How to Prioritize as a Product Manager
Use the processes below to make small, medium and large prioritization decisions more easily.
Summary: Give prioritization decisions the fidelity they require — and nothing more. This will allow you to maintain a fast pace of execution while freeing time to work on larger decisions. Try the processes below for small, medium and large-scale prioritization challenges.
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A key responsibility of product managers is to identify the most impactful projects to work on. This requires a critical process: prioritization.
I struggled a lot with prioritization when I transitioned to the PM role. But over time, I learned something that changed how I approach it: the level of attention you give a decision should depend on its relative importance.
If something is small but is weighing down your team, make the call now. If something is large and requires thoughtfulness, take time and be explicit with your criteria. Here is this idea summarized:
Below, I’ll go through the process I use to make decisions of varying impact. Try them out next time you need to prioritize.
🌱 Small decisions
Should the logo go on the top left or top right?
Should our goal be 8% or 9% revenue growth?
Should we do one additional week of work on feature X?
Small decisions are ones where either option is reasonable and can just as easily advance your goals. The key idea with small decisions is to make them immediately to maintain your team’s velocity. The longer you let them sit, the more ambiguity and frustration you’ll create.
How can you make quick decisions? I lean on culture and principles.
Culture is the values your company prioritizes. These are the spoken and unspoken rules of what matters most for the team.
Facebook, for example, has five core values: move fast, be bold, focus on impact, be open and build social value. Using any of these is helpful for making small decisions. However, if one option is to take on a bolder goal while the other is more conservative, I’ll default to the bolder one in line with the culture.
Principles are defined at the product or group level. These inform how products are built in your group. If your team doesn’t have principles, define them. These are values that you and the team will follow when building the product.
For example, one of the principles for the Ads product group at Facebook is “People First.” If there is ever a tradeoff between creating user value and revenue for Facebook, we will always choose the user value. This stems from the belief that building the right products for users will generate every party more value in the long term.
Summary: make small decisions on the spot by leaning on your company and product principles. If there aren’t any principles, define them.
🌻 Medium Decisions
Which project should we work on next quarter?
What should our top-line metric be?
Which of these user segments is most important to focus on?
These are the decisions that often suck up a disproportionate amount of my time. I tend to do a ton of research, get many opinions, and take a scientific approach to weigh the criteria.
But I’ve learned that this is ofter overkill given the impact. So I’ve now focussed my time on two things that are truly necessary for these decisions:
Explicit decision-making criteria: People will want to know how you’ve made the decision with decisions of this scale. Importantly, they also help you objectively make a decision rather than succumbing to biases or politics.
Estimated values: estimate values for each criterion rather than finding precise values. Precision takes longer than is necessary.
I want to share how you can put this idea into practice for medium decisions. Here are three approaches you could take depending on the type of criteria you choose:
A checklist for binary criteria
T-Shirt Sizes (XS, S, M, L, XL) for quantifiable criteria
Ballpark estimates for number-driven criteria
These simple tables help me make quick, principled decisions. So give them a shot next time you’re in a similar position.
Summary: spend time objectively defining the criteria you’ll use to prioritize. From here, estimate the values depending on which estimates will provide the most clarity — checklists, T-Shirt size estimates or ballpark sizing.
Should we focus our strategy on user retention, activation, engagement of monetization?
What should our first international market be?
What should our two-year North-Star metric be?
Large decisions add more nuanced criteria and precise estimates to the medium-sized decision process above. So instead of optimizing for objectivity, you want to capture the nuance of the situation instead.
I was in this spot often on the WhatsApp Payments team. Given the complexity of launching consumer payment products in global markets, many big decisions needed to be made all the time. Each time it the decision required collecting the following:
Situation-specific criteria: General categories like “impact” may no longer be sufficient due to the nuance. But the need for objective decision-making criteria remains. For our decision, these are some of the areas we are considering:
Supporting Company Priorities
Unfortunately, there aren’t common metrics at this stage. Instead, you’ll need to consider the most important things to consider depending on your product space.
Precise estimates: Precision is more important with large decisions. This is the time to partner with your product team — data scientists, engineers, product marketing, product strategy or any other role who can help estimate the size of each area correctly.
Points of view of key stakeholders: At this level of decision, aligning stakeholders is just as important as the actual decision. I wrote a separate guide (with a template) to help drive alignment when making big decisions.
Put together, the large decision-making matrix may look like this:
After assembling the decision matrix, involve the stakeholders again to see if a decision can be reached. If not, consult your leadership team to force a decision.
Summary: capture the nuance of large decisions with situation-specific criteria. Enlist the broader product team to help create more precise estimates of these criteria.
Make small decisions on the spot by leaning on your company and product principles. If there aren’t any principles, define them.
For medium decisions, spend time objectively defining the criteria you’ll use to make the decision. Then, estimate the values of these criteria with the right approach — checklists, T-Shirt size estimates or ballpark sizing.
For large decisions, spend time defining nuanced criteria that capture the complexity. Then, work with your team to create more precise estimates of each criterion. Enlist leadership to help make tradeoffs if necessary.
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