Prioritise your Product Backlog with one simple question

Adrienne Tan

Prioritisation is a constant challenge for Product Managers, the backlog is never ending. So, what happens when new features and product ideas get pushed into the roadmap? If you’re a Product Manager you would have learnt that saying “No” isn’t exactly easy.

Instead of saying “No”, there’s one simple question which can help: “How will this support our business objectives?”

How this simple question can help you prioritise

The art of prioritisation is invaluable for everyone – whether you work for a large enterprise, small NFP, or are self-employed. For Product Managers it’s particularly important. PMs need to constantly make decisions on what’s driving their company’s Product success and then prioritise the work to deliver Products customers love.

For example, meet our fictional Product Manager Jane. She is leading the Product Team at Xtra Money, a fintech scale up, to improve the customer experience for an existing digital Product.

  • Her team has just completed a round of customer research. Engineering is shipping the Product Feature her team has been working on for the past three months.
  • Her Product Backlog is prioritised, capturing detailed Product decisions and directing the work of the development team. The team is working at capacity, and she feels everything is on track.
  • Even though everyone in the team has adjusted to working remotely during a global pandemic, Jane has been successful in keeping all stakeholders engaged and ensuring the team is always working on priority number one.

One day, at 4pm, Xtra Money’s CEO reaches out to her:

“Hi Jane, after speaking with one of our customers, I realised that we really need to put in <this exciting new feature> ASAP. This is your new priority number one. When can we get this done?”

Jane was about to wrap up for the day and instead of ending on a high she has that familiar sinking feeling and her imposter syndrome is slowly kicking in.

  • Is her CEO right?
  • Should Jane have prioritised that feature differently from the start?
  • Should she have stated her position more firmly and pushed back on her stakeholder?

It’s quite a challenge for Jane – and many Product Managers like her.

Not everything is priority one

“How do you know if you’re asking the right questions? How is our decision-making process different and how do we adjust?”  Randy Silver, speaker at Product Talks and author of ‘What do we do now’ a Product Manager’s guide to strategy in the time of COVID-19.

While Jane made changes to her team’s working schedule relatively quickly after the pandemic hit, digital Product management is moving slowly in general. Digital Products typically take some time to design, implement, and launch.

Many stakeholders can’t afford to lose focus from their priorities, and their KPIs depend on these outcomes. Making promises on the basis of what we know during this time of crisis has become more and more like predicting the weather in Melbourne. Product Managers are putting their finger in the wind and trying to please stakeholders who want their new shiny object delivered.

Product Managers need an effective way to prioritise their Product Development and manage their Product through its entire life cycle while sticking to their Product Vision.

For Product Managers like Jane, keeping a prioritised backlog is a constant challenge. What should be on top of that backlog is what is likely to add the greatest value to their business and Product Strategy.

“Most ideas fail shortly after launch, regardless of how promising they sound, how much we commit to them, or how well we execute them. This is a hard fact to accept. Before you invest time, energy, and money into your next project, make sure you are building The Right It.” – Alberto Savoia, author of The Right It.

Luckily for Jane, there is a way to help determine what should go up or down in the Product backlog.

To help choose between competing priorities she can ask: “How does that idea support our business objectives?”

Strive for alignment over agreement

When business objectives are set for each quarter, with clear key results defined as outcomes, it becomes much easier to determine how well each new idea will deliver against these objectives. This is generally true whether your business is small and disruptive or large and established.

Product Managers work at the intersection of business and technology. They represent the voice of the customer and advocate for them and their needs. Product Managers get stakeholders across the whole organisation to connect to each other and form a better understanding of:

  • How the product can be improved
  • How it can bring financial benefits to the business,
  • Which features customers want most
  • What the best way is to deliver these features.

One of the primary tasks for Product Managers is to ensure the Product Backlog is always ordered and prioritised. By taking cross-functional teams and a wide range of stakeholders across the Product Features, ideas and bug fixes, the Product Managers can help validate assumptions made and increase their confidence in the current Product Roadmap.

Every time an item from the backlog is discussed, Product Managers will gain a better understanding of its priority relative to the rest of the work in the pipeline. Ultimately, they will build a better narrative that is more closely aligned to the Product Vision.

Getting everyone across the business to agree is a big task. Instead of getting everyone to agree, Product Managers should focus on their willingness to commit to a decision that works towards a common goal. That’s the definition of alignment. It’s far better (and easier) than trying to please everyone with consensus.

You can achieve alignment by asking: “How does that idea support our business objectives?” every time a Product Feature, iteration, or backlog is discussed.

This way it moves the conversation from the merits, pros and cons of the feature itself, to how well it achieves the business objectives. This is something all stakeholders are more aligned on and more interested in achieving. It also helps remove personal biases for or against each feature and allows a more objective discussion. Finally, it helps to increase Product Managers’ own understanding and confidence as to how each item contributes to the Product Strategy and the overall business strategy.

This makes prioritising a more doable task, and saying “No”, a bit less daunting.

A Product Managers’ tool for prioritisation

Jane’s problem isn’t unique. All Product Managers face the same prioritisation problems. Having conversations to clarify, measure and increase our confidence and understanding is as important for Product Managers as getting all backlog items in the right order.

There are many different tools, techniques, and frameworks for prioritisation. Here are three I like and one in particular I prefer.

  1. The Kano Model helps Product Managers prioritise their roadmaps based on the degree to which they are likely to satisfy customers. This feature prioritisation typically consists of three main steps: research, analyse and decide. Product Teams can weigh a high-satisfaction feature against its costs to implement, to determine whether or not adding it to the roadmap is a strategically sound decision.
  2. MoSCoW prioritisation is a popular technique for managing requirements. The method is commonly used to help key stakeholders understand the significance of initiatives in a specific release. The acronym, MoSCoW, stands for 4 different categories of initiatives: Must-haves, Should-haves, Could-haves, and Will not have at this time.
  3. The ROI Scorecard is a way to map priorities based on the value of each Product Feature and how it contributes to the business objectives. It looks at the estimated effort in time and resources that is required to complete the feature (the latter is usually known as T-shirt sizing estimation) and is particularly helpful when working with uncertainty. The high priorities are then attributed to features that bring the most amount of value with the least amount of effort.

The ROI scorecard is my favourite as I think it’s best at helping you decide which priorities are going to best meet business objectives with least effort. I like to make a small tweak to it by adding ‘confidence’.

This is a technique developed by Bruce McCarthy, an expert Product Leader and roadmapper, in his book “Roadmaps Relaunched”. Adding confidence to this calculation gives you another variable which you can tweak depending on how well validated the new idea/feature/tweak is.

If the idea comes to you with detailed customer research and/or product metrics, you can give it a high confidence value. If it’s the view of one senior stakeholder, or one customer, then you are validated in giving it a low confidence value initially. Your confidence will then increase (or decrease) over time when initial ideas are validated by new learnings, conversations, experiments or metrics.

If Product Managers calculate priorities using this method it will help ensure that the top of the backlog is dominated by ideas that are most likely to add greatest support to the business objectives.

I think this makes it a particularly useful tool for Product Managers like Jane that need to manage senior executives calling loudly for shiny new features.

Need help with prioritisation?

Adrienne Tan

Adrienne Tan | Author

Adrienne is Co-Founder and CEO of Brainmates and Co-Founder of Leading the Product. She has been championing Product Management since 2000, earning international recognition for raising the profile of the Product Management profession. In this capacity she regularly consults to the Asia-Pacific's top businesses and speaks at business and Product events around the world.

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