Ep. 5: How Do Your Product Teams Prioritize?


Are you trying to align your product  team and your leadership team on an  agreed-upon method for prioritization? In  this episode of Fearless Product  Leadership I talked to five experienced  product leaders working in B2C and B2B  startup growth and mature companies and  they tell me their favorite methods for  prioritization in it you're going to  learn the important distinction between  prioritization and sequencing and you're  going to learn about the critical  importance of a North Star.




So I know what what does not work so  setting priorities by gut-feel is  risky yeah  still it might work for a while  well while in a product lifecycle while  you are so if you're onto something and  you know that this is something where  you have to drill yeah where you have to  go deeper putting things into the right  order order something sometimes it's  it's it's simple its it's the logical  order of how things have to be built and  then then there is no much of there's  not no big opportunity costs to think  about so that's where that feel or  logical thinking eyes is enough and then  and then it becomes difficult because  you have to think about the opportunity  costs you have to think about how how to  maximize the value of the backlog and my  I think the best the best methods I I  have today is a scorecard having  multiple criterias balancing the  criterias against each other coming with  some numerical quantifiable the number  that you can you can put on a story or  on a feature and try to sort the things  and and this is this is just for your  first order approximation of priority  because then you have commitments and  you have I don't know what you have to  deal with reality like teams and their  skills and and and I and also it's  important to differentiate actually  that's that's a very important thing to  realize that priority is not order so  the sequence that you do things should  reflect as much as possible the priority  that comes out by this scoring  of features but it's it will never be  the same and we will never be able to to  just deliver your your stories according  to the priorities I never seen that  working actually so maybe there is but I  never saw that working yeah so yeah so  this scorecard would be my best  instrument at the moment I'm not sure if  that's the best one.



I’ve realized  over the years there's two different  ways to look at prioritization there's  the business prioritization for the  company as a whole and then there are  day-to-day product manager  prioritizations that you have to make I  like to sort of divide them between  business being prioritization and the  product managers being more sequencing  which are subtle differences but I think  they're important and and here's why so  at eBay we set strategic priorities for  the year those are set from the top  those are set from Victor they are not  necessarily specific to moving a metric  but moving an area of the business which  is nice because it gives us freedom as  product managers and as a company to  fill in the way to get there so he sets  the Northstar every year and we set the  plan to get to that Northstar so what we  did this year under my new role was we  had a Bottoms Up project brainstorm  where we allowed everyone in the company  to sort of pitch the projects that would  go under those strategic priorities so  the North Star is set by the business by  the CEO but we as a team can talk about  how to move those KPIs once those came  in and were presented the senior team  actually he prioritized which projects  we would work on for q1 and q2 and I  purposely did it for half year and  that's sort of my annual road map I  don't believe in annual roadmaps I think  but I think about what my product theory  is our product management theory it's  like the first thing I don't believe in  is an in because what you learn in the  beginning of the year changes everything  that you're gonna do at the end of the  year anyway so how many years do we have  to keep reducing this ridiculous thing  that's another question  so I commit to six months six months is  enough because you can do big projects  you can do little ones and you can learn  something in six months you could  probably even learn something in a  quarter really but try to give people a  little bit more time so they don't feel  too tight we decided which priority  projects we would work on there's three  projects under each strategic priority  so there's 15 projects you know medium  sized things that we're working on  throughout the company so from the  finance team to the product team to the  development team and everyone has sub  team priorities that fit under there  so for example if we're watching a new  product data team has to be able to tag  what it needs to happen the finance team  needs to be able to process the revenue  that goes with that new product so  there's all kinds of things where you  can really see what your day-to-day work  fits into the thicker goal so when it  comes to a cut line for prioritization  it actually makes things really easy  we're working on these things and these  things alone so if it's not on this list  we're not working on it so it does cut  the what about if we did X sort of stuff  but then okay we still have 15 projects  and you still have to prioritize within  them there are three that are about the  business today and there are two  strategic priorities that are about the  business tomorrow the business today  those three take priority over the other  two so there we have a little bit more  and from there we have to sequence so  prioritization is more of the like I  said in my opinion a company-wide view  of what's important sequencing has all  kinds of other factors right that's  where the product managers get to play  Tetris with the developers right so  you're balancing impact and feasibility  you don't always want to do the highest  impact and easiest things to do because  then you're never going to get big giant  boulders through the system so when it  comes to prioritization figuring out if  these are the things that we're focusing  on and there's a lot of them what things  are small  medium and large and how do we make sure  that we get the large started early and  fill in you know rocks and sand to the  rest of the sprint so instead of putting  the prioritization on the PM's we put  the sequencing on the cams so we take  off the load of pressure of what is most  important I've worked at eBay for a long  time and back in the day the product  managers had to sort of decide what was  most important and it became sort of  what stakeholder was the loudest or the  last to talk to us and then their stuff  got done it was never prioritized from a  business perspective  so again when I think about great  high-performing organizations moving in  the same direction it's because that  direction is set from the top in a big  way and when I talk to product leaders  who don't have a North Star so much of  their time is doing that sort of CEO  level prioritization in my opinion so  it's no wonder they can't get stuff down  or they can't move the needle because  they're too busy sort of doing the job  above them in my opinion



