Ep. 5: How Do Your Product Teams Prioritize?

Ep. 5: “How Do Your Product Teams Prioritize?

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Hope Gurion: 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 talk to five experienced product leaders, working in B2C and B2B product 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 to learn about the particular importance of North Star.

Let’s get right into it.  In this episode we hear from

  • Stefan Radullian, Head of Product Management, Brainloop, A Diligent Company

  • Lauren Antonelli, Chief of Staff, Evite

  • Brandon Anderson, VP Of Product, Sports Engine

  • Rosie Ruley Atkins, VP Of Product, Homebase

  • Troy Anderson, Chief Product and Technology Officer, Spins  

Hope Gurion: First up, we’ll hear why Stefan Radullian tries to quantify value, opportunity cost and then balance that against commitments and team size/skill in his prioritization methodology.

Stefan Radullian: So, I know what does not work. So, setting priorities with gutfeel is risky, still it might work for a while, while in a product lifecycle. So, if you're onto something and you know that this is something where you have to drill, where you have to go deeper, putting things into the right order, sometimes it’s the logical order of how things have to be built, and then there is no big opportunity costs to think about. So that's where gutfeel or logical thinking is enough. Then it becomes difficult, because you have to think about the opportunity costs, you have to think about how to maximize the value of the backlog.

I think the best method I have today is a scorecard, having multiple criteria, balancing the criteria against each other, coming with some numerical quantifiable number that you can put on a story or on a feature, and try to sort the things. This is just for your first order approximation of priority because then you have commitments, you have to deal with reality like teams and their skills. It’s also important to differentiate, actually that’s a very important thing to realize that priority is not order. So, the sequence that you do things should reflect the priority as much as possible that comes out by this scoring of features, but it will never be the same. We will never be able to just deliver your stories according to the priorities, I have never seen that working actually, maybe there is, but I never saw that working. So, this scorecard would be my best instrument at the moment, I'm not sure if that's the best one, but it’s the best I know of.

Hope Gurion: Next, Lauren Antonelli explains some of the prioritization strategies that they’ve tried at evite and the critical importance of a North Star to guide the prioritization of the product teams.

Lauren Antonelli: I’ve realized over the years that there are two different ways to look at prioritization; there is 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 divide them between ‘business being prioritization’ and ‘product managers being more sequencing’, which are subtle differences but I think they're important, and here is why; So, at Evite, 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 North Star every year, and we set the plan to get to that North Star. 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 pitch the projects that would go under those strategic priorities. So, the North Star is set by the business or 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 prioritized that which projects we would work on for Q1 and Q2, and I purposely did it for half year and that is my annual road map, I don't believe in annual roadmaps, but I think about what my product theory is or product management theory is, the first thing I don't believe in is annual roadmap anyway; because what you learn in the beginning of the year changes everything that you are going to 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 are three projects under each strategic priority, so there are 15 projects, medium-sized things that we're working on throughout the company. So, from the finance team, to the product team, to the development team, 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 needs to happen, the finance team needs to be able to process the revenue that goes with that new product.

So, there are 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 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, like I said in my opinion, a company-wide view of what is important. Sequencing has all kinds of other factors, that is where the product managers get to play Tetris with the developers. 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 to the system. So, when it comes to prioritization, figuring out if these are the things that we're focusing  on, (and there is 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 rocks and sand to the rest of the sprint. So, instead of putting the prioritization on the PMs, we put the sequencing on the PMs, so we take off the load of pressure, of what is most important.

I've worked at Evite for a long time, and back in the day the product managers had to 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. When I talk to product leaders who don't have a North Star, so much of  their time is doing that ‘CEO-level prioritization’, in my opinion, so it's no wonder they can't get stuff done or it can't move the needle, because they're too busy doing the job above them, in my opinion.

Hope Gurion: Next Brandon Anderson shares why it’s a cross-functional team effort to set the prioritization at Sports Engine

Brandon Anderson: Prioritizing is something that's evolving pretty dramatically. I came from E-commerce, where we led a system of prioritization that we went in and force ranked, so it was just a disaster beforehand; got everybody's requests into one spreadsheet, and eventually moved into a product management tool that we used. We force ranked, we force everybody to sit down with the guidance that “Let's rank this 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 the most important thing in our organization is? 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 if we think it's the number-one value, let's find our way to that place. So, it really did a forced 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 forty-eight in your list, and you have to be able to tell a cogent story as to why that makes sense,  and what are the trade-offs that you're making, why aren't you working on number-one, if that's in your product team or 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, and multi-year. You still have the day-to-day operations improving your product, it's not a project-based organization, you're a product organization, and 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. 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 turned 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-functioning, people are agreeing to prioritization so people can say, “Oh, you liked this idea better until you just did this guy's idea”, or whatever it might be. You're not playing favorites if everybody is together, so we started there.

What I found is, people were really looking for our team to be the thought leaders, and our team was becoming very senior in this space. So 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 that they're going to move towards, and they're publishing out that this is what's going to happen. Now, they're not dictatorships, they sometimes get things that are inserted from myself, or the CEO, or our leadership team, or an acquisition that comes in. So, 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, they don't always agree, but you just have to work through those one-off.

So, I'd say we’re on our journey to more autonomous teams, we're trying to also, more autonomously control our prioritization.

Hope Gurion: Now, we’ll hear from Rosie Ruley Atkins at Homebase uses measurement of impact and effort to make several small investments and see which are paying off to justify further investment.

Rosie Ruley Atkins: As we're pursuing  these different ideas, and each team has their own ideas that they're pursuing, we can understand TAM, and that's probably the first lens that's going to have the biggest impact, because we're  trying to grow as quickly as possible, and growth in both customer base and revenue. So, it's nice to know what the overarching goal is for the company. We're at a size where it's simple that everybody has 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 right-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 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 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, the biggest win on this has been, that we can get to know, and nobody feels bad. There is very little investment, you might have 10 customer conversations and be like “It's a non-starter”.

Hope Gurion: Finally, Troy Anderson explains how for him prioritization is a function of hypotheses and optionality.

Troy Anderson: What is my favorite method of prioritization? I'd say, if you really have a good rubric or hypothesis of how your business is 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 ship is coming into a river and there are rocks in the river, and the size of the ship that you can get in is only going to get in if the largest rock was removed, and once that largest rock is removed, then the next largest ship can come in after you remove the next largest rock. So, it's pretty easy if you have a hypothesis, but the key is you don't ever have the right hypothesis.

So, as you go on in your prioritizing, you might have a good model for exactly what it is you think is a highest rock in the water, but as you start to go into the channel and you bump into it, you're like, “Oh, we need to change our hypothesis, we need to change them all”. That said, you can't have your model moving all over the place, because it’s moving from place to place. So hopefully you've come up with something a little bit more long-term.

But then, on the priority side, all restraints start with something with more options. So if one option is “We're  going to get this and we're going to get 10” or it’s this, “We might get two, we might get seven, we might get 12”, that's usually the better option, because then the  uncertainty gives you more opportunity to settle. 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 measured and focused.

Now as you're a business evolves and uncertainty is required, then there is more sure that you have less uncertainty, are going to be better bets. But from a priority model, you want to understand where your uncertainty is in power. 

Hope Gurion: 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, as a product leader, please do get in touch on Linkedin or Twitter, because this is some of the most worthy work that I do, and I would love to be able to help you.

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You can find me, Hope Gurion, on Linkedin and Twitter or subscribe to “Fearless Product Leadership” on your favorite podcast platform to be notified of new episodes.  You will find transcripts, videos versions of each episode as well as more information on my Fearless Product coaching and consulting services by visiting my website, Fearless-Product.com.