Prioritization: You’re doing it wrong (or possibly not at all)

I published some preliminary results from my Release Planning Survey a couple of weeks ago. I’m still collecting data, so if you’re reading this, please click the link below and fill out the survey.

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The survey only takes 5 minutes (or less) to complete — so please help out. I’ll publish the full detailed analysis here on Medium in the future, once I get a sufficient set of data.

In this article, I’ll share:

  1. The data related to prioritization from the survey thus far.
  2. Thoughts on how to resolve the problems with prioritization and the issues surrounding it that companies face.

Prioritization is a problem

One of the interesting results from the survey data so far is on the topic of Prioritization. The survey question is:

We have a well understood PRIORITIZATION PROCESS when deciding what will and what won’t be in a product release.

Respondents were asked to indicate how much they agree or disagree with that statement.

And the results (so far) are:

Well understood prioritization process. 13% Strongly agree. 19% Agree. 19% are Neutral. 35% Agree. 14% Strongly Agree.
Well understood prioritization process. 13% Strongly agree. 19% Agree. 19% are Neutral. 35% Agree. 14% Strongly Agree.
Chart 1 — Well-defined prioritization process

Adding up the numbers, only 49% (just 1/2) the respondents Agree or Strongly Agree that they have a well understood prioritization process in their companies.

Think about that. Only one-half.

So then, the other half of the respondents DON’T have a well understood process?

What kind of process do they have?

How are they prioritizing work?

This is not a good situation for companies to be in.

Prioritization determines which investments will be made and which won’t. It impacts both short and longer term business focus and success. An ill-defined or inconsistent prioritization process can have significant and painful impacts on the entire business.

Differences by Role

Digging a little deeper into the data, I wanted to see if there were differences in perception based on people’s roles. The two largest identified roles among the respondents were:

  • Executives (~24% of respondents)
  • Product Managers/Product Owners (~65% of respondents)

This chart shows the breakout of the question by role. i.e. how much they agreed or disagreed with the prioritization statement.

Well Defined Prioritization Process (by Role) Executives. Vs. Product Managers & Product Owners
Well Defined Prioritization Process (by Role) Executives. Vs. Product Managers & Product Owners
Chart 2 — Prioritization process sentiment by role

To be honest, there’s not a lot to look at here except for the disparity of responses ranked Agree/Strongly Agree.

Adding the Agree and Strongly Agree values for each role, they come out to almost the same (45% vs. 47%), but the difference between the two is striking.

The significant # of Neutral responses is interesting. About 1 in 5 don’t disagree, but they don’t agree either. I tend to include these in the “those who don’t agree” category. i.e. there is clearly some deficiency in their prioritization process that’s preventing them from agreeing.

A much simplified version of that data follows. I’ve included the (Strongly) Disagree and Neutral in one bucket and the (Strongly) Agree in the other.

Well Defined Prioritization Process (by Role) Executives. Vs. Product Managers & Product Owners
Well Defined Prioritization Process (by Role) Executives. Vs. Product Managers & Product Owners
Chart 3 — Prioritization Process Sentiment Summary

To a certain extent, the fact that there is alignment between Execs and PMs/POs is a good sign. To be honest, I was expecting some level of disparity. I would have assumed that the Execs would see the prioritization as functioning well (because they hold the power), and the PMs as seeing it not working well. But I don’t want to draw too many strong conclusions about role based views given I didn’t drill down into prioritization beyond this question.

Breakout by Company Size

Next, I looked at the data broken out by company size. I wanted to see if that made any difference. And guess what? It did.

The following chart shows the differences. It’s a bit more complex than the previous Roles chart because there are 5 categories of company size listed in the survey.

Well Defined Prioritization Process (by Company Size) Startups, Small, Midsized, Large, Very Large Companies
Well Defined Prioritization Process (by Company Size) Startups, Small, Midsized, Large, Very Large Companies
Chart 4 — Prioritization Process Sentiment by Company Size

What’s clear is that Startups are having a difficult time with prioritization. The tall (purple) Agree bar in the other 4 company sizes distinguishes them from the Startup situation. Now the non-startups are far from perfect. In each of them, 40%-50% are Neutral or (Strongly) Disagree, meaning about 1/2 of these companies don’t have a well-defined process. But they are far better than the startups in most cases.

You’ve read this far, so before you continue, please fill out the survey.
Thank you.

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Addressing Prioritization Issues

There are two questions to answer:

  1. Why do companies have so many issues with prioritization?
  2. Why is there a distinct difference between startups and other sized companies WRT prioritization?

Why companies have prioritization issues

I often use the following diagram to talk about prioritization in the broader context of the work Product teams do.

Hierarchy of constraints — Vision, Objectives, Strategy, Product Roadmap, Release
Hierarchy of constraints — Vision, Objectives, Strategy, Product Roadmap, Release
Moving from vision to product releases.

Without detailing out the whole diagram, the key point is that you work top down, and at each level you are constraining your focus more and more, so that once you get to the bottom, with Releases, you’ve made sound decisions based on Vision, Objectives, Strategy (or Strategies) and Roadmap, and so you have clear focus on what you will and won’t build.

Once you’ve gotten to Release Planning, most of the hard work is done.

All the major product prioritization decisions have been made, are justified and communicated to Executives and other key groups (e.g. Sales, Support, Success etc.)

