Prioritization 101

Prioritization is the one way that you have to decide where to invest time & resources. It might be a product owner bias, but I do believe that if you want to achieve an objective, at work or in life, prioritization is the one way to do it effectively. Sometimes, it is the only way to achieve your objective at all. Anything else, including pressure on yourself and on others to get it all done, doesn’t work.

Prioritizing is hard but necessary

Prioritizing is hard. Even in organizations that are keen to decentralize decision making, it is hard for any one person to take the responsibility of choosing what matters the most right now. It means saying No — or not now — to some things and some people, and being ready to answer for it. As Eric Fromm pointed out in Fear of Freedom, embracing choice often brings loneliness and anxiety. A lot of people don’t want it. It is easier to follow an order or to pass the ball of unrealistic demands to others implementing a task. But escaping the freedom of choice, be it with passive conformity to established rules or with authoritarianism, leads to worse outcomes.

Regardless of how you manage to pick priorities, do pick them, do make a bold choice. Even if it ends up not being the best one, you will at least have achieved this one thing and will be able to learn from it and move forward, as opposed to juggling several less important and unfinished tasks. This is especially obvious in software development, vastly explored in agile thinking, but I believe it to be true for many other disciplines.

It is better if your prioritization is not totally random though. I have seen several attempts at making it fit into an algorithm measuring various data points, in my opinion with little success. What works for me is gathering a mix of empiric data as well as emotional impressions and convert it all into informed gut feeling.

1. Start with the vision

Deciding what matters the most at the high level is a lot more effective than trying to order tasks at the micro level. It is also the only way that different people and teams can work for a common objective without the costs and limitations of micro-management.

For established organizations, vision conversations are more about uncovering underlying assumptions from different people than about inventing something radically new.

What is our PURPOSE? What are we ultimately doing?
What is MY interpretation of the current situation and main problems to solve?
What is our ADDED VALUE?
WHO do we want to benefit?

There are many tools that can help you get alignment around a vision. I particularly like OKRs, because they’re bottom-up and that they tie inspirational objectives with concrete metrics to know if you’re going in the right direction.

2. Be empathic

There is no amount of data that can efficiently translate empathy. Deeply listening to users, customers, constituents or whoever you work for is incredibly informative. As Tom Kelley from IDEO put it in The Art of Innovation, you should not only look for the nuances of human behavior but also strive to infer motivation and emotion.

There are two main ways that you can connect with others:

  1. Listen & observe, in person if possible. Otherwise, talk to those who are in touch with the people and stories you want to understand. Ask questions, look at how people behave and don’t judge.
  2. Put yourself in others’ shoes. There is no better way of understanding people than feeling what they feel, their pain and their joy. Use the products that you sell as much as possible, challenge yourself to live like your users. It is very powerful to witness how some issues naturally emerge as obvious priorities.

For a more empiric understanding of preferences, or to deal with a wider pool of people, there are survey and prioritization techniques such as the Kano model that can also be quite effective. This is a great complement, but in my opinion nothing beats human interaction.

3. Treat it as a business investment

Prioritization in a work environment is purely a business decision. The more people will follow these priorities, the bigger the business impact will be. If I for instance decide that ten developers will focus on improving content recommendations on the site this week, I am in fact deciding to invest the equivalent of their ten weekly salaries into content recommendations. We often don’t realize how much money we are responsible for when deciding on priorities.

Like for any other investment, one needs to consider the cost, risk and value of each initiative.

In complex environments, these are hardly exact metrics. Often times, certainly in the case of software development, they’re at best an estimate to be taken with many pinches of salt. What I find the most interesting about looking at these variables is

  1. the conversation and
  2. the learning that happens over time which can make them a tiny bit more reliable.

4. Be ruthless

Prioritization is ruthless or is no prioritization at all. We would all like to solve everyone’s problems, but trying to walk down this path is a recipe for failure. Prioritization is a radical exercise.

Ruthless prioritization means having the discipline to solve the big, really hard problem rather than being seduced by all the small, easier problems. John Vars

The more transparent you are about your choices and vision, the more you will help others understand the reasoning behind. The organizational culture can also play a big role in legitimizing turning down requests from other people and at all levels.

That’s it! Prioritization 101 in a nutshell: Just do it. And follow your informed gut feeling to do it better.