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Product Management Rule #23: Make Sure You Have Clear Priorities

Product Management Rule #23 from the best-selling book, 42 Rules of Product Management, was written by Dan Olsen, Co-Founder and CEO, YourVersion

The best product teams are crystal clear about their priorities at every point in time and are adept at quickly changing their priorities when they need to.

Make Sure You Have Clear Priorities

We’ve all seen PRDs that list ten (or more) “high priority” product features. What are feature lists like this really saying? They’re really saying, “We weren’t sure about our priorities,” or, “Nobody made the tough calls about which features were really most important.”

Why Are Clear Priorities Important?

There are always more product ideas than there are resources to implement them. To maximize a company’s business results and chances of success, it needs to have a clear point of view about what’s most important. When there are ten “high priority” features, how does engineering know which one to start working on first? How does the rest of the team know which one engineering is going to work on first?

Different stakeholders can look at a list of ten high priority features and mistakenly expect that their top item will get launched soon, especially when engineering only has the resources to work on one or two items at a time. In contrast, having clear priorities ensures that everyone in the company is clear on what is going to get done in what order.

The lack of clear priorities is often a symptom of one or more problems:

  • The team doesn’t have a clear point of view about what is most important to its success or to its customers.
  • People on the team have clear opinions about what’s most important but can’t agree.
  • Nobody is empowered to make tough product decisions.
  • The team lacks the right processes or tools.

The first three problems are all rooted in the company culture, and that can be hard to change, so I’ll share advice on how product managers can improve on the final problem.

Make a List

The first step is to create a prioritized feature list. Each feature should be listed as a separate item on its own row. You should assign a priority level to each feature such as “high,” “medium,” and “low.” However, it’s also important to individually rank-order the features within each priority level. Within the “high” features, decide which one is #1, which is #2, and so on. You can use shorthand labels like “H-1,” “H-2,” “M-1,” “M-2,” “L-1,” “L-2.” Your list should always be sorted by that rank-order priority. If you’re not empowered to determine the rank-order priority yourself, then facilitate the process to do so with the key stakeholders. Once you have a prioritized list, it makes your life a lot easier when the time comes to make tough trade-offs. For example, the next time someone comes to you with a new “top priority” idea, just whip out the list and ask them to tell you which “lower priority” items can afford to get bumped.

Share the List and Keep It Updated

The prioritized feature list should be easily accessible by everyone so that the entire team is on the same page. Just because the list has precise priorities doesn’t mean it has to be rigid; it should be updated real-time as new features come up and priorities change. A “live” web-based list works much better than sending revised lists by email over and over. Don’t let your tracking tools get in the way, just keep it simple: Google spreadsheets or wikis work great.

“Be Water, My Friend”

A team with rank-ordered priorities in place can react more quickly when changes arise. The best product teams are crystal clear about their priorities at every point in time and are adept at quickly changing their priorities when they need to. So when it comes to product priorities, as Bruce Lee said, “Be water, my friend”: clear and agile.

Product Management Rule #23 from the best-selling book, 42 Rules of Product Management

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