Working on what matters most: Lessons on prioritising

Scott Rogers

Scott Rogers

Product (special sauce) additive. Thinker and creator. Most comfortable with sleeves rolled up.

Tools for working on things that matter most.

It’s great to be in the flow of delivery, working closely with your team building out your products and getting a sense of achievement from working together. You’re jamming on problems and thinking about solutions. Your delivery pipeline is robust and you have a solid backlog of work that’s been agreed by stakeholders. Your continuous delivery approach means you’re deploying lots of small incremental improvements to users, plus more significant releases from time to time. 

Eadaoin and Mario working on a product roadmap.

Things seem good, but when you review your metrics and research insights,  all that great work you’ve been doing isn’t translating into success. You might be delivering on your Key Results, but the needle isn’t moving on your goals. And you think ‘where did things go wrong?’ Underneath it all, you realise that there has been a sense of frustration, and perhaps your team has been feeling that too.

Chances are, you haven’t been working on the things that mattered most. The goalposts changed at some point and you didn’t realise. A lot of teams find themselves in a predicament where all the good energy about finding focus and flow can actually turn out to be a nail in the coffin. 

It begs the question: How can I be sure I’m working on the most valuable thing?! Honestly, you can’t. You can only do your best to work on the thing that is going to create the most value, given what you know at this very moment, and given the vision of the business. Knowing when to make decisions is key.

Some of the Cogent team in a priority setting workshop.

Like most product teams, you’ll have a laundry list of things that you think will create value, all aligned with the vision of the business. Sometimes it can feel overwhelming, all of the things that could be done, and this is especially true for startups. So many opportunities, but so little time, so few people!

The answer? Prioritisation.

Ash Mauyra talks about the speed of learning, a new competitive advantage where you create the most value. Prioritisation will help us work on the thing that will help us learn the fastest (create the most value) before funding runs out and before somebody else learns faster.

But how do you prioritise? As product people, we love frameworks and tools, so here are some that will keep your product team on track.

Vision – a concise, memorable statement about the future state you want for your business and/or your product. Having a vision is fundamental to getting prioritisation right. Without a clear vision, it is very easy to start working on things that don’t matter.

All the work you end up doing needs to link back to your vision. If it doesn’t, then you either need to stop doing the work or change your vision. If you are having trouble saying ‘no’ to any of your options, start by asking which options aren’t aligned with your vision.

Roadmap – A visual, strategic, representation of what you are going to focus on over 12 months as you build towards your vision. A roadmap helps with prioritisation by showing and deciding what will be worked on next, what will be worked on later, and by omission, what will not be worked on at all. 

As a rule of thumb, stay away from being too detailed or specific when writing roadmap items. It’s a tool to enable discussion and collaboration, rather than managing tasks to be done. Be clear and concise, strategic, and let it tell a story. It should be visible for all to see and enable the team to make decisions.

Scott feeling that sense of achievement after a workshop.

Objectives & Key Results (OKRs) – A way of setting ambitious goals (objectives), and tracking progress towards them (key results). OKRs should be simple, few and should articulate your main effort over 3 months. Don’t lose focus by creating too many OKRs. This will defeat the purpose of prioritising, and don’t write too much, you should be creating and reviewing these quarterly so they shouldn’t be onerous.

Most importantly, setting OKRs is a team exercise. Allow teams to set their OKRs and work out how they will go about achieving the outcomes.

With Vision, Roadmap and OKRs in place, you now have the ground-work to enable you to focus on the most right thing. The next step is Feature Prioritisation, and this is about determining the most valuable task to work on. The time-frame lens for this is an iteration.   

Feature prioritisation – Good ideas can come from everywhere, so be sure to make this step highly collaborative. Your OKRs should not be too prescriptive so that they are broad enough to let the team develop their own ideas and feel that they’re taking part in owning the outcome.

Bias can come in many forms and can influence focus without you even knowing it. You might be drawn to the flashy idea, ‘your’ idea, be influenced by recent experiences or your optimism might see you underestimating effort. Again, frameworks and tools, as well as bringing in lots of perspectives can help overcome bias, especially when prioritizing. 

A simple value-to-effort matrix can help you think about what kind of value a feature can offer, and what kind of effort is required to deliver that value. Things that can be considered when thinking about value include:

  • Customer reach
  • Revenue impact
  • Acquiring new customers
  • Product engagement
  • Impact on the key results 

A simple value-to-effort matrix

A tool I’ve found useful is the Opportunity Solution Tree by Teresa Torres. We’ve written about it in lots of detail. It’s a collaborative tool for brainstorming and picking the best candidate. It can help with:

  • Examining ideas before investing in them
  • Making sure you consider enough ideas
  • Tracking multiple ideas in a systematic way
  • Avoiding solutions that do not connect to what we are focused on achieving.

Opportunity Solution Tree by Teresa Torres

There are lots of different tools and frameworks you can use. From simple to complex, you will come to know what is appropriate in your organisation. Given the fortnightly cadence of feature prioritisation, you’ll have lots of opportunities to try new tools and find one that works best for you and your team.

By updating your Vision, Roadmap, OKRs and Feature Prioritisation with the right cadence, you’ll improve your strategic and operational decision-making. You’ll be making decisions with the most up-to-date information that you have for each lens on your business. 

Taking time out to reflect with your team will also help expose any feelings that indicate things may not be on track. That’s when a deeper analysis is warranted and you can course-correct before it’s too late. 

To learn more about how we can help you focus your work on the most valuable thing, check out our services or get in touch.

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