The Art of Prioritization: A simple and visual approach

Most Product Managers say that their biggest challenge is prioritizing new opportunities against existing opportunities that the team is working on. Often the priority calls aren’t obvious and for every decision, it feels like there are many variables to consider — invariably at the end of a prioritization session, the teams I’ve observed leave exhausted. We recognize that simplifying this process would be immensely valuable to product teams and in a recent post we talk about a simple rubric that helps you align the team on the rationale for for evaluating opportunities.

In this post we’ll talk about a real world example where using this rubric simplified the discussion on priorities and became a way for the team (in this case the Board) to use this rubric on an ongoing basis. While most examples we talk about in Radical Product are in high tech, this particular example is based on my work with The Avenue Concept, a non-profit in public art and it illustrates the power of a vision-driven product approach that you can use in verticals beyond high tech.

Background

The Avenue Concept (TAC) is a non-profit with the mission of creating a deep societal impact by bringing art into the public awareness. From amateur involvement in the artistic process through events and other interactive opportunities, to public installations of world-class, thought-provoking art, The Avenue Concept focuses on making public art accessible at all levels.

Lotus sculpture by JaeHyo Lee installed by The Avenue Concept in Providence, RI

The organization, and specifically their Executive Director, Yarrow Thorne, had accomplished a series of major installations of public art including sculptures, murals and was laying the groundwork for art infrastructure in the city of Providence. The Avenue Concept also engaged the community in the art installations and worked with local artists to promote their work. Over time, as there was increasing awareness of The Avenue Concept’s ability to complete public art installations in short periods of time, other organizations and even individuals began to reach out to The Avenue Concept to engage them on new projects. But like any non-profit (or enterprise), The Avenue Concept also has finite resources that it must manage carefully, to maximize its impact. Rather than stretching itself across too many projects, The Avenue Concept decided to develop a three year strategic plan that included a prioritized list of projects that the organization could budget for and resource appropriately.

Executive Director, Yarrow Thorne, engaging the community in DAK.1NE’s mural titled “Anchored”
The Avenue Concept promoting installation by local artists, Leah Miller and Alisan LeMay, titled “Trash Talk”

Instead of prioritizing projects as a one time effort, we applied Radical Product thinking to establish evaluation criteria that the Board and the team could use on a regular basis to prioritize new opportunities as they continued to pop up.

A powerful tool for bringing Radical Product thinking to prioritization

Using this tool required alignment on the following concepts:

  • Vision: The Avenue Concept already had a clear vision as stated earlier in the post of creating deep social impact by bringing art into public awareness.
  • Sustainability: The term sustainability refers to mitigating the biggest risks that could shut you down tomorrow. For The Avenue Concept, as for many non-profits or startups, Sustainability could be defined as continued access to funding.

With these concepts defined, we evaluated and plotted opportunities into quadrants:

  • Ideal quadrant: Items in the top right quadrant are those that most closely match your vision, as well as improve sustainability by reducing existential risk — a strategy with lots of these items is likely to be a promising one. We see that the Sculpture and Mural Programs are close vision fits — they are both very visible and therefore raise awareness of public art. Because The Avenue Concept’s Executive Director has crafted a model that allows them to scalably source and install artworks, these programs fit in the Ideal quadrant. But focusing only on opportunities in the Ideal quadrant would mean shortchanging the long-term vision to only reap the immediate benefits.
  • Vision Investment quadrant: To progressively deliver on the long term vision, TAC is also selectively investing in projects in the Vision Investment quadrant, e.g. the Art Infrastructure program which includes projects like installing lighting to highlight installations in the evenings. The Art Infrastructure projects greatly enhance the appearance of artworks and help with awareness of public art — as a result they are high on the Vision Fit criterion. But on the Sustainability criterion, developing this art infrastructure across the city is resource intensive. Taking on programs in this quadrant requires picking selectively from this quadrant and planning for the necessary resources to invest in the vision.
  • Vision Debt quadrant: One way of offsetting some of the fundraising requirements to invest in the Vision Investment quadrant is to occasionally take on projects that bring in revenue, but may be a poor fit for your vision; pursuing them results in “vision debt”. For TAC, the Paint Bar is an example of using vision debt wisely to get to the next milestone — the Paint Bar doesn’t create deep and meaningful impact through art. However, it makes creating murals more sustainable for TAC and promotes engagement with local artists. TAC takes on Vision Debt very carefully knowing that incurring too much vision debt will derail what TAC stands for if too much is allowed to accumulate.
  • Avoid It quadrant: Items in the bottom left are both a poor vision fit and expose you to additional risk. Only pursue items down here if they unlock important opportunities in the future. TAC doesn’t have opportunities in the Avoid It quadrant.

Bringing Radical Product thinking into your organization

This approach to prioritization is an easy way to bring Radical Product thinking into your organization. Teams at any level can use this, whether it’s the executive leadership team or a product development team. Depending on the size of your organization, each team’s definition of Product Vision and Sustainability might be different.

Start by crafting your Vision and Sustainability statement using the free and open source Radical Product toolkit. Depending on your style, you can do this by yourself or as a team exercise where you craft these statements individually and then compare notes. You can then draw up the 2x2 rubric on a whiteboard and the team can move Post-its to different quadrants when discussing how to prioritize features at your next sprint planning meeting or debating whether to pursue a sales opportunity in your next strategy meeting.

If you have a common terminology and framework for evaluating priorities and communicating why an opportunity is low or high priority, you’ll get more buy-in from your team, while empowering them to evaluate features using the same approach. Further, if you give your team tools to evaluate opportunities the way you do, the decisions made when you cannot be present are more likely to be aligned with your collective goals.

Radical Product is a movement that provides a methodology for strategic product thinking, in a similar way that Lean and Agile provided a methodology for feedback-driven execution. Share your experiences as you use the the free and open source Radical Product toolkit to bring Radical Product thinking into your organization. We look forward to hearing from you!