Experience has taught us that we can never get everything we want done. If so, we have to be sure we get the most important things done first, or we risk not having the opportunity to do them in the future. That’s why prioritization is crucial.
There are many ways to prioritize. I’ll dare to say that some are worse and some are better. Of course, all of them can work well, depending on the context. However, from what my eyes have seen, misuse is common. You’ll see what I mean. I’ll take you through these methods: Instinct Prioritization; Framework Prioritization; and Strategic Prioritization.
Prioritizing solely on our’ or others’ gut instinct is the most unscientific method. It requires a confidence level that very few can back up, even though many think they do. It might work for evident lower hanging fruits, but not much more. And lower hanging fruits get all picked up fast.
On a product I used to work on, the HiPPo (Highest Paid Person) in the room truly believed his ideas were genius and were the reason for all his business success. Yet, a few days later, his genius ideas weren’t true anymore, and there was another shiny new, equally confident idea. Priorities shifted as the wind. It was killing the team’s productivity and morale, and it was achieving poor results, despite the claim of working wonders in other businesses.
I’ve learned that the lack of rigorous analysis makes us likely to change our minds soon. Even worse, we open the door to losing touch with customers’ real wants and needs, and we become too permeable to every feature request. We can get terrific insights from ideas and requests, but placing them arbitrarily on the roadmap rarely delivers the best outcomes.
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When faced with the mess caused by the uncertainty of instinct prioritization, my-young-self would immediately jump to use the prioritization framework in fashion at the time. Prioritization frameworks are usually about putting ideas into buckets or about some made-up math formula to rank them.
- MoSCoW: Must Have or Should Have or Could Have or Won’t Have
- Kano model: Expected Needs or Normal Needs or Exciting Needs
- Eisenhower Matrix: Do (urgent and important) or Decide (important but not urgent) or Delegate (not important but urgent) or Delete (not important and not urgent)
- Desirability + Viability + Feasibility
- ROI (Return on Investment): Value / Effort
- RICE: Reach * Impact * Confidence / Effort
- Weighted Score: e.g. Business Value (35%) + Costs (25%)+ Risks (40%)
- Cost of Delay: Cost of Delay / Job Duration
These frameworks are good when we never had to think strategically about how to prioritize. Introducing structure forces us to clarify, articulate and line our thoughts. It’ll naturally lead to decisions that better persist the test of time. And it’ll help us communicate those decisions to create consensus.
Nevertheless, while it looks simple and clean, it’s still about guessing. We wag our finger in the air and say: “This looks like a must!”; or “This feels like a 3+2+5”. It can be misleading as it provides a false sense of confidence in the math. Even worse, it might distract us from the focus of delivering the product’s unique value proposition. Or make up for lack of a shared understanding of the product strategy.
The more experienced I get, the more I believe that an outcome-driven product strategy is critical to guide any product decision.
As Product Managers, our primary job isn’t to prioritize ideas. If we are having a hard time doing it, then it means we’re in an output-focused organization. As Product Managers, our job is to create value for the customers in a way that creates value for the business. And that requires an outcome mindset, where product strategy comes first than prioritization tactics.
In the absence of a product strategy, our most important job is to set one.
If none of this outcomes vs. outputs talk rings a bell to you, I’d recommend reading the article below before moving any further. Most of the terms I’ll use from now forward come from there.
Strategy makes prioritization easier
With product strategy, we break up the desired outcomes into a tree-like structure. This way, we reduce the playing field and make it more manageable. We don’t need to assess the full tree at the same time. We can simply assess the branch we’re on. We’ll have less to decide, and it’ll be easier to prioritize. Trying to prioritize a list of 5 initiatives is easier than a list of 50 feature ideas.
With product strategy, we are also providing clear goals. We want to do what will more likely help us achieve the desired outcome, and that should be the reasoning behind our prioritization. The more defined an outcome is, the easier it’ll be to prioritize the items that align with it.
- When prioritizing Business Intents, we need to select the ones that make the biggest leap forward to reaching the Vision.
- When prioritizing Product Initiatives, we need to select the ones that impact more the Business Intent we are aiming for.
- When prioritizing Options, we need to select the ones that best solve the Product Initiative proposal.
Strategy allows increased confidence
So, given we have fewer items to prioritize now and have clear goals, isn’t it ok to use our instinct this time? Or resort to a prioritization framework? Sure, depending on the risk and our confidence level. But we can always use the left-over capacity to de-risk and gain more confidence.
Ultimately, we want to estimate how much impact addressing each item would have on our desired outcome. Ideally, we’ll do this by using hard data from the market, customers, and financials (not by using made-up numbers that give us a false sense of truth). Yet, we’ll most likely need to experiment to gather that evidence.
Learn to Earn: An Experimentation Guide
Experimentation is all about building to learn, to hit the nail more effectively when you are building to earn.
As we learn which item looks most promising, we prioritize it to be delivered. As we learn how it performs, we either move on to another target or try another option. No matter how confident we are, we want to stay open to the idea that we might have made the wrong decisions. Prioritization is as iterative as anything else.
All that said, let’s go through it again, this time backward:
- Product strategy guides us to make sure we are doing the most important things first. If there isn’t a product strategy, we need to set one. On the big picture, prioritization that provides real value can’t be effective without it. And experimentation is our next best friend.
- Frameworks can help us think in a structured way and can help us communicate decisions when needed. Still, we need to use them wisely. They don’t replace product strategy, and we shouldn’t be slaves to them.
- Instinct works for obvious items. There’s no need to complicate things sometimes. Nevertheless, we should never fall into the trap of being overly confident or outsourcing our decisions to others. Product management isn’t a rigorous science, but it’s not a loose art either.
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