By: Kasey Alderete, VP of Product, Tonic.ai
The Language of Priorities
For those outside of Product Management, the word ‘priority’ might sound like a bad word. Consider this scenario of a PM responding to someone who brings them a feature request:
- “What’s the relative priority on this?” (accusingly)
- “No, that’s not a priority right now.”
- “We need to go into our secret PM cave and do our PM magic to figure out the arbitrary set of ‘priorities’ that actually make it to the roadmap.” (I haven’t heard these exact words but there is often a mysticism around the roadmap).
Requestor: “Does that mean what I care about is not important?”
For the Product Manager, prioritization can be a helpful tool for saying the inevitable ‘no’. There is never a lack of ideas, only finite resources, and hard decisions are par for the course. The job of the product manager is to ensure the most optimal product investments.
But what is the job of the priorities?
As with many things in product management, “It depends.” Priorities can be asked to perform many jobs:
- Enable Product Management to make decisions
- Determine what goes into the roadmap
- Draw the line for what is a P1/Must do, vs. what is below the line
- Allocate resources (engineers, mostly but in reality all of Engineering, Product, and Design)
- Communicate to the customer or business what we care about
- Set expectations for what will be delivered
- Empower others to make product decisions
- Evaluate trade-offs, ROI, and opportunity costs
- Ensure balanced decision-making
Collectively, these tasks align with the broader aim of decision-making and alignment – echoing the essence of a product strategy. Priorities provide focus to accomplish a thing – priorities don’t exist without context that lends meaning and direction.
Prioritization is the application of product strategy to investments
And while PMs might fall back on “everything can’t be a priority!”, the job of the priority is to make progress, not to shut things down. That’s where the “Yes, and” strategy from the Improv world that applies to Product Management so well, carries over nicely into prioritization.
- Yes, that outcome matters to me too, and we might consider tackling it from a different angle.
- Yes, that is a great idea, and we have prioritized it here (later).
- Yes, that is a concerning signal, and I am going to prioritize further investigation.
Priorities are a way to start a conversation and to be more specific:
The Strategy of Priorities
What’s the best way to set priorities? It depends… on what you’re optimizing for (e.g.: the current state of the business/organization or the time horizon). And while I endorse “Yes, and” as the starting point for priorities (everything is ‘a’ priority!) – some aspect of relative priority comes into play (everything cannot be ‘the’ most important priority). The #1 question prioritization should answer is why it is a priority. What problem does this solve for your users? What business goal might you achieve by prioritizing this?
The Hamburger Context
As mentioned, priorities don’t exist in a vacuum. I like to think of priorities as the meat of the Product Hamburger(™), anchored in the bready context. Both a top-down strategic look, as well as on-the-ground discovery research, are crucial:
- Strategy – Prioritization discussions should be oriented towards the North Star – the high-level objectives of the company, product, or feature. What are the ultimate goals to be achieved?
- Discovery – Leverage all of the signal and research that is accessible – what does the data, right now, say? In looking at metrics and user research, what bottoms-up opportunities and ideas can you identify?
Each of these inputs to the prioritization conversation merits a separate post, but the magic meat in the middle is where it gets interesting.
The Magic Balance
Hot take: I’ve never been one for product management prioritization frameworks. The idea that there is a formula or a process to set priorities is, in my opinion, wishful thinking. The art of product management is similar to the art of cooking – setting the priorities is about balancing the ingredients you have, based on your goal. All of the frameworks out there are helpful tools to give you ideas for strategies, but ultimately it is your balancing act to master.
Though some folks – particularly early career PMs or other functions – would like to distill feature priorities into dollar values and stack rank, there isn’t one way to build a cohesive set of priorities. Not only do priorities exist within a context, but each priority also exists relative to others. So it’s not just balancing the universe of ideas from discovery against the strategy, prioritization is also balancing each priority as part of the whole. Shreyas Doshi lays out a helpful way of thinking about some of the different elements to include in the set of priorities:
And Jackie Bavaro has a (yet another food-related) helpful approach for creating that balance using the charcuterie framework.
Applying the Product Hamburger to prioritization can also be thought of as another version of the double diamond approach to product development, where the diamonds run in parallel:
- Strategy Diamond: Collect all of the inputs on strategy and values. Distill into the top business objectives.
- Discovery Diamond: Collect all of the research and signal on the market, product, and customers. Synthesize findings into the top opportunities.
Use the diamond outputs as inputs to prioritize opportunities against objectives.
