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  • Writer's pictureRenee Matsalla

How to FINALLY Prioritize Like a Pro Product Manager

Every time we speak publicly we get some variation of the same question:

How do I prioritize?!

I'm going to be honest. If I hear this question one more time, I will lose it!! It's the most common but elusive topic in Product Management and I'm so sick of hearing about it!!!

But it's not the fault of the person asking! They are lost in all the conflicting and confusing information out there. Much of the Product Management education out there on this topic is too basic or totally out of date.

They talk about using RICE, the MoSCoW method, KANO, scorecards, weighted scoring prioritization, and about a million other prioritization frameworks.

Seems simple right, just plug in some numbers and voila, you get a prioritized list!!

But it's just not that easy.

The truth is, not a single prioritization method will work for every company, let alone every feature idea that comes through the door. Prioritization is just too complex to deduce to numbers on a spreadsheet.

So to save us all a lot of time and heartache, here is the truth to great prioritization in Product Management.

Why Prioritization is So Hard in Product Management

Let's start with why this is so damn hard in the first place. In a company, everyone is working from different lived experiences and different views of our products. Sales talks to prospects, customer success talks to unhappy customers, the CEO talks to funders, tech teams know the code inside and out, and Product Managers are stuck in the middle trying to make sense of all this different information.

This means that it is impossible to get 100% the information needed to prioritize effectively.

That's right! It's IMPOSSIBLE to prioritize perfectly, so don't even try! This should lighten the load a little bit.

The goal is to get our prioritization mostly right and to be able to iterate and change course as new information arises.

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The World's Best Prioritization for Product Managers

The world's best prioritization method isn't a framework - it's a great vision and strategy. That's it!!!! To prioritize well, you need a vision of what you want the world to look like once you've solved a problem (vision), and bets on how you can solve that problem in a differentiated way (strategy) that your users love.

In your organization, if you have a great shared vision of what we are trying to achieve and agree on what we will try to get there, then the prioritization becomes easy. The priorities become obvious to anyone who knows and understands the logic behind the vision and strategy.

Some famous visions are:

  • Google: To organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful

  • Apple iPod: 1000 songs in your pocket

  • Zoom: To make video communication frictionless

Just by reading these, you can feel inspired and can start making decisions around what is most important to continue moving towards these visions.

Then there's no need for different prioritization frameworks!!!

Let me tell you a story to illustrate this point.

I used to work with a Product Manager who was constantly stressed out about his backlog. He felt like his job was to weigh the value of every single product idea that came across his desk and give a detailed answer as to why we would or would not work on the idea. He spent 80% of his time negotiating with customers and stakeholders over what would land in his backlog or not.

This Product Manager was constantly stressed and was what I'd call a "stress = value" Product Manager. Instead of focusing on the joy of solving problems, he wore stress as a badge of honour. He seemed to believe that if his job was painful, he's doing it right.

So on he went constantly battling and negotiating with stakeholders and customers. When he said no, customers would escalate and try to get around him.

It was horrible!

But what he didn't realize was there's a better way. A more joyful way.

Product Managers are always going to have to say no to feature requests. This is the reality of the job. What makes saying no easier is giving someone something else instead.

This is where vision and strategy comes in!!!

If we have a compelling vision of the future and a thoughtful and differentiated strategy to get there, this is what you give people instead of the features they've requested.

It turns a flat-out "no" into a "This is a great idea but we likely can't look at this yet because we'd have to give up this amazing vision of the future. Do you want to give up this amazing vision of the future??"

Often the person will say "hell no, give me that stellar vision!! How can I help you get there!?"

Don't get me wrong, it doesn't happen like this all the time, but this should happen most the time!

This not only frees up time, but creates a collective action towards a goal. It's uniting and incredibly joyful. It's what great Product Management should feel like!

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How Do You Create a Great Vision and Strategy Then?

This is the hard part! I WISH I could just plug numbers into a spreadsheet and magically prioritize, but this isn't realistic.

Instead, we need to align our stakeholders, constantly talk to customers, understand the market trends, understand how our products are being used, and take all this data and information to create a unique vision of the future we want to create and how we think we can get there.

We need to place bets on some of the most important problems we think we can solve in a unique way.

We need to align people towards this shared vision of the future and inspire them to try, test, and iterate towards it.

We need to prioritize problems to solve instead of features to build and allow teams to experiment towards solving these problems in creative ways.

Doing this is SO MUCH harder than using a framework.

But it's worth it. And THIS is great Product Management.

When Do Frameworks Help?

There are times when frameworks are helpful. So often we are comparing apples and oranges when thinking about what we could try next to solve a problem. So the essence of these frameworks is helpful. Thinking about what is an absolute must-have vs. a nice-to-have forces some tough conversations. Finding a way to compare value and effort of different ideas is also helpful. This is why I particularly like the MoSCoW method and the RICE methods. These can help us get a bit more objective about what we are building, but ultimately, we have to always ask ourselves "what is the best thing to try to get closer to our vision and strategy."

The Rice Model

RICE Method Product Management Prioritization

The Rice Model Example

RICE Product Management Prioritization Example

The MoSCoW Method

MoSCoW Method Product Management Prioritization

MoSCoW Example

Product Management Prioritization Example

What Should I Do Next?

I know this may not be the blog that finally makes prioritization simple. I don't think that exists. I'd rather be honest about how hard it is and what it really takes so folks stop falling into traps that don't work.

So stay tuned for more information on how to create a great vision and strategy for your products. And in the meantime, don't worry about creating the perfect prioritization framework. Work instead on collaboration, talking to customers, and constantly communicating your logic and learnings, and demoing to your teams. This will take you further than any framework can!

And if you want to become a better Product Manager today, check out our product management training & certification programs. These are designed to help you avoid the pitfalls and to become the best Product Manager possible.

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