Running a prioritisation meeting

This article represents ‘how’ to run prioritisation at a strategic level for a whole business or portfolio. For the ‘why’, please see my previous article: Now, Next, Future — a simple approach to delivering your strategy

Prioritisation is an exercise in compromise and negotiation. Running a prioritisation session for an entire business requires that a cross-functional team representing the key stakeholders and business units is present.

This process is predicated on using the Now/Next/Future method from the linked article

Who’s there?

First, decide who is going to chair and facilitate the meeting. Depending on the size of your business this could be a member of your executive team, a product leader, an agile coach or a programme manager. Whoever it is, they need to be on the hook for arranging the meeting and ensuring attendance.

Second, and this is the hard bit: you need to get your leadership team to attend. The simple rule is: if you aren’t there, you don’t get to complain about the outcome.

It’s important to understand who is going to shout if strategic bets are being made that they don’t agree with. Ideally you want to balance the smallest group composition with representation for the whole business. In smaller companies I’d recommend that the executive team are the best group to be involved in this process. In larger businesses, this might be an investment team, PMO or product group.

You should also include team members capable of updating the prioritisation team on the progress of the ‘Now’ projects, and any stakeholders for ‘Next’ projects.

Third; you need a list of all the current and upcoming projects that will be put on the board. In digital product companies, I like to link these projects with the Epics that development teams are working towards. This allows me to pull the list directly from a tool like Jira. In your business, just writing those projects on Post-Its might be sufficient.

Using Lean Canvases

One tool that I find particularly useful for the prioritisation meeting is to represent strategic level bets (or Epics) with a variant of Alex Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas. The canvas is a neat, efficient way to record the benefits of a business (or project). I’ve edited some of the structure of the canvas and added colour coded T-Shirt sizing which can help aid the prioritisation session.

You can duplicate my template here.

Despite the benefits of using digital products to store the now/next/future board, I always enjoy having a physical board with the canvases ever-present in the office. This allows anyone in the business the opportunity to walk past and see the current progress towards our strategic goals.

What do you need for the meeting?

First, decide who is going to chair and facilitate the meeting. This could be the COO, a product leader, a senior programme manager or even the CEO. Whoever it is, they need to be on the hook for arranging the meeting and ensuring attendance.

Second, and this is the hard bit: you need to get your leadership team to attend.

The simple rule is: if you aren’t there, you don’t get to complain. Understand who is going to shout if strategic bets are being made that they don’t agree with, and invite them. Ideally you want to balance the smallest group composition with representation for the whole business. In smaller companies I’d recommend that the executive team are the best group to be involved in this process.

You should also include team members capable of updating the prioritisation team on the progress of the ‘Now’ projects, and any stakeholders for ‘Next’ projects.

Third; you need a list of all the current and upcoming projects that will be put on the board. In digital product companies, I like to link these projects with the Epics that development teams are working towards. This allows me to pull the list directly from a tool like Jira. In your business, just writing those projects on Post-Its might be sufficient.

Again, I favour having a physical board to represent the projects in the meeting, but with remote teams I’ll nominate a volunteer to mimic the physical board onto a digital version.

Running the meeting

I aim to run these meetings within an hour. The first 15 minutes of the meeting should be dedicated to a review of the in-flight, ‘Now’ projects. Keep the update brief, and establish whether any are close to delivery or have changed in scope.

Starting with your (digital or physical) board, you should make sure that all of your projects are listed in time for the meeting.

The next 40 minutes is dedicated to reviewing the order of the ‘Next’ column. This should encourage a healthy debate among the attendees. We’re looking to ask questions like:

“Have any projects been moved into Now since we last met, or do we need to update them now?”
“Has the priority of the projects in Next changed? Do we still agree with the current order of the projects?”
“Are there any new projects which we feel are important enough to be added to the Next column?”

The aim of this meeting is simple: to fully brief the leadership group on the status of current strategic work, and to give them an opportunity to align the roadmap items with the strategy based on our most recent understanding.

In the last few minutes of the meeting, the group should consider whether any future or next bets should be removed from the board.

By the end of the meeting, despite any disagreements during the meeting, the group should be committed to the new order of the ‘Next’ column, and understand the compromises that determined the order.

After the meeting

Recall that the purpose of prioritisation is to effectively place our strategic bets and obstruct side-bets from being made at the cost of velocity. At the end of the meeting it’s important that the outcomes are circulated and obvious within the business.

If you’re able to keep these boards on constant display to the business it can form a constant reminder of the projects in flight and up next. In addition, the projects can be translated onto a more traditional roadmap view of the future in your preferred tool.