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.
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 to. Where our focus and effort will be and what we can safely put aside.
Levels of Prioritization
Whether it is strategic initiatives, product features, or backlog items, prioritization is difficult but critical for achieving the best outcomes for our users and our businesses.
We need to prioritize strategic initiatives. This often takes place at a company, organizational, or departmental level. Strategic prioritization is critical because it helps us focus on the most critical initiatives, problems, or opportunities at a high level.
This is where leadership focuses. Determining the right strategic problems to solve and opportunities to pursue.
Product prioritization is another critical level of prioritization. This is primarily the responsibility of the product manager with collaboration from UX, engineering, stakeholders and users.
At this level, we are talking about the problems the product is solving and value it is providing, so think of it more at the roadmap level.
Finally, we need to prioritize the actual work getting done. We often do this within the backlog of user stories that the product team is working on. Again, the responsibility for this often lies with the product manager, but we can only effectively do this with the development team and UX designers.
This is more of an execution level, so I find that asking stakeholders or users for too much input here is counterproductive. As a product team, you need those inputs, but you need to decide as well and properly prioritize the right things work to provide the right value. More on that below.
At each level, it’s important to have the right people involved and the right people making prioritization decisions. Leaders and executives shouldn’t be dictating at the product or backlog level. Once they’ve established the right vision and strategy, along with the strategic priorities, they shouldn’t have any need to dictate. If they do, it’s a sign of some underlying disfunction. To get the best outcomes, you need appropriately empowered product teams working on the right problems and finding the right solutions.
Framework for Prioritization
Most discussions of prioritization tend to jump into the processes and methods for prioritizing, like ordered lists or MoSCoW methods. That is part of prioritizing, but only part. Before we get there, we need to step back and look at the entire framework to ensure we have all the pieces for properly deciding.
Vision and Strategy - In order to prioritize properly, we need to have a vision and strategy. This is an often overlooked part of prioritization. For strategic prioritization, how can we decide what initiatives are most important if we don’t have a vision or strategy for our company? The same for our product. When we lack a vision, prioritization comes down to whoever has the strongest opinion or loudest voice, or whatever comes in most urgently.
I’ve seen entire organizations get whipped from one priority to the next because they had no vision or strategy, so every new opportunity became the most important regardless of what was already in progress. To prioritize your initiatives, your product or your backlog, you need to have a strategy and a vision.
Understand the Context - Once you have a vision and strategy, you need to understand the context of your users and market. This should be an ongoing process, whether at a broad level or at a narrow level. But as a leader or a product person, you should constantly be adding to your database of understanding through research, interviews, analysis, etc.
For product teams, this is part of the ongoing product discovery process. I wrote about it recently in an article Product Discovery: The Beginning of Good Product Development.
Gather Inputs - Next you need to gather your inputs. This includes qualitative and quantitative inputs directly related to the decisions you need to make.
Let’s say you are working on your roadmap and deciding how to prioritize between different opportunities and problems. One problem set has to do with onboarding new users, and another has to do with user management. To prioritize, you need to gather all the data associated with both areas, including the current impact, the opportunity in terms of value to users and the business, risk involved, levels of effort, etc.
Use Methods to Visualize - Once you’ve gathered inputs, you can use various frameworks to help visualize your decision. There are no shortage of methods, so I won’t cover all of them here, or cover them in-depth (look for that later).
But I break them down into three primary groups. First is ranking methods. These are methods used to calculate scores and rank priorities. Whether it is strictly ranking, using MoSCoW or some other formula, I group these as “ranking” methods. Next are matrix methods. These methods put initiatives or items into different quadrants in a matrix for visualization. Finally, I have “functional” methods. These are more focused on broader discussions and bigger functional areas.
Ranking Methods -
MoSCoW - This is a common ranking method in product development, standing for “Must Have”, “Should Have”, “Could Have”, and “Would Have” or “Wish to Have” or “Won’t Have” depending on your “W”.
