9 Prioritization Lessons for Product Managers
Learn about mistakes to avoid in prioritization along with my top 11 content picks from the world of AI, PM and PMM
Hey BPL fam,
Happy November, folks!
In today’s edition of Behind Product Lines, you’ll find:
Top 11 content picks from the World of AI, Product & Marketing
9 Prioritization Lessons for Product Managers
Here are a few pieces you might have missed if you were late to the party:
Before we dive in, a quick request:
Up for a Community Meetup?
I’m on the move for the next 90 days across 4 cities:
Vancouver (Nov 9), Seattle (Nov 11), Toronto (Nov 25), Lahore (Jan 6).
I was wondering if the newsletter community would like to hang out. *
If you’re game, sign up here.
(* the meetup is subject to sufficient interest. I’ll reach out via email if it’s happening. Thank you to all who have already signed up 🙏)
What’s on my mind: AI, PM & PMM
World of AI
Hollywood-level Videos: Runway’s latest update brings stunning cinematic end results to generative videos. Awe-inspiring.
Immersive Map Routes: Google Maps is rolling out immersive views for routes that show a 3D depiction from start to finish. Very cool.
AI that writes like you: Grammarly is working on features to train itself on your writing to produce content that actually sounds like you.
True multi-lingual videos: Heygen creates voice translations for your videos and also “deep fakes” the speaker’s lips to match the words. It’s insane.
Build your own AI apps: It’s been leaked that Google is working on Stubbs - a tool that enables users to build and launch AI apps with no code.
World of Product Management
Image Credit: Ankit Shukla
World of Product Marketing
LinkedIn as a PR channel: I really resonated with Dave Gerhardt’s about how leadership at B2B startups need to collectively use LinkedIn as a branding and PR tool. The teams at Refine Labs and Fullfunnel do this pretty well.
9 Prioritization Lessons for Product Managers
It’s no secret that even the most seasoned campaigners in product struggle with prioritization.
It’s like surfing. Just when you think you’ve got a hang of it, a new wave (of things to prioritize) catches you off-guard.
Here are a few lessons I’ve learned about prioritization the hard way through experience, trial by fire, and mentorship:
1) Prioritizing in a silo doesn’t end well
Calling prioritization a "Product Manager" activity is slightly misleading.
It’s an endeavor that is led and orchestrated by the PM but it requires inputs from several stakeholders.
Remember: it’s collaborative but not democratic.
The primary inputs usually come from the top. Without leadership setting a direction, no amount of “best practices” can help you with the chaos that follows.
The layers you need to get right:
Layer 1 > Develop a product strategy that stems directly from a company-level vision and strategy. That direction is your first line of prioritization.
Layer 2 > With the product strategy as the guiding light, collaborate on sequencing your roadmaps and tasks rather than rely solely on a “framework”.
Ex: if the strategy demands rapid internationalization of the product, items related to multi-lingual aspects and time zone support will gain precedence.
2) Data is only one aid for prioritization
I talk to many passionate Product Managers who desperately seek data to power their prioritization decisions. In their context, “data” refers to a metric sourced from an internal or external reporting tool.
Sure, data analysis is a very useful input to prioritization but it isn’t the be-all end-all. Also, basing prioritization decisions when data is sparse leads to poor decision-making.
For example, there is limited data available to you when you’re starting out and deciding on a set of features to include in version 1.
To generalize the concept, you should seek “evidence” to prioritize well. Evidence can be in the form of customer feedback, self-discovered observation, industry trends, competitive insights, etc.
3) Frameworks are limiting
Think about Canva. When you choose a template design, you don’t publish it as is, do you? You customize it, apply your branding, and swap the content.
The same applies to prioritization frameworks.
If you plan to adopt one, you have to first thoroughly tailor them to your requirements.
Ex: if you’re using a weighted scoring model, ideate on the individual cost-benefit columns and weights based on your product.
Image credit: Digital Natives
Also, I’ve seen value in bringing your stakeholders on board and showcasing the prioritization system you’re proposing. It helps if engineering, design, and leadership understand the rationale behind it and suggest their input. However, don’t aim for consensus here.
Finally, frameworks are at best facilitation tools.
I see PMs hoping to use frameworks like RICE and MoSCoW as a formulaic calculators. In fact, only this week, a Product Manager asked me for a schema to “automate” task prioritization in JIRA. Needless to say, it doesn’t work that way.
Frameworks can be easily gamed because the parameters are highly subjective e.g. the “Impact” score in RICE will likely vary from person to person. It requires a case-by-case analysis of the task queue and discussion with subject matter experts.
4) Prioritization acumen changes with the product stage
Think about life. Our priorities in our 20s ≠ priorities in our 30s.
Similarly, products and companies evolve over time.
Early-stage companies obsess about product-market fit. Growth-stage companies crave speed and steady acquisition. Mature-stage firms want stability and predictability.