Challenge yourself to apply the “Yes, and” strategy as you evaluate the product investment opportunities available to you while in that precarious ‘Balance’ phase. Here are some real-life scenarios that underscore the approach and value of adopting this approach in your own product management journey.
- Achieve alignment.
- “Yes, and” is an inviting start to the conversation, and much preferred than ending (or opening) a discussion with ‘No’. When a team member recently brought their ‘priority’ initiative to me, I effectively responded with a ‘no’. It took nearly the entire meeting to figure out we agreed in principle on the high-level goals, and it was a matter of timing where we differed.
- How could the “Yes, and” strategy help you find a way to address two high-priority needs without compromising the overall product strategy?
- Maximize innovation.
- One of the base rules for brainstorming is that there is a phase in which there is no judgment of ideas. Relax all constraints – don’t worry about feasibility, or whether others have tried. I have used “Yes, and” to unbind my own creativity and to unleash a flood of ideas without pre-judgment. I can be one of my own biggest naysayers!
- Think about the most innovative product you’ve encountered. How do you think the product team employed the “Yes, and” strategy to nurture creativity and bring unique ideas to life?
- Bring to bear the power of collaboration.
- One of the most freeing insights I have had as a product manager was when I realized that I was not responsible for coming up with all of the ideas on my own. The opportunities are plentiful; your value-add as a PM is to strategically apply prioritization to achieve the desired outcome.
- Leverage your keen discovery skills to get inputs from your customers, the market, and team members, each contributing a different point of view.
- Imagine if you could invite stakeholders from different departments to participate in the “Yes, and” strategy. How might their diverse perspectives influence not just the opportunities, but also the prioritization decisions?
The hamburger model allows for all of the things – every value that stakeholders have can go into the model (revenue per customer, rate of growth, addressable market), and so can all of the ideas (easier onboarding, faster performance). Digging into the why behind the ask allows the PM to make better decisions and more easily respond with “Yes, and”.
- Yes, and here’s why we’re placing it at the forefront of our priorities.
- Yes, and here is where it sits lower on the priority list right now, and why.
The Product Hamburger might seem a bit unsatisfying due to its lack of precise steps and a definitive ‘right’ answer. While I don’t know your flavor palates or the exact ingredients you’re working with, I can share some processes and artifacts that I’ve found helpful.
- Company Vision, Mission, and Strategy
- Product Vision and Strategy
- Product Pillars – values, principles, differentiators
- High-level OKRs (could be company or product, one level above your domain)
- Business Results and Metrics
- Customer feedback and requests
- Product usage data
- Competitive market research
- Cross-functional perspectives
- Research behind the data – on specific wins, losses, programs, initiatives
Tools for Balancing Priorities
- Value Drivers – levers that drive value for your product, maybe the AARRR Metrics, or hypotheses about how opportunities might achieve strategic goals
- Opportunity Solution Tree
- Group opportunities according to the product strategy and distilled business objectives
- Assign swag priority ratings (3-4 levels) to opportunities with a core group of decision-makers (ideally 3-4 people) – look at the balance across priority levels and within each level against themes
- Up-level opportunities into thematic outcomes/goals and have teams prioritize against their sub-objective
- Using the concept of Thinking in Bets
Once you have a set of priorities, the real work begins to align and execute; a place where acknowledging the audience’s worldview – “Yes,” – while explaining your why “and” continues to be important.
Embracing “Yes, and” Prioritization
Reducing reliance on ‘no’ can enhance your own mental well-being, uplift the mood of others, and yield better outcomes. The true test lies in reaching a point where you no longer need to say ‘no,’ or even ‘Yes, and,’ because your priorities (and your prioritization approach) are clear enough to stand on their own.
To share an illustrative real-life anecdote of my own: When a sales leader was faced with the opportunity to build a one-off feature for a customer, they expressed concern about the trade-off with higher priority work. Balancing priorities in product management isn’t about checking boxes or aiming to please everyone. It’s about harmonizing the strategic vision with real-world discoveries. Picture it as an artful blend that marries certainty with potential. Approach it with a dash of strategy, a splash of exploration, and a hearty measure of the ‘Yes, and’ spirit.
About the author
Kasey is the VP of Product at Tonic.ai, the fake data company. Previously at Accenture and MarkLogic, she created technology for Fortune 100 clients with product thinking. A rewarding career moment for her was seeing a feature she product managed get promoted by a person she didn’t know a few years after she left the company – a feature that speaks for itself and getting value in the wild! A fun fact about her is that she’s taken 3 travel sabbaticals (and 2 maternity leaves!).