The prioritization 2×2

An animated GIF showing the Cost vs. Value 2x2
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Prioritization is the most important product management skill

One definition of product management is “the process of deciding what to build.” This means deciding – correctly! – between too many features, all of which are “high priority” and for which you don’t have enough resources.

Have you ever been in a job interview where they ask you to “prioritize these features” for us? And they give you five different features, all different sizes, and you don’t know anything about any of them? What do you do?

In this article I’ll give you some tools – including what I consider the best tool, for prioritizing any set of features.

Why prioritize? We have too much to do!

You have a lot of features, enhancements, and new products you want to deliver, and not enough resources.

  • Your best customer needs Feature X – or they might bail for a sexy competitor.
  • Your boss’s boss is asking for Feature Y, and seems to be expecting it next month – has even promised it to a customer.
  • The customer you’re visiting next week has been demanding Feature Q for months.
  • And you know that if you could only deliver Feature Z in the next quarter, revenues would rocket up.

Out of all these possibilities, which ones should you deliver?

Deliver the wrong ones and it might spell doom for your product.

On the other hand, making good prioritization decisions results in the growth you need, maybe even the kind of growth that can change your life!

You have to be able to defend and justify your priorities to your supervisors, to the business, and to the people who are executing the work you have specified.

“The Sizzle That Sold The Steak”

Prioritization is so important for product managers and leaders that the promise of “fixing it” can lead to sales nearly on its own. My old product Accept360 – a tool for product managers – was primarily sold on the basis of a single visualization showing the priorities of different features based on their alignment to the company’s strategy.

With that one visual it was easy to see which features you should prioritize based on their value to the strategy, and prospects loved it!

It was “the sizzle that sold the steak!”

Accept360 included tons of other valuable features for product managers – requirements management, roadmapping, agile project support – but that one prioritization chart did most of the work for us in the sales process.

The prioritization technique used in Accept360 – “analytical prioritization” – is powerful, and I’ll tell you all about it below (it’s #2 on the list).

But analytics isn’t the only way to skin the prioritization cat. In this article I share 6 prioritization techniques you should have in your toolbox that go way beyond “high-medium-low” that you might not have thought of.

What’s most important?

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach that will address all your prioritization challenges.

You seldom have enough information to make truly informed decisions.

And if you’re even considering building a feature, you probably already know it’s high priority.

Heuristics and well-educated guesses are often your only option.

The basic frameworks

Prioritization is a critical capability for product managers

There are some well-known frameworks for prioritization like MoSCoW – Must, Should, Could, Won’t. And RICE – Reach, Impact, Confidence, and Effort. And of course there’s the old standby – High, Medium, Low.

The problem with these techniques is that, let’s face it, by the time I have a feature in my backlog, I already know it’s high priority. If I’m doing my job right, I don’t spend any time on low priority activities or features or ideas.

What’s the most important “most important” thing I could do?

You’re choosing between high priority alternatives, any of which would move your business in a positive direction. You need prioritization techniques that understand that.

The techniques below will help you navigate this situation. They can help you make better product decisions.

These techniques will help you make better prioritization decisions. Click To Tweet

Of course, results are not guaranteed. You can make the best decisions in the world and your product may still fail for reasons beyond your control. But to have the best shot, here are techniques to try.

6 important techniques for prioritization

1. Trust your instinct

As a product manager, it’s likely you have specific expertise. About the product, or the space, or about decision-making per se. So your gut feelings are likely to be decent.

In fact, as Douglas W. Hubbard says in his great book How To Measure Anything, our intuition is critical to making good decisions in conditions of uncertainty.

As Hubbard says, “I’m not promoting the disposal of expert intuition for decision making. On the contrary, it is a key element of some of the methods described in [his book].”

On the other hand, if you’re like me (and Hubbard), you want something more concrete to backup your gut-level decisions.

2. Analytics

This is the category for Accept360’s strategic alignment-versus-cost visualization.

The types of analytics you can use to support your decisions varies widely. First of all, don’t forget qualitative analytics! You might not have enough good data to do quantitative analytics, but you can still make good decisions qualitatively.

For example, maybe you have talked to several customers about a new feature. They’ve all said it would be highly valuable to them. And (referring back to “Trust your instinct”) your gut says most customers would get value from it. That might be enough “analytics” to move forward. In fact, it might be all the analytics you’ll get!

This type of analysis is especially powerful if your product is enterprise software and you have a relatively small number of customers. You might not be able to get a statistically significant sample from such a small group.

For quantitative analysis you need a lot more data for statistical validity. If you have that data, you can do more sophisticated analytics. This is great if you a lot of customers (thousands), or are testing smaller features, such as in a consumer product.

You can create a spreadsheet comparing the revenue predictions for different combinations of features. Tools that graphically illustrate how well a set of requirements satisfies a set of prioritization criteria based on a market model can give you excellent insight into your best investment choices.

A 2x2 chart showing cost vs. value for a set of features, calculated against a prioritization strategy
The gold standard of analytical prioritization – cost versus value in a 2×2, against a proposed prioritization strategy

There are even tools that use “option pricing” and other advanced financial techniques to give you a numeric priority value. If you are trying to get your executive team to fund a new project, potentially very valuable but highly risky, Innovation Options are a great tool.

Analytics are the best tool in your toolbox for defending and justifying your decisions.

3. Stack ranking

One way to achieve this clarity of mind is to stack rank your list of desired features. The most important features – determined, perhaps using your gut instincts backed up with some analytics – are at the top.

Then just ignore everything in that list after the first ten items.

Stack ranking is a fundamental technique from agile software development.