The LACK of well-defined and well-justified Objectives, Strategy, & Roadmap are the biggest reason I’ve encountered for prioritization issues.

By the time you are planning releases, the only things that impact your work are surprises. You know what I’m talking about.

  1. Surprise! A big new deal needs a special feature in order to close…ASAP.
  2. Surprise! Engineering uncovered some architectural issues and technical debt that need to be addressed very soon.
  3. Surprise! After meeting with the Board of Directors, the CEO decided a change of direction was in order.
  4. Surprise! Some critical customer escalations need focus and the VP of Sales is pulling every lever to get them done ASAP.
  5. Surprise! The world got hit with a pandemic and EVERYTHING is upside-down and backwards now.

OK, that last one we can deal with as it doesn’t happen often, but the others happen far too often. Here are a couple of comments from the survey that point to the problem.

  • “Customer escalations, sales escalations, other unanticipated developments always whiplash our priorities. Inability to “say no” at exec level.”
  • “Unplanned priorities e.g RFP response, new client deals that everyone needs to react to.”
  • “The executive leadership hardly says no to large customers and we tend to lose focus of our outcomes.”

All of these are about focus and a DIFFERENT type of prioritization. The prioritization is tied to deals, revenue and large customers. This may seem reasonable, but it’s not sustainable for a PRODUCT company in the long term.

If every new big deal is a priority, then strategy, roadmaps and planning are NOT a priority. It’s that simple.

It’s like saying, eating healthy is a priority, but every time you pass by a burger joint, you stop and get a combo with fries. What are you really prioritizing?

Find a Balanced Approach

So, the solution here is to have clear goals, define the strategies to achieve them, create that (strategic) roadmap to support the strategies and THEN create release plans.

IF (and likely WHEN) deals or other issues arise that require roadmap changes, BALANCE them with your strategy and roadmap. It’s not about saying “no” specifically, but about saying “when”. And “when” doesn’t have to be now, or ASAP etc.

And IF you do have to displace something on your roadmap, given the work you’ve done on objectives and strategy, it should be a rational discussion of clear trade-offs, vs. an ad hoc discussion of divergent “priorities” that leads you to your decisions.

The challenge for startups

If we look at Chart 4 again, but condense the responses, we get the Chart below.

Well Defined Prioritization Process (by Company Size) Condense Agree vs. Disagree
Well Defined Prioritization Process (by Company Size) Condense Agree vs. Disagree
Chart 5 — Prioritization Process by Company Size Summary

Startups are the only category where the Disagree/Neutral is greater than the Agree. One of the big challenges for startups is that they are facing far more uncertainty and tend to be much more deal-driven than larger sized companies.

I see this all the time in my consulting work, particularly with either self-funded companies or ones that haven’t raised large sums. i.e. they’re heavily dependent on sizable deals and the revenue from those deals supersedes whether the new “feature” (to close the deal) is a good fit for the product or product strategy.

The uncertainty (market, revenue, competitor, technology etc.) all play a part in decision making. But more so than larger companies, the lack of clear alignment between Objectives, Strategies and Roadmap all are part of the problem.

The only remedy here is strong and determined leadership (CEO, CPO, CRO etc.) who make clear decisions based on a commitment to vision and objectives, and a sound belief in the evidence based strategies they’ve defined.

The word BALANCE is key. It can be too easy to chase deals, satisfying the short term while utterly undermining the long term. I’ve seen this in a couple of companies I’ve worked in myself. And, in the long term. chasing deals wasn’t at all beneficial to those companies.

Prioritization of work is more than just what goes into a release plan. It’s a statement of consistent commitment to the company’s focus, investment, intent and ultimately belief in how they will achieve their long term goals.

If prioritization is done primarily at the release level, that should be a big red flag to management and the Board of Directors that the company may be setting itself up for failure.

Prioritization Frameworks

Notice that I’ve not mentioned any prioritization frameworks like:

  • RICE (Reach, Impact, Confidence, Effort)
  • MoSCoW (Must-have, Should-have, Could-have, Won’t-have)
  • Cost of Delay
  • Buy a Feature
  • Opportunity Scoring etc.

This is because, quite honestly, these frameworks create a false sense of rigour and “certainty” in the efforts that are deemed important.

They are simplistic in nature, full of large intrinsic margins of error, and while they look good on paper, in spreadsheets, and in blog posts etc., they miss the whole point of prioritization completely.

As mentioned previously, prioritization starts at the top (with Vision/Objectives) and works it’s way down. Once you’re at the feature level, if there’s still great debate on how to prioritize work, you’ve either missed something significant in your process or are seriously trying to do too much. That in itself is a sign of lack of priorities and focus.

I’ll stop here, but I do want to ask one more time for your input to the survey.

The survey is about much more than just prioritization, and I will be writing about other insights from the data in the future

The link is here — yet again :-) — so please do give your input.

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About the Author

Saeed Khan is a founder of Transformation Labs and has worked for over 20 years in high-technology companies building and managing market leading products. He speaks regularly at industry events on the topic of product management and product leadership. You can contact him via Twitter @saeedwkhan or via the Contact Us page.

A little feedback on the article

If you’ve read this far, thank you. I’d like some feedback on the article to make it better. Just 3 questions. Should take 1 minute, but will really be valuable to me. Thanks in advance.

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