Overcoming The Worst Nightmare of Product Owners: Prioritization

There’s always more to do than we can handle. Prioritization is crucial to build meaningful products.

In 2014, I was upset because we were missing our targets too often. So, I decided to talk to the Product Director. I hoped we could do something different for our upcoming challenges. Unfortunately, I was wrong. The conversation went like this:

Me: What is the most important thing we could do now to put us closer to our goals?

Director: Well. That’s a good question. We have many projects to do for this year. Around fifty projects must be done. Then, we will be where we want to be.

Me: But, what is the most important project? What do we want to achieve?

Director: All of them are equally important. We have to work on them in parallel. I know, it’s challenging. But we can do it.

I guess you can imagine the end of this story. It was another year full of frustrations and poor results. The root cause can be traced back to the inability to define priorities. This awkward situation taught many lessons about priorities, which I want to share with you.

“We Cannot Solve Our Problems With The Same Thinking We Used When We Created Them.” — Albert Einstein

Focus On The Whole Experience

I love working with Scrum due to its simplicity. But Scrum is intentionally incomplete because it is a process framework. Therefore, Scrum Teams cannot reach their maximum potential solely with Scrum. That’s where we face a pitfall. The room for interpretation is too broad. For example, let’s have a look at what the Product Backlog is.

The Product Backlog is an ordered list of everything that is known to be needed in the product. It is the single source of requirements for any changes to be made to the product. The Product Owner is responsible for the Product Backlog, including its content, availability, and ordering.

Scrum Guide, November 2017

As you can see, the definition is vague. It is an ordered list of everything. As Product Owners, our mission is to maximize the value of the product. But Scrum doesn’t say much about how to do it. Thus, many Product Owners struggle to find the magic approach to achieve their mission.

Let’s picture a simple scenario. Imagine you are building an e-commerce storefront. People will come to your website, search for the products, add them to cart, and eventually buy. How you order the Product Backlog, determines how fast the product will generate value. For example, it’d be worthless to focus on a single step on the buying journey. Your online shopping will only create value once users can have an end-to-end experience.

A common trap is to miss the big picture. This trap is precisely what happened in the scenario I described at the beginning of the text. Until we have a clear overview of the product, we will end up focusing on irrelevant features. A simple technique can save us from multiple frustrations, Story Mapping.

“Story mapping keeps us focused on users and their experience, and the result is a better conversation, and ultimately a better product.” — Jeff Patton

By using Story Mapping, it becomes apparent what is essential to provide a full experience for the users. Prioritization happens naturally; stakeholders agree more naturally once they can see the big picture in front of them. We avoid building features that will not put us closer to our goals.

If you want to know more about it, I would recommend the following article from Paddy Corry.

Prioritize On The Outcome, Not The Output

In life, we tend to have many more wants than time and money available. So we need to prioritize what we are going after. In the product development world, it is the same. Stakeholders have more wishes than the company has time and money to build. How can we solve this puzzle?

A common approach is to please each stakeholder a little bit. Once we do that, every stakeholder should be happy, right? If they knew what they needed, maybe yes. But this behavior will give the Product Owner multiple headaches:

  • Wants are different than needs: the hard truth is, most times, stakeholders wishes have no connection with their real needs. By building exactly what they ask, we may not solve the problem they have.
  • Lack of direction: Please everyone, please no one. We need to have a mission to pursue. Once we try to please everyone, we will run in different directions, which will inevitably end up in disaster.
  • Welcome Frankenstein: a mix of everything which has no shared goal will lead to a product that nobody understands.

If we are prioritizing the wishes of our stakeholders, we are missing the point. Successful Product Owners focus on the outcome. We need to understand what the stakeholders need instead of what they want. Some questions always help me to get to the needs:

  • What do you want to achieve with this feature?
  • What is this feature for?
  • Who is going to benefit from it?
  • Which problem do you want to solve?
  • Why is it important to solve this problem?

Once we ask such questions, we can uncover the hidden needs. Then, it is possible to define what to build. Until the why is clear, we should never talk about what.

The biggest thing I’ve learned in product management is to always focus on the problem. If you anchor yourself with the why, you will be more likely to build the right thing.
Melissa Perri, Escaping the Build Trap: How Effective Product Management Creates Real Value

Understand What Needs To Be Better

Which items should be on the top of the Product Backlog? It depends on each scenario. The secret is to understand what makes the most sense for the product at the moment. Which KPI (Key Performance Indicator) do we want to improve? Answering this question can guide our decisions on prioritization.

Sign with the wrong way direction
Sign with the wrong way direction
Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

In one of the places I worked, we focused on acquiring new customers. The sign-up rate was continually growing. However, the recurring purchase was decreasing. That intrigued why customers would buy only once and never return? In this case, we had to switch priorities. It is senseless to acquire new customers if we are bad at keeping them.

As a Product Owner, you should understand what is essential to get better. Looking at the analytics will help you to make better data-driven decisions. Some examples:

  • Bounce rate: your audience goes way too fast because they don’t find what they want. What could be the reason?
  • Conversion rate: how many users make to the end of your value proposition? Where do you lose your users?
  • NPS (Net Promoter Score): how are your users willing to recommend your service to their friends?
  • Return rate: why do users return the purchase?
  • Cancellation rate: why do users cancel the subscription?

These are only some examples where you could get some insights. The point is, look at your numbers to understand what needs to be better. Define actions to change the scenario and focus on it. Say no to what distracts you from achieving your goals.

“Product management is about insights and judgment, both of which require a sharp mind. Hard work is also necessary, but for this job, it is not sufficient.”
― Marty Cagan, Inspired: How To Create Products Customers Love

North Star Metrics is a framework that ensures we focus on what matters the most. A North Star Metric is the critical measure of success for the product team in a company. But be careful, it is a single metric. Don’t commit the mistake of defining multiple metrics. The North Star should put everyone in a single direction instead of setting the teams apart.

You can read more about the North Start Metrics in the following article.


Prioritization is a nightmare for most Product Owners I know. Many times, I hear complaints like “I have too many stakeholders. I have too much to do.” Well, welcome to the Product Owner world. That’s how it is. We will always have people pressuring us to deliver more. How we handle the situation will define how successful we can be.

Prioritization is about focus. To thrive as a Product Owner, we need to understand what is essential for the moment. Then we can focus on it. We should also be careful not to miss the big picture. We want to build meaningful products instead of Frankensteins.

Do you want to write for Serious Scrum or seriously discuss Scrum?

Head of Product Management @virtualidentity Course: How to be a strong Product Owner: http://bit.ly/30ylNEH Get Your Free e-Book: https://bit.ly/35tx7W4

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