Stack ranking has a fundamental value for you, the product manager. It can keep you from being continually weighed down by the features you can’t work on, no matter how desirable. Reducing your own cognitive load is a constant struggle for product managers.

Once you have decided what is the most important feature, concentrate on delivering that feature and ignore anything else lower in priority.

Once the most important feature is delivered (or complete and ready for delivery), you can revisit the stack-ranked list. Review the ranking, make any changes necessary, and then focus again just on the top items.

This ensures you’re always delivering the highest value you can, and your team is never working on low value features.

4. Doing tests with a “minimum viable product” or MVP

Sometimes you have an idea for a valuable new feature but you need validation from the market that your instinct – which we can call a hypothesis in this case – is correct. As in real science, you test a hypothesis with an experiment. In the world of lean software development this experiment is called an MVP – a “minimum viable product.” The phrase “minimum viable” means “the minimum amount of development needed to test the hypothesis.”

Sometimes an MVP is as simple as a webpage. Sometimes it’s a complete development project in itself. It completely depends on the hypothesis you’re testing.

The point is to do the minimum work to find out if your hypothesis is correct or not.

5. What’s the worst thing that could possibly happen?

The process of prioritization always has winners and losers. You can test your prioritization with a simple thought experiment.

For each of the candidate features, ask yourself, what is the worst thing that can possibly happen if we don’t deliver the feature? Use the answers to this question for each feature to minimize the worst possible outcome.

It’s possible that not delivering a new feature won’t have a bad outcome, but delivering it would have a very positive outcome, so you can’t use this as your sole decision-making criterion.

6. Make sure that your boss’s pet feature is handled

This may sound cynical, but most of the time you’re not just optimizing your development team’s efforts to deliver value, but you’re also optimizing your own career.

Your success depends on you delivering good products and on staying employed and keeping your boss happy. If your boss has a feature that he or she really wants to see in the product, then that feature has extra weight in your prioritization.  You might still cut it, but you need to have an especially strong justification for nuking it.

How to sell your decisions

With these techniques you should be able to come up with a well-prioritized list of features to deliver. Now you might ask – how do I convince my team and my executives that my priorities are correct?

Of course, these techniques contain much of their own justification and rationale. But as we know, decision-making is not just about rationality. In fact, the fundamental rule of persuasion is that “people make decisions emotionally and justify them rationally.” For more on getting your team’s and executives’ buy-in, check out my series on persuasion, starting with Persuasion Tips for Product Managers.

What prioritization techniques do you use?

That’s a few quick ideas on how to do effective prioritization of features into a release. You can also use these tips for prioritizing anything in your career (or life). Let me know in the comments if you make use of these techniques. Or if you have other prioritization tools you like to use.

About the author

Your host and author, Nils Davis, is a long-time product manager, consultant, trainer, and coach. He is the author of The Secret Product Manager Handbook, many blog posts, a series of video trainings on product management, and the occasional grilled pizza.

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  • Going with your gut seems like it could be a risky endeavor, does it not? Perhaps not for a seasoned professional, but you have to get there first. Prioritization is a skill that people constantly struggle with in their work and home lives, and they very often make poor decisions. I would be interested in hearing how you might hone your prioritization skills to make sure that when you go with your gut, you can trust yourself.

    • This is a good and accurate concern, which is why I provide a lot of ways of prioritizing. I should perhaps make more clear that I expect to use all of these techniques in conjunction, letting the strengths of each manage the weaknesses of each. Each of them can result in a bad decision, so you really want checks and balances.

      For example, if I do analytic prioritization and it comes up with a different answer than my gut feeling, I need to do some due diligence to figure out whether the analysis is wrong or I'm wrong. It could be either (or both, actually).

  • Prioritization is one of my favorite subjects! You make some excellent points here that I think bear repeating:

    * You've got to be able to defend and justify your priorities. I find two things help with this: 1 is to use objective data to help set priorities. A little data resolves a lot of arguments. 2 is to involve your key stakeholders early and often so they feel they're involved in the planning, that it is THEIR plan as well.

    * Most of these techniques can be used for prioritizing everything from bugs to features to product lines to what to have for dinner. Product people's decisions have a great effect on the success of their organizations, though, so getting decisions right is critical for them.

    * A balance must be struck between analysis of data and instinct. A spreadsheet-driven left-brained approach will put you in the right neighborhood, but the final decisions must be made by humans.

    * I'm a big believer in analytical techniques like relative ROI (ranking features as to how much contribution to business goals they will make vs. how much effort they require) and budget allocation exercises. Option pricing sounds interesting and I'd like to learn more about it. I've detailed more on this in my ProductCamp presentation on prioritization on Slideshare:

    * I'm also a big believer that testing an offer is the best way to get the real data for use in any analytical framework. This might be in the form of an MVP, dry test, beta, charter customer program or other means. Anything other than a customer order is a bit theoretical.

    I'm not sure that handling your boss' pet idea is a prioritization technique, exactly, but it does remind me of the point about getting buy-in on your priorities by involving key people (including your boss) early. That way all of the key stakeholders get a chance to at least weigh in on their pet ideas.

  • Hi,
    Thank you for this article and your insightful book.
    I’d like to share our experience.
    Typically, we use 2 methods to prioritize product features:

    1) Value/Efforts prioritization for daily evaluation of all ideas and customer features requests.
    As a value, we take our relevant strategic goals. For example, the main goal now is to increase the conversion from trial to subscription.

    2) Weighted Scoring that we use for evaluating features that have been already prioritized according to Value/Efforts.
    This scoring requires a considerable amount of time to evaluate the features according to different criteria.

    We’ve described it in details here:

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