The art of prioritisation for Product Managers

Geeta Arulampalam

Tired of being pulled in every direction and struggling to decide what’s most important to your Product? Here’s how to get your priorities in order.

“But can’t you just make it load faster/display in a different colour/cost 20% less to operate/solve world hunger?”

As a Product Manager, you’re probably used to questions like this coming at you from all directions. But when there are endless ways to improve your Product, how do you decide what’s the priority?

Radhika Dutt, who is Co-founder of the Radical Product Thinking movement, addressed this question during a recent Product Talks event for Brainmates. During her presentation, she shared how Product Managers can become masters of prioritisation.

Take a look at Prioritisation the Radical Product Thinking way:

The problem with prioritisation

 Prioritisation is usually a tactical goal, where you’re aiming to get your backlog in order.

“We strive for precision,” says Radhika, “However, this sense of precision is usually a false one.”

Radhika shared an example of a prioritisation matrix at a company she worked with. “They had a list of 150 features, each ranked against five principles and their importance. The prioritisation matrix would then ‘work its magic’ to clarify where the feature ranked as a priority.”

In the end, the product’s priorities were all determined by this matrix. But the matrix didn’t always take the right elements into account.

The result of this was feeling “like a hamster on a wheel,” says Radhika, “You’re doing prioritisation but you’re not actually moving things.

What’s key, is to instead apply your approach and rationale for prioritisation in terms of both vision and survival. This is when you become a ‘Jedi Master’ in this area.

Common product diseases

 If you’re not aligning with vision and survival, you’re likely to be suffering from the following ‘diseases’:

Strategic Swelling: When your Product tries to do too much, for too many users, and so ends up with unfocused efforts and a weak value proposition. This usually comes from building everything at once, then deciding how to differentiate afterwards.

Pivotitus: Rapid, frequent changes in product direction lead to a confused Product… and a confused Product Team! “Sprints end up being driven by the customer who is screaming the loudest,” Radhika explains. The problem is, with the next sprint, you find yourself responding to a different customer complaint and heading in a different direction.

Obsessive Sales Disorder: With this disease, priorities are based on short term gains. You end up with a fragmented Product and distracted engineers. ‘OSD’ is often driven by salespeople pushing to have custom features implemented in order to win more customers but there is a lack of long-term thinking.

Bringing it back to basics

 To take a more systematic approach to influence change, Radhika recommends three steps.

The first is to revisit your company’s vision. “You need to get clear on your vision, then translate it into an actionable strategy,” she explains. “This helps you get to where you want to go faster because you’ll figure out whether you’re on the right track or not.”

Often Product Managers prioritise by using their own intuition, however you need to ensure you’re always making progress towards your vision. “Start with that clear vision so you know what the change is that you’re trying to create in this world,” Radhika says.

[Radhika’s Radical Product Thinking Vision worksheet]

Read more from Radhika on how to get clarity around your vision so you can iterate less and build more, from Leading the Product 2019.

“Your vision is giving you power. It’s like the ‘raw muscle’ that gives you clear direction. And prioritisation is where this muscle hits the ground. If the muscle is weak, you’ll end up feeling like you’re ‘running in heels’,” Radhika says.

Next, you need to acknowledge the ‘dark side’ and the need for survival. “You need to ask, ‘What could kill my product tomorrow?’”

Survival requires your company to move as far away as you can from your biggest risk. For example, if you’re a startup, your biggest risk is financial. For a product like Uber, the biggest risks lie around laws and regulations.

Once you know your biggest predator, you can write a sustainability statement. Here’s an easy template to follow:

Radical Sustainability Statement

[A simplified sustainability statement template]

“Now you’re acknowledging the reality of your business needs,” Radhika explains, “And you’re better prepared to prioritise.”

“Priority means balancing progress towards the vision against the balance of survival. Ideally, you’ll identify an axis where you can see the items which meet your vision as well as helping you survive another day.

Radhika talks briefly about ‘vision debt’ and helping survival by building custom features. “It’s not to say you should never do that,” she explains, “But it’s about acknowledging where priorities fall in the balance of vision and survival.”

Share your rationale to build support

Finally, you need to clarify your rationale for your priorities across the whole team. “This is where you become the Jedi Master,” Radhika explains.

The intuition you build as a Product Manager comes through experience. “You have a battery of hard experiences that power your intuition but others haven’t had time to build it yet,” says Radhika. “It’s up to you to spread your thinking.”

Consider a maths problem you definitely know the answer to. Instead of blurting the answer, you need to explain to your team how you arrived at it. This way, they can eventually match your level of knowledge and intuition. As a team, you can eventually reach a point where you don’t have to debate or prioritise as much, because you are used to applying the right strategies.

When everyone is clear on the rationale, it’s easier to be on the same page when it comes to priorities.

Radhika’s final thoughts:

  • Aim for vision-driven change but keep survival of the business in the picture.
  • Every time you take on vision debt, think about how you will pay it back, same as you do with technical debt. Too much vision debt can impact team morale.
  • You need an open product culture that facilitates discussions so you can challenge authority and prioritise effectively (even if it means challenging the executive with the wild ideas!)
  • The more dimensions you bring into your prioritisation matrix, the harder it is to convey your rationale. For example, things like effort / urgency / impact should be rolled into either vision or survival. “The simpler it is, the easier it is to communicate,” says Radhika.

What’s next?


Geeta Arulampalam

Geeta Arulampalam | Author

Geeta leads our Product Talks Sydney Meetup. She has more than 15 years of digital technology experience including 6+ years of product management at some of Australia's leading digital and eCommerce retail brands. She is passionate about developing great products by learning and being empathetic to customer problems then working with amazing teams to solve them.

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