When I visited the National Gallery of Arts in Washington D.C., one thing that struck me among all others, was a fridge-magnet in the display. It bears a popular saying of the great artist, Romare Bearden, that reads…”what you don’t need is as important as what you do need”. This caption has relevance to everybody in today’s world, and especially I would like to draw its benefit to the product managers. I give below a snapshot of the magnet for your reference and I think it could be a powerful mantra for the product managers among us.
Get your priorities right
Getting your priorities right will not only help you to be successful at creating a great product, but also in continually delivering superior experiences to your stakeholders, customers and users. As a product manager, you need to not just prioritize the product’s features, but also plan your product releases, expedite the time-to-market, and help in marketing activities such as product launch campaigns. In this post, I wish to touch upon the challenges that constrain the proper scoping of a product, and how you can leverage the right tools and techniques to help prioritize in the constantly changing world.
Prioritizing is not easy
Today, more than ever, we are witnessing flux everywhere and little wonder then that whatever we are exposed to has been undergoing a rapid change. Change and chaos are posing the biggest challenge to all of us today, but in them also lie huge opportunities and avenues for achievement, cheer and success. The key to success lies in making note of the changes that happened and also in sensing the impending changes to come through in the areas of your interest.
What drives your prioritization
To come to grips with the changes and chaos, you really need to look at the various factors that are either directly or indirectly responsible for your product. Let us try and basket them into two categories- internal and external, for simplicity’s sake. To be able to prioritize better, you need to consider the internal factors such as the resources available say people, schedule, cost, organizational goals and business vision. I would also like to add to this list the often unseen or unspoken aspects such as internal politics, power dynamics and the relationships among the various management and team members.
Vendors, partners and third party service providers
Also you need to pay heed to external factors such as stakeholders i.e., vendors and partners’ expectations, needs and demands of customers and users. While its true that customers and users’s needs take the attention of product management team, its also imperative that the capabilities, constraints and commitments of your vendors and partners need to be considered while planning and prioritizing your product.
A case in point is Apple’s inability to fulfill its iPad2 delivery requirements in some countries. This was due to the shortage of material at Apple’s suppliers in China which resulted in the delay in shipment of the final products. One might argue that this is a good problem to have because the demand is more than the supply and you can keep your customers wait for your product. On the other hand, there might be a worst case scenario where the supply exceeds the demand and then you will be in trouble with the excess stock. In both cases though, the lesson for you is to consider your vendors’ and partners’ constraints, capabilities and commitments while prioritizing and planning your product release.
Beware of (pressure due to) competition
Perhaps the one biggest factor that could play with your prioritization game is competition. Often times, as product managers, you get undue pressure to look out at the competing products in the market and re-adjust your priorities as per your competitors’ new releases.
For instance, just because your closest competitor announced (not even launched) a new product in the market, you will get tremendous pressure for ‘doing something about it’ from the senior management, peers, media and worst of all, your own team. While most often, all of this could be genuine and help in the cause of better product development, other times, it could be a knee-jerk reaction without knowing the ground reality. This is something you must be really wary of and ensure that you don’t succumb to the pressures beyond the capability of your organization and team.
Scope, de-scope and re-scope
The single biggest contribution from a product manager, if you ask me, is the ability to prioritize the features and plan the releases for the product. This is the area where team really looks up to the product manager or product owner in the context of agile software development. Prioritization, as per my experience, comprises three simple tasks of scoping, de-scoping and re-scoping. As I keep telling people, sometimes it is more important to specify what is not in scope, than to say what is in the scope.
In a traditional sense, you might be maintaining a ‘product roadmap’ which spells out all the things your product will be and do, in the times to come. In agile development, product owners need to maintain a ‘product backlog’ which is a configurable document that lives across the life-cycle of the product. For some people, the term ‘backlog’ might connote a negative intent of not being able to complete some stipulated work. But now the artifact as well as this term has become an industry-standard accepted by many. Remember, though that this product backlog is for the product and not, as many people mistake it, for the project.
Important vs. Urgent
Another key dimension in prioritizing is being able to specify either tasks or things on the scales of importance and urgency. Note that all things that are important need not be urgent and vice versa. You need to clearly delineate among things and tasks that are important, urgent or both.
I usually map all the items across four quadrants classified into the following four categories across the two axes of importance and urgency:
- [important, urgent]
- [important, not urgent]
- [not important, not urgent]
- [not important, urgent]
Use the right tools and techniques
Most of you are familiar with the prioritization techniques such as ABC or 1-2-3. You can also try the MoSCoW (Must, Should, Could and Won’t) technique which is helpful in further shortlisting the features. I use index cards and post-it notes to do a quick sorting from within the shortlisted features to get to the most important ones. At times, to simplify you might just mark the items ‘Need to have’ and ‘Nice-to-have’. You can use any, all or some of these techniques based on your preference to arrive at the prioritized list of features in your product.
We can talk about more such tools and techniques in my next blog posts. Hope you could have some takeaways from this post to help make your product, a success. Till the next post, ciao!