TribeRank: A 5-step technique for product prioritization
What product skill could you teach somebody in 3 minutes or less?
For me, one of my favorite product techniques is what I call TribeRank. It is a way to prioritize better, faster, and with more fun! We’ve all sat through tedious roadmap/planning meetings at some point where after several hours of discussion you leave unsure about what you decided upon as a team and without a realistic (i.e., small) number of priorities. TribeRank is the antidote.
The thesis is that a cross-functional, diverse tribe (who has been immersed in the market, product, customer needs) can quickly prioritize top opportunities if the right framework is applied. Note that I use the word tribe, because this technique is best used when it includes individuals who are outside of a core scrum team— including marketing, sales, and customer service.
When to use this technique:
This technique works for prioritizing pretty much anything. When forming a product strategy, I have often repeated it multiple times: first with prioritizing KPIs, then customer segments, then initiatives, then features/epics, all the way down to user stories if needed (or sometimes even my own personal to do list).
Let’s get to it — the 5 steps to TribeRank:
- Write the question you want to solve at the top of the board. For example: “What features do we want to launch in [time], to drive [KPI] for [customer segment]?”
- Have each person brainstorm as many solutions/ideas to this question within 5 minutes
- Rules: Use one post-it per feature/idea, use Sharpie pens so your writing is visible, draw examples if you can
- Have everyone stand-up and stand in a line
- One by one, walk past the whiteboard and put ONE of your ideas on the board
- Say out loud what is written on the post-it so that everyone can hear
- Rules: If you have a duplicate post-it, throw it out. No talking, except when you are putting up your post-it. This is the most important rule for TribeRank: it saves time, ensures you hear the person who is placing a post-it, and preserves discussion for when you are ready for a valuable debate about priorities
- Optional step: You can cluster the post-its either by (1) staying in your line and moving the post-its one-by-one or (2) allowing everyone to move post-its as they find a match/related item. Clusters help you develop a taxonomy and they are also a great visual tool for seeing whether your brainstorm has been comprehensive (e.g., are some clusters more populated than others). For example, if you are using TribeRank to prioritize customer segments, I have always found that you can cluster segments at least two different ways (e.g., by industry and also by task/job to be done). This is likely a post of its own, but knowing the lens you look at your segments through is highly impactful
- Remember to take a picture of your clusters to document the groupings
- Leaving the post-its on the board, draw an x-axis
- Label the right side as most valuable (or the appropriate definition of value, such as likelihood to drive the original KPI you stated)
- Label the left side as least valuable
- Everyone stands back up in a line
- One-by-one, each person can move one post-it left or right as they pass the board. It does not need to be one of your original post-its, you can select any of the notes on the board
- In the beginning, there is no need to explain why you are moving an item left or right. At some point, you will come down to a couple of post-its that different team members keep moving back and forth. This is the time to allow discussion and debate until you can commit to an order
- Rule: Do not overlap the post-its. No talking, except when it’s your turn to move a post-it
- Draw a y-axis
- Label the top easy
- Label the bottom hard
- Rules: The post-its cannot be moved left or right any more, only up/down
- Repeat the same process as above, walking in a circle, one at a time, moving post-its up and down
- Note: You can define easy/hard in more detail or you can also assume that the collective knowledge of the group is good for a first start. For example, easy/hard assumptions could be based on storypoints, ability to sell to a customer segment, volume of dependencies, availability of team skill sets, etc.
- Select one person to draw a diagonal line (with a downward slope like the example above)
- Everything above the line is a priority
- Everything below the line will be cut / put off for later
- Debate the line as a team until you can all commit to it together
A secret technique (not so secret now):
I love starting meetings or brainstorms with an opener and closer question. For this type of session, where communication and common understanding is critical, my favorite opener is this:
- You: “Think of a ball. In 10 seconds or less tell me what ball you pictured.”
- Everyone goes one-by-one and will usually say things like baseball, basketball, dodgeball, and some smarty will say “a dance.”
- You: “All I said was the word ball, and we came up with 20 different answers, this is why communication will be critical today. When we describe a feature (or customer segment or KPI), we need to make sure we are all thinking about it the same way.”
A couple of other tricks:
- You won’t have commitment across the team unless you have healthy debate. As the facilitator, be sure to allow people who are quieter the chance to speak and share their reactions.
- This technique works best with a cross-functional team, who has already been exposed to research on customer segments, user needs, the relative size of sample opportunities, etc. I recommend sharing research and materials to pre-read before the TribeRank session to facilitate this.
- You can also take the output on this session and put it through the ringer by market sizing each customer segment, breaking features into user stories and pointing them (to quantify the ease/difficulty), mapping cross-team dependencies for each initiative in detail, etc. At earlier-stage companies this is likely not needed, but as you scale or lead a team with 50+ people, you may need to add more rigor after this initial brainstorm in order to validate your hypotheses.
- Some people do best when they have had the chance to sleep on a topic/react to it. Check-back in on whether the tribe stands by the prioritization a day later.
An important side note: I am lucky to have had amazing mentors in my career such Marty Cagan, Jeff Patton, BJ Fogg and many more. I am also aware that there is a cognitive bias called cryptomnesia, where you think you invented an idea, but really it is a forgotten memory. I am sure I learned this technique from one of the brilliant people I have had the chance to work with and hope that you now make it your own!
Questions, comments, reactions welcome! And, if you have a product technique you love, please share it in the comments below so everyone can benefit.
I am a product-driven VC @FirstMark. If you are building one of tomorrow’s great companies, I’d love to hear from you and help. Email me at email@example.com