Prioritizing is  something that's evolving pretty  dramatically I came from e-commerce  where we where we led a system of  prioritization that we went in and  fourth ranked everything and we took all  of the so it was just a disaster  beforehand got everybody's requests  until one basically spreadsheet  eventually had moved into a product  management tool that we use we force  rank that we force everybody to sit down  with kind of the guidance that let's  rank has based off the overall value to  the company not taking level of effort  into consideration and that's a big  change for people to get their head  around and the reason that we did that  was to ensure that we had the North Star  are we going after the things do we know  what is the most important thing in our  organization is that our North Star is  that something that might take two or  three years for us to get to yeah it  might take two or three years of  concerted effort to deliver something  like that but you  we think it's the number-one value let's  find our way to that place so really did  a force ranking no level of effort that  has to go hand in hand with a road map  how do you deliver when are you  delivering things sometimes you're going  to be working on number two number  twenty and number 48 right in your list  and you have to be able to tell a cogent  story as to why that makes sense right  and what are the trade-offs that you're  making  why aren't you working on number one  right if that's in your product team  right or your your group the other thing  that I found has to come with that kind  of prioritization process is that the  teams have to carve out operational  capacity outside of that so those end up  being the big strategic things that are  multi week multi months multi year you  still have the day-to-day operations  improving your product right it's not a  project based organization you're a  product organization so you have to  carve out depending on what your product  team is some operational capacity there  that is the first stuff to go if the  team is not doing their jobs extremely  well and running it a tight ship right  so they all of a sudden start to bleed  that out they starve the product they  work on the shiny new thing and then all  of a sudden months later you're  wondering why you have turn on your  customer base so that's how I've done it  when I brought it over to my new company  which is a product based company  it was great to bring everybody in  because this is cross-functionally  people are agreeing and prioritization  so people can say oh you you like this  idea better until you just did you did  this guy's idea or whatever it might be  you're not playing favorites if  everybody's together so we started there  what I found is people were really  looking for our team to be the thought  leaders our team was becoming very  senior in this space and so we have we  have started to move slightly away from  that where the teams are feeding their  own cue they're putting out their annual  goals they understand what the big  things are they're going to move towards  and they're publishing out this is  what's going to happen now they're not  you know they're not dictatorship state  sometimes you know get things that are  inserted for myself or  the CEO of our leadership team or an  acquisition that comes in it and so you  know what we want to do in those  positions is make sure they understand  the context on why that's important for  their product and that they come to an  agreement of that it is and maybe they  don't sometimes they don't always agree  but you know you just have to work  through those one-off so I'd say on our  journey to more autonomous teams we're  trying to also more autonomously control  our prioritization.



As we're pursuing  these different ideas and each team has  their own ideas that they're pursuing we  can understand Tam and that that's  probably the first lens what's going to  have the biggest impact because we're  trying to grow as quickly as possible  right and growth in both customer base  and revenue so it's nice to be to know  what the what the overarching goal is  for the company we're at a size where  it's simple everybody's got the same  revenue and growth goals once we do that  prioritization becomes a much simpler  question because based on the research  we did we can write size a solution  because we're not saying yet we want to  grow the Tam by 10% or by the customer  base by a certain number we're saying we  believe that we can do it using this  what can we build that we can learn the  right way to do it and so we tend to  build high quality smaller things first  and launch them maybe test them or  launch them and look at them against a  benchmark we had and then say okay now  this thing is really working well this  one not so much let's invest a lot more  in that and so when we're looking ahead  to you know what we're building we're  building on what we may have built two  months ago and that thing was a winner  we'll build more and invest more into it  while we're also building something that  we can learn from again  so it's this learn and iterate cycle  that makes it so easy and I think that  for us that the biggest win on this has  been that we can get to know  and nobody feels bad there's very little  investment you might have 10 customer  conversations and be like it's a  non-starter.



What is my favorite method  of prioritization? I'd say you know if  you really have a good rubric or  hypothesis of how your business of  solving it becomes pretty easy to say  what is going to be the biggest rock in the river. and if you're not familiar  with that analogy it's like if the ships  coming into our River and there's rocks  in the river the size of the ship that  you can get in is is only going to get  in if the largest rock was removed and  once at largest rapids remove then the  next layer just shook like thing come in  actually means the next load Israel and  so it's pretty easy if you have a  hypothesis but the key is you don't ever  have their equipment so as you as you go  along then your prioritizing you might  have a good model for exactly what it is  you think it's a higher strapping later  but as you start to go into the channel  and you bump into it you're like oh you  know this we need to change hypothesis  we need to change them all that said you  can't have your model like leaving all  the stuff isn't really like flooding  from place to place and so hopefully  you've come up with something a little  bit more longer-term but then on the  priority side you know restraints I've  taught for something with more options  right so if one option is you know we're  going to get this and we're going to get   like at 7 I get 12 that's usually the  better option because then the  uncertainty has more opportunity the set  of them so I'm a big fan of options and  treating things with options so when  you're prioritizing think about what  opportunity there is to pivot from that  particular thing as opposed to going  laser focus now as you're a business of  alls and uncertainty the point then  there's more sure that's that have  lessons or you are going to be your  better that's but from our prioritization model  you want to understand where your  uncertainty is and power 



Product leaders know all too well the importance of aligning on priorities.  The product leaders that I coach are often coming from a place where the leadership team  simply has not aligned on the North Star  and the product teams do not have clear  goals. That is one of the most  important things that I’ve worked with  them to establish. I quickly work with the product leader and the leadership team to recognize the reality of where  they are and to establish that North  Star and priorities so that they can set  meaningful goals for their product teams  and evaluate the trade-offs between  different possible investments. If this  sounds like the type of issue that  you're struggling with has a new product  leader, please do get in touch on  LinkedIn or Twitter because it is some  of the most rewarding of what I do.