Prioritization: Choosing Is The Hardest Part

Kyle Evans
Product by Design
Published in
9 min readSep 29, 2020

In 1978, United Airlines Flight 173 set out from New York to Portland. After a layover in Denver, the plane had an issue with its landing gear as it made its final approach to Portland. When it lowered its landing gear, there was an abnormal vibration, a loud “thump”, and a malfunction with a microswitch, so the indicator light showing that the landing gear was down didn’t come on. Because of this, the crew decided to circle the airport to troubleshoot the issue.

Unfortunately, while the crew focused on the landing gear for an hour in the air, they failed to pay adequate attention to another issue: fuel. Flight 173 used up its fuel while circling the airport. By the time they realized that issue, it was too late. The plane crashed nearby, killing 10 people on board and injuring many others.

How could something like that happen? There are many causes, and it’s an accident that’s been dissected in several ways. But one key element was prioritization. Tragically, the landing gear had been down the entire time. While they had initially made the right call given some initial issues and unknowns, the crew lost sight of the right priorities.

So how can we avoid prioritizing the wrong things? How can we ensure that we are saying yes to the right things, and conjointly, saying no to the wrong things? While the stakes aren’t likely as high as plane crashes, it can often mean the difference between a successful product launch, feature adoption, or even the health of our business.

Why Prioritize?

Choosing is often the hardest part. It’s easy to see in our own lives that if we don’t prioritize, we lose control. We can’t take on everything that we’d like to do.

The same goes for our businesses and products. If everything is important, nothing is. I remember first encountering this years ago at Goldman Sachs. As requests would come from our sales teams, they would tag every single one would as urgent, whether in an email or on a call or however. Everything was urgent. It almost became a running joke that we’d put that request on the urgent list. As if we had any other list to put things on.

We need to know what really is important. We need to know what we’re going to say yes to, and what we will say no…

Kyle Evans
Product by Design

Writer, podcaster & product leader. Woodworker & creator. Husband & father. Dog lover. Soccer fan. @kylelarryevans on twitter