First things first — how to prioritize

Stop solving the wrong problems

Charmaine Abalajon
Dec 15, 2016 · 5 min read
The hardest part about building a roadmap, the first problem to solve.

I get it: you want to be a product manager (PM), but you don’t know where to start. That’s ok, I don’t think anyone knows. The path to product isn’t perfect, it isn’t written on a syllabus somewhere or taught by some master (but wouldn’t it be cool if it was!). That’s what makes getting here so confusing — product managers come from everywhere.

I’ve worked with PMs who came from engineering, consulting, MBA programs, marketing, analysis, and finance. I used to be an accountant. While where you start can be all over the map, the people who are good at it do a few things really really well.

Are you ready to make the move? Need a few pointers? You’ve come to the right place. Learn the basics and and figure out if this is the right fit for you.

But first things first…

The key to a good product manager is being able to prioritize work. period. the end.

It isn’t the only thing you need to be good at. PMs still need to plan, understand their users, provide requirements, break down tickets, understand the tech, research, listen, iterate, test, ship, wrangle people, wrangle personalities, measure success and more.

Why is it so hard to prioritize? Sometimes…

  • There’s a big deal on the line
  • Your current clients are unhappy
  • A key stakeholder in the organization ‘just had a thought’
  • Your buddy ‘just had a thought’
  • Customer support has had it up to their ears🙋
  • Technical debt & legacy code is slowing us down
  • New technology questions implementation
  • There’s a partnership around the bend
  • New competitor is making you sweat
  • It’s time to grow, did we account for scale?
  • We need more revenue

…just to name a few

Okay breathe and relax. This is a lot, but it’s not hard.

75,643,659 requests? No problem

Before I tell you the answer, first I have to tell you the secret, something I need you to let sink in a little. You can’t do it all. (Did that hit you like a ton of bricks or what). You only have 4 developers, there are only 8 hours of the day, you’re in 87 meetings — just by sheer logic, you can’t do it all. But you can do something, and that something is prioritize.

I tried to boil the solution down into one simple and elegant word, but then reality hit. I needed two — focus and balance.

Focus — What’s on fire?

I used this analogy the other day, it was terrible but made some sense, so bear with me — Let’s pretend you broke your foot and bones are going in all sorts of directions that make no sense. What would you naturally do first: get to a doctor or paint your toenails? If you have a thing about bad toes maybe this isn’t the best analogy; but at it’s core, I’m asking which problem would you solve first. The crucial one or the inconsequential one.

Here’s the catch, different people interpret crucial problems differently and your job as a PM is to sympathize with that, but keep the best interests of the company in mind. This can come in many forms.

  • What is the company’s north star, what set of behaviours are you trying to encourage that determines success or failure
  • How many users does this impact, if any.
  • What is the company’s strategy — how has the executive team decided how they will win and why
  • What stage of funding is the company, what are the goals needed to be met to get to the next stage

(There are many techniques out there to help decipher if a problem is really big or really small but I will save that for a future post.)

Passing ideas and requests through the ‘is this crucial?’ sieve will help you as a PM optimize your team’s time and help you navigate the waters of unending requests.

This is how you do it right — illustration

Balance — Understand & communicate tradeoffs

Now that you know which problems you want to solve, you have to actually solve it (…and here you are thinking your job was done). Don’t be discouraged, this is actually the fun part — you get to solve problems, what’s more fun than that?

I started with a terrible analogy so let’s keep it going. You now have a broken foot, we’re going to fix that first, but how?

There are a few options,

  • slap a cast on it, have it functional in a week but never 100%
  • maybe you go into surgery, you’re out for 2 months but perfectly healed
  • Or perhaps there’s bad muscle under the ankle and you need to make a call to fix that first. (note* I’m a PM not a doctor, is there even a muscle under the ankle?)

This works the same in software. Once you’ve chosen the problem you want to solve, don’t solve it alone. Talk to the brilliant designers, developers, and community members on your team (who were vetted, then vetted again) and figure out the fix. Some solutions are quick and dirty, while others take more time, really gets to the heart of the problem and checks every box. Then you, as the fully accountable PM, weigh out the solutions based on company need, and evaluate them on timing, resources and effectiveness.

The best PM’s balance the pros and cons of each option against company goals and make a recommendation.

Now your turn!

Maybe this analogy was terrible and you’re now more confused than ever. Or maybe it’s as clear as day and I’ve sent you smiling off into the sunset. But if there is one thing I hope you can take away its this.

Take a minute, understand the problem, figure out if it’s important then find the solution that best fits the company’s goals and timing. Easy right?

Oh and don’t worry, I booked my mani-pedi for this weekend.

[Ok so I’m new at this, but if you liked this, would love your and feedback, and maybe share it with other Medium folks. Then click the (Follow) button to keep updated on the latest.]

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Charmaine Abalajon

Written by

I’m a Product Manager at Checkout 51, I’m also an accountant. I love data but I love learning about behaviour more. Come say hi @charmaine_a.

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