Ex: In a product’s early days, teams may not care much about tech debt at the start. Velocity is critical. However, in mature stages, there may not be any growth without addressing it and it’s importance balloons.
Product Managers complain about inconsistent signals from leadership when it comes to priority over time. It could well be associated with the phase your startup is going through.
Know your stage. Adapt accordingly.
Consider subscribing to Behind Product Lines if you are finding value:
5) Prioritization is a debate
Prioritization is supposed to be a logical discourse.
Prioritization sessions where the engineers and designers are listening to the PM passively result in poor decision-making. I see teams passionately debating the estimations but not enough debate goes on evaluating value.
That’s not a sign of alignment. It signals detachment.
When a team offers multiple perspectives on a matter, a PM is better equipped to arrive at meaningful conclusions.
Ex: Years ago, I was working on improving sign-ups for an infotainment portal. The design team wanted to experiment with the layout of the sign-up page, citing it wasn’t “appealing” enough. The development team, however, argued for adding a Google auth mechanism to reduce cognitive load and make it a 1-click sign-up action. The discussion paid dividends when we went with the latter and bumped up sign-ups by a ridiculous amount.
Things a PM can ask during such sessions:
"What are the immediate and long-term impacts of each task?"
"How does each task align with our product's strategic goals?"
"What are the resource requirements for each task, and do we have them available?"
"Have we received consistent feedback from our users or stakeholders regarding any of these tasks?"
"What are the potential risks or roadblocks associated with each task?"
This not only creates clarity, it also engenders ownership.
6) Look at frequency, not just impact
I’ve observed that tackling smaller, frequently-occurring issues can deliver more value than "high-impact" less frequent problems.
High-frequency problems keep reminding customers why they don’t like your product. I like to award them a few priority points to stem the bleeding.
Also, we PMs tend to over-estimate "high-impact". The frequency of occurrence is usually easier to objectively compare.
Again, this isn’t a shortcut gimmick. “Frequency” doesn’t apply to every task and it’s not the only parameter in the discussion.
7) Ask customers to help you prioritize
I used to think this was a bad idea as customers may not have sufficient context. To the contrary, it’s quite revealing.
Ask your customers to rank order a subset of your higher-priority items. Inquire why they chose that sequence. Of course, you don’t have to commit to their priority stack.
As a PM, understanding how customers associate relative value to product capabilities and hearing their rationale behind it, brings refreshing clarity and new weighty perspectives to the table.
Another way to get a quick sense of customer preferences is to collect votes. At vFairs, we used a tool called Canny to help with this:
Again, a higher vote count didn’t mean we were obliged to build a feature immediately but it helped us steer our internal conversations.
8) Stop starving long-term
The way PMs use prioritization frameworks inadvertently causes starvation of low-urgency initiatives. Some of these might be longer-term bets that will pay off big later.
Some PMs tend to prioritize short-term gains because:
Management hands down wish lists and incentivize delivery with very little room for bargaining.
The quarterly OKRs put forward unrealistic goals that hamper long-term thinking.
Incremental thinking needs to be balanced out with longer-term bets. To achieve this, prioritization needs to be done in the context of different different timeframes.
The short/mid-term timeframes talk about fixes, feedback implementation, enhancement requests, and responses to immediate competitive moves. Typically, this isn’t a management-level conversation.
However, on a quarterly basis, product leaders need to engage leadership and cross-functional heads to agree on long-term initiatives and “buy” out time to invest in them.
Innovation: Creating new products or features that cater to emerging market needs or pioneering a new segment.
For example, the vFairs virtual events product was a long-term bet the parent company took as the future of engagement between remote employers and job seekers. The product was matured over the course of two years in the mid-2010s. Without that bet, the company would have missed out on the lucrative market in which vFairs currently operates.
Strategic Partnerships: Collaborating with third-party platforms or services to enhance the overall product offering and create unique selling points.
Without protecting your long-term bets, you’ll eventually erode your moats & see competition zoom past.
9) Stop shaming re-prioritization.
Life happens. Things change.
When a PM re-prioritizes something mid-sprint or within a quarter, they are seen as fickle and unsure of their decisions.
Sure, it’s bad if one frequently re-prioritizes reactively and keeps course-correcting without putting in the due diligence.
However, if the team thought through things, it’s perfectly acceptable (and perhaps, necessary) to change things around before larger losses are incurred. In the end, everyone needs to know "the why" behind the shuffle and carry those lessons forward in future considerations.
Bonus: Prioritization is also a lot about understanding human psychology
Tasks are prioritized for people, by people, with people.
The best storytellers can influence people to affect how they prioritize. Learn the art of negotiation. If you haven’t already, read “Never Split the Difference” by Chris Voss.
In the end, prioritization is a constant journey of discovering what’s important in the overlap region between the aspirations of the business and the needs of the customer. It demands collaboration and an open mind that’s ready to be challenged.