RICE - This is another effective ranking method. It is a formula that standardizes your initiatives or features or stories to help you rank them. The R stands for Reach, the I for Impact, the C for Confidence and the E for effort. You multiply the R x I x C and then divide by E for a score.
WSJF - This stands for weighted shortest job first. It is a common calculation use in SAFe (scaled agile framework) and is basically the cost of delay divided by the duration. It standardizes all the work to determine the most impactful initiative to take on.
Kano - The Kano model focuses on differentiating between basic features (sometimes considered must-haves), performant features, and delighters.
Value/Effort - In the value to effort matrix, a product manager assesses the value of a feature (this includes all aspects of value) and the effort to create that feature. When plotted, you can see what are the high-value/low-effort features, which are often the first you may want to pursue and so on.
Value/Risk - Similarly, in the value to risk matrix, a product manager assesses the value of a feature (this includes all aspects of value) and the risk of that feature. When plotted, you can see what are the high-value/low-risk features, which again are often the first you may want to pursue. We can say the same of initiatives.
User Story Mapping - One of my favorite tools is user story mapping. This is great when starting a new initiative to visualize what you need to bring it to life, and then what the core parts of that are to get started. Go get the book User Story Mapping for more.
Lean Canvas - Creating a lean canvas is another great way to start a new product, initiative or large feature. It helps understand users, problems, and potential solutions.
Feature Buckets - Feature buckets are a way to group different feature ideas and ensure you’re always working on a few from each area, including metric movers, customer requests, delighters, and strategic items. It helps to ensure you’re not just focused in one area or another all the time.
Buy a Feature - Buy a feature is a helpful game. Give everyone a certain dollar amount and allow them to spend it on features. While not an end-all solution, it will give you insight into where people are seeing the most value and willing to spend their money.
These methods have good points and weaknesses. I’ve used almost all of them in my career with different organizations, so it will depend on your team, organization, product, and need, which one makes the most sense. The purpose is to help you make sense of your inputs, visualize some of the data, and inform some of your decision process.
Decide on Priorities - I used to work with someone who liked to say something like “we should boil everything down to the data so the data can decide”. I don’t think data can ever decide for us, nor should it. Even if it could, it would only be based on our own prior decisions in feeding it the inputs, so might as well keep the decision-making explicit.
Don’t outsource your decision to any framework or process. Use the methods as guides and tools, but know that they are only tools. You still need to decide. And not every decision will be clear-cut. Just because an item is in the high-value/low-effort box doesn’t mean we should pursue it above a high-value/high-effort item. That is where context and intuition and decision-making comes in.
Remember, you are the throat to choke, so own the responsibility.
Align and Realign - Once you have decided on priorities, whether for broad initiatives, your product, or your backlog, you need to align with your team and organization. Make sure everyone understands how you reached your decision and why.
It may take some time for others as well. Hopefully, you’ve involved the right people along the way. But if not, don’t expect that everyone will understand at the same level you do. So take time to help them.
And importantly, don’t expect your priorities to stay the same. Just like it is a sign of disfunction if your priorities are constantly changing, it is also a sign of disfunction if you make a plan and stick with it for a long period. You need to be adaptable and adjust your priorities.
Prioritization can often be one of the hardest parts of any role. If you are a product person, you are constantly asked to prioritize at multiple levels. If you are a leader, you face distinct challenges, but they are no less complicated.
The key is eliminating as much unnecessary noise as possible. Use a framework like the one above to clarify your process and make sure you are focusing on the right things. Don’t allow yourself to get caught up in the landing gear when you are running out of fuel.
Best of the Rest
Prioritization: Choosing the Right Things from Strategic Initiatives to Products To Features (podcast) - As if on queue, we did a podcast episode on this very topic this week. Take a listen for some more insights as we dive into product prioritization and discuss some topics above.
How to Develop Authentic Gravitas (podcast) - Thought this was a good listen on developing gravitas in presentations, conversations, etc. A useful skill at anytime, but especially helpful now.