable to quantify success, and so the projects have gone on for months and months.
Set a regular cadence to check your priorities. Make sure your priorities are what you and your execs care about, and what’s important to the business.
Talk to all your teams. Don’t build in silos. Vishal stresses the importance of synergy between teams. He says: “Imagine you’re an army, and one of the units wants to do something different from the others. That’s not the way you win a war.” If the priorities don’t coincide with passion projects in your teams, then you need to find ways to motivate them.
Find a framework. that you can use to plan your work. It’s very hard for product managers to prioritise their work without one, Shubhansha says.
Remember that while frameworks are fab, they’re not always reality. You will have to deal with unexpected requests from the C suite, metrics that become unstable, product quality issues and the like – all of which may mean you have to ditch the framework.
Stakeholder alignment is an absolute must. This means more than just handing out a deck or giving a presentation, says Shubhansha, you must be sure that stakeholder concerns have been heard and incorporated into your plans. Your stakeholders will share their concerns whatever, so far better that this is done when you’re planning than when you’re executing those plans.