On Prioritization- 3 mins
“Less is more.” - Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
One of the most exhilarating challenges that I face as a product manager is creating the right product at the right time for the right people.
Sounds easy in theory. Build, measure, learn, and repeat as necessary. But things do not always run so smoothly. Disagreements inevitably arise, there are fires to fight, and customers and leadership want more at a faster pace than your team can provide. So how do you juggle all sorts of needs? How do you ensure you’re applying resources to the most essential things today?
Fortunately, product managers use a handy technique to solve that problem: prioritization. There are hundreds of things one can tackle simultaneously, but not everything is equally important now. Should you work on a new feature, fix more bugs, improve performance, work on a pet project? A good prioritization framework is an engine that brings order to chaos. It helps you attain clarity around the highest return-on-investment (ROI) ideas. For example, check out the awesome strategies used at Gusto and Intercom.
Ideally, your team has a north star metric, or several key metrics, which provides an overarching goal and helps you more easily shape your product strategy. If not, you should define one and rally your team around it! The highest priority projects should be ones that move that metric’s needle. For example, my team took on a live-site and quality push over the last several months. We drew lines in the sand and picked our targets - focus on improving three core metrics to deliver better experiences for our customers. After weeks of consistently and closely tracking our metrics and working on the highest ROI projects to improve them, the end result was huge. We observed significant improvements in the speed of our services and product reliability. As Peter Drucker says, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” That mantra used to sound hollow when I was in college; however, this rings so true today. What is not measured is not acted upon.
Clear the Noise
Beyond targeted initiatives, there is an entire backlog of features and customer requests that constantly stream into the team. Even a rough prioritization framework brings clarity to the noise.
Here’s how my broader team generally approaches prioritizing features. We defined several themes (key high-level business areas or product goals) and baselines (expectations of quality and usability). Prioritization then is a function of the theme and baseline. After ranking a theme, we generate project ideas within each. Allocation of resources for each project is based on potential impact and cost, hence our emphasis on the ROI. Typically the highest ROI projects turn are obvious. For projects with murkier ROI comparisons, product managers negotiate internally and break ties based on customer need and urgency.
Shipping a successful feature requires focus and a blend of art and science. That’s what makes product management so fun :)
Building great products requires a balance between soft skills (i.e., influence, collaboration, and communication) and hard skills (i.e., user research, prototyping, and data analysis). The end result is as much a reflection of your process as it is your ability to execute. Great prioritization is indispensable to bringing new products and features to fruition.