A very common challenge faced by Product Managers of all experience levels is understanding and implementing some form of repeatable process around prioritization. Some people take a very light approach, making decisions based on their own experience, data, and beliefs about the direction of the product. Others take a much more rigorous approach, applying scorecards and “objective” measures across a plethora of different possible metrics. I’m here to tell you, there’s nothing wrong with either of those approaches, but it’s also become clear to me in my years as a Product Manager that there’s no “silver bullet” to ensure that your prioritization decisions will be right more often than they’re wrong, and placing too much value in systems and scores often just results in a false sense of security that the “process” was right, when digging in you’ll find that those “objective scores” are nothing more than a system to be gamed. There are, however, three things that I think every prioritization system needs to take into account. So, without further ado, let’s discuss value, difficulty, and instinct…
Proper Care and Feeding of Your Product Backlog
One of the least glamorous parts of Agile development for most Product Managers is the process of backlog grooming. It can be a challenge to get teams to engage when they’re in the middle of a sprint, it can be difficult to convince stakeholders to refer to the backlog instead of the Product Manager for simple questions, but most of all it reminds us of the gigantic list of things that we’re not doing — which is a source of frustration for any Product Manager. However, maintaining a clean, healthy, and vibrant product backlog is essential to the success of not only an Agile product team, but to the organization as a whole. When backlogs are clear, prioritized, and public, people can freely and regularly review it, raising questions and concerns as they come up rather than waiting for a big bomb drop of feedback during some strategic planning session. If you’re a fan of my blog, you know that I strongly believe that it’s the little work in upkeep and transparency that transforms an organization from just “doing” Agile to “being” Agile — and the product backlog is the number one arrow in your quiver to make change happen.
Running Too Lean Can be More Harmful than Helpful
Most companies out there put a huge push on efficiency and running “lean” — doing the most possible with the least amount of overhead. And in most cases, that’s a very noble goal — after all, overhead in the form of people and positions is generally the highest cost that companies face. Reducing the number of people needed to achieve the same goals allows the revenue side of the equation to exceed the costs — which is almost every company’s end goal, to achieve a sustainable business model that makes money for the owners of the business. The problem with this is that it’s often taken too far — the drive to be “lean” winds up causing more headaches and issues than it creates an environment conducive to success. This issue isn’t only of concern to Product Managers, it affects every part of the business, from sales to marketing to support to development. And because of that, we’re often in a unique position to see they dysfunctions that trying to drive too lean causes throughout the company. It’s up to us to be aware of the risks and raise them as we start to see red flags, before they damage the ability of the organization as a whole to compete in an increasingly competitive marketplace.
User Stories Aren’t Enough
It’s commonly accepted nowadays that we use user stories or some variation on them to communicate our “product requirements” to development teams (job stories, jobs to be done, scenarios, etc). And while this is certainly an improvement over some of the bad, old Big Up-Front Requirements (BUFR) methods that were used many moons ago, they’re still not perfect, for a wide variety of reasons. All too often, they assume that certain considerations have already been made, that certain work has already been done — when in fact it often hasn’t. Not every development team has a UX and UI member dedicated to help them achieve a story; not every product can afford to have user-story level architecture decisions being made — and every User Story has to be the result of some amount of planning and forethought, both from a business and a technical perspective. While user stories are a great tool, they’re far from the only tool that we need in our drawer to be effective. Here are some things to consider when you’re relying on User Stories as your primary method of relaying work to be done to your development teams.
Knowing Your Effort Budget
It’s amazing to me how often I talk with someone about a project they’re working on, and when asked “what’s your budget on this” they just look at me with a blank look. Let’s be real for a minute — everything we do in product design, development, and management has limits. We have limited resources. We have limited time. We have limited energy. But all too often we just assume that everything that we’re doing requires 100% of our effort, 100% of the time. But that’s simply not true. Some things are more important than others. Some things require more time and effort and energy than others. Some things that we do can slip through with a smaller amount of our attention than others. We instinctively do this, but we rarely actually plan it — and that’s to our detriment and to the detriment of our stakeholders. Laying out a clear understanding of the amount of effort that you’re expecting to spend on any given project or component can be an essential tool in any Product Manager’s belt.
Assumptions, Risks, and Constraints – The Keys to Success
One of the most important parts of being a Product Manager is making sure that your stakeholders and developers understand not only what you’re trying to do, but the surrounding circumstances in which you’re trying to do it. Often, this is a matter of discussing and managing scope; at other times, it’s making sure that people understand the schedule and resources working on the improvement; and at still other times, it’s ensuring that what comes out at the end of an iteration is what everyone wanted at the beginning of the iteration. But there’s a larger set of considerations that are of key importance to aligning your teams on — because they significantly impact the overall success of what we’re trying to do. All too often we ignore these three components to our peril, and when we do there’s an even chance that they’ll come back to bite us in the ass…
“Product” is More Than Just Development
It’s far too common in the world of Product Management for us to wind up being narrowly focused on the actual product development cycle – define, build, measure, repeat. But there’s far more to building, launching, and maintaining a successful product than just what goes on between Product Management and Development. The best and most successful Product Managers try to look at the “whole product” and not just one small (though essential) part like the development process. To get the whole picture, we need our eyes, ears, and fingers on the pulse of all the activities that go on around the product — development, sure, but also marketing, sales, support, implementation, services, and anything else that might be considered “product-adjacent”.
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