How to Smack Down Political Bullshit in Prioritization Meetings

Tell me if you’ve been here before:

Maybe it’s your senior staff meeting, the heads of each team, brought together to collaborate on the company roadmap for the next quarter. Or maybe it’s your product team, designers and engineers brought together to decide how to implement some high-level company goals.

A few people have their passion projects and opinions about what’s the most important, and the discussion gets heated. The loudest or most charismatic players will verbally arm wrestle their view over the more analytical but quieter team members until they concede, fuming angrily.

Sound familiar?

Don’t make company decisions by politics

Every company has a long list of features, tasks, and wishlist items someone would like implemented. Most companies have more tasks than the time or resources it will take to complete them. The process of deciding which task will be completed first is prioritization.

Each team may have their own views on which tasks are more important. Instead of prioritizing by politics, with each team member lobbying for his or her own views and trying to argue, sometimes emotionally, for what he or she thinks is right, use a simple tool that will allow you and your team to think about your tasks from two simple lenses: How much effort will this take to complete, and how much impact will it make on your company? It takes away some of the subjective elements and helps get everyone into a similar frame of mind, so everyone can come together and make decisions peacefully.

Focus on impact and effort of each task

By focusing everyone on impact, they start to think about their interests from the point of view of the company, rather than their own personal agenda. It becomes much easier to argue for one item or another, because they are all judged on the same axis — what impact the work will have on the company — rather than how strongly one team member or another feels about the project.

And by focusing everyone on effort, people start to realize what may or may not be feasible in any given time, and can have reasonable discussions about implementation strategies based on how difficult and involved the tasks will be, rather than how important or interesting individual team members believe the projects will be.

Use the Action Priority Matrix to align your team

The Action Priority Matrix, or Impact/Effort chart, is a simple diagramming and brainstorming tool to help with prioritizing tasks. A 2x2 matrix makes it easy to visualize which tasks are worth pursuing and which ones should be left off your roadmap. The team will build the matrix collaboratively, so when finished, the entire team will understand how and why the product roadmap was created and prioritized. Everyone will feel like their views were heard, and nobody will have to lobby for favor to get their agenda across.

Get your team together around a whiteboard or a large piece of paper to get started

1. List out the tasks you want to prioritize:

- If you don’t already have a list of tasks, do a brainstorm session first to get all team members to write down the tasks they think are most important and top of mind on individual post-it notes.

2. Set up your prioritization matrix:

- Draw a line in the middle of your whiteboard or piece of paper

- Draw a perpendicular line in the middle the other way, so now your whiteboard or paper is divided into 4 sections

- Across the bottom, write “Effort”

- to the left of Effort write “Low” and to the right of Effort write “High”

- In the middle of the left side of the paper, write “Impact”

- Below Impact write “Low” and above Impact write “High”

3. Place your tasks:

- With your team, go through each task one-by-one and place it in the appropriate quadrant.

- There may be debates about how much impact or effort each will take — this is important to hash out. Make sure you have representation from the right teams to make these assessments objectively. Remember, sometimes quieter members need to be asked for their assessment.

- You can use relative space within each quadrant to represent gradations (for example, within high impact, one post-it can be placed higher than another to visually represent slight variations in impact)

- Take the time to make sure everyone’s views have been heard and everyone agrees on the placement of each task.

4. Label your quadrants:

- The quadrant that maps to Low Effort and High Impact (top left) is your “Quick Wins” category — Write “Quick Wins” at the top of that square.

- Write “Big Projects” in the High Effort, High Impact (top right) space — these are going to take a lot of resources to complete, but will be worthwhile due to the impact they’ll have.

- Write “Fill ins” in the Low Effort, Low Impact (bottom left) space — these are easy tasks but don’t add a lot of value. Might be worth considering as a “nice to have” if there’s time, but otherwise leave them out of your roadmap.

- Write “No thanks” in the High Effort, Low Impact (bottom right) space — these tasks cost more resources than they’re worth, so you can cross any that get placed here off your list.

Everyone gets excited for the Quick Wins

Once you have all your tasks mapped out, focus on creating a roadmap with the Quick Wins lined up first, and start thinking about breaking the Big Projects into smaller steps.

Big Projects usually need more planning, strategy, research, and design. These steps can get started while the Quick Wins are being implemented.

This should give you some much needed clarity to create momentum and get your team energized and moving towards the company’s goals.

So remember this simple tool when you have more tasks to complete than resources. Before your team starts arguing and lobbying for which tasks to be done first, have them start listing out their tasks on individual post-its, and draw up the 2x2 matrix on the whiteboard. You’ll bring order and focus to the group, bringing everyone together in alignment with the company’s priorities and excited to get to work.

I love sharing practical tips I’ve picked up over the last 12 years working with companies of all sizes, learning what works and what doesn’t when it comes to work. I want to help you make work less agonizing and more creative and empowering for you and your team.

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