The Product Manager's Essential Guide to Prioritization
Welcome to the essential guide to prioritization for product managers.
You’re about to learn everything you need to know about prioritization, from what it is and why you need it, to various frameworks you can implement and how to do so. If you’ve ever felt like you’ve spent the last x days or hours working on something, only to find at the end of it, you still don’t feel very accomplished, then this guide is for you.
You’re going to learn various techniques for figuring out how to spend your time in the most impactful way.
Here are the topic areas we’ll be covering:
What is Prioritization
Why you Should Prioritize(even if you feel like your priorities change every week)
What to Prioritize
When to Prioritize
Common Frameworks for Prioritization
- Eisenhower Matrix
- Story Mapping
- Other Frameworks
Developing Your Own Custom Framework
What To Do After You’ve Identified Your Top Priorities
What is prioritization?
Prioritization is the process of deciding what’s important.
Prioritization can be as simple as looking up and down a list and picking what you feel is the most important thing to work on. It can also be an entire process complete with involvement from multiple teams, multiple frameworks, and lots of back and forth to figure out what’s important.
It can also be either strategic or short term.
You’re probably already familiar with short-term prioritization because you do this every day. You decide who to respond to first, what specs need to get written, which meetings need your attention, what tasks can wait until tomorrow, which messages need responding to, and so on.
Typically short-term prioritization is less structured than strategic prioritization.
For product managers, strategic prioritization is the process of figuring out which strategic objectives to pursue and what actions you can take to best pursue them.
For many PMs, we see strategic prioritization as figuring out which feature requests to build first, what bugs are worth squashing, which experiments are worth running, and which ideas are worth exploring.
However, strategic prioritization can also be figuring out which new product to build, what markets to pursue, or where you may have the most success distributing your product.
We’ll mainly cover strategic prioritization in the rest of this guide.
Why You Should Prioritize
Although you may not realize it, even if you’re not “doing” prioritization, you still have some way you prioritize. If you don’t have a process, chances are you either let stakeholders dictate your priorities, do what people are most noisy about, or you go with your gut.
This may be an acceptable alternative if you’re working on something that only you or your stakeholders care about, but it’s not the best way if you have users who would like to see improvements to the product and who also care about your product.
Why you should prioritize comes down to this:
If you want to move your product towards its strategic objectives and you don’t have unlimited money, time, or resources, you need to have a prioritization process.
If that’s not enough to convince you to prioritize, here are a few more reasons why you should consider it…
Make the most of limited resources
Prioritization will help you make the most of the resources you have. It can also prevent you from wasting money on building features or products that have little potential to help you reach your strategic objectives.
A data-backed way to say “no”
A prioritization process is going to give you a way to say “no”. You just point your stakeholders to your framework, let them know why their idea got the scores it did, and inform them how they may able to bolster their case based on the criteria set for prioritization.
Manage the chaos
Product management can sometimes feel more like chaos management. There’s so much going on at any time. It can feel like you’re barely keeping your head above water. Prioritization and prioritizing things as they come in can help you keep a clear head on what’s important and isn’t.
It may even help you do a little less multi-tasking when you know what you really should be focusing on.
Offload the stress from your team
If your team is stressed, missing deadlines, and otherwise running around like a chicken with their head cut off (do chickens really do that?), then it is time to prioritize.
Your team is key to your product’s success and you don’t want your team to burn out.
So respect them and their time by giving them a clear list of what’s important to spend time on versus what isn’t.
You want to move up in your organization
Senior PM, Product Director, VP of Product, and Chief Product Officer are all strategy focused roles. If you can show you’re strategic by focusing on the things that are in line with the product and company goals, then you’ll be much more likely to move up in your organization.
The process of prioritization is quite literally the process of determining what’s important to you. Before you start figuring out which prioritization framework or process you may want to follow, you should first answer this question:
What is important to you, your product, and your company?
To repeat…before you even start to think about choosing a framework, this is something you need to answer.
To kickstart your answers to this question, what has historically been deemed as “urgent” in your organization? What qualities do all your urgent tasks share?
Also, what seems to get the most support and attention from the folks at the top? Are these things that impact revenue? Get good press for the company? Make your customers feel all squishy inside?
You probably have an idea of what’s important at the moment. If not, here are some places that may hold some clues:
- Company vision/mission/values
- Your OKRs, company OKRs
- Things that come from your supervisor
- Your market
- Your customers
- Other stakeholders
- Your engineering team
Your prioritization criteria can vary depending on what stage your product or company is in.
Startups may find that speed and viability are important. Meanwhile, larger organizations may value reach, profit margin, or brand impact.
Prioritization criteria & frameworks are really an “it depends” situation. But knowing the answer to this question is going to help you decide how to best move forward.
When to Prioritize
Not sure when you should prioritize? While our answer would be “all the time!”, here are a few scenarios that may trigger a prioritization session:
- you’re overwhelmed by the amount of work you’re expected to complete
- you’re about to start a new sprint
- a few new and interesting ideas just came through
- your boss announces a new pet project and you need to make room for it
- a key resource just became unavailable
- your team is desperate for some quick wins
- your last feature flopped
- your key metrics are plummeting
- the market just went through a serious shift
Ideally, prioritization is an ongoing process. Depending on how fast things change at your organization, we’d recommend that you review and re-score your top priorities on a weekly or bi-weekly basis.
What to Prioritize
Again, while our answer here would be “All the things!”, you may want to break it up into one or two categories at first. Here are some things you may want to prioritize:
- which features to build
- which bugs to fix
- which marketing tactics to try
- which markets to focus on
- which products to build
- which improvements the codebase would benefit from
- which metrics to measure and track
- which accounts to build relationships with
- which specs to write first
- which customer insights are most fruitful
- which tasks to tackle first
Common Frameworks for Prioritization & Decision Making
You now know about the what, why, and when of prioritization.
Let’s talk about the “how”.
There are plenty of ways to get started with prioritization. One of the easiest ways is to use a predetermined framework to measure things against.
A predetermined framework can help you get started quickly. There are also plenty to choose from. Some frameworks are better suited for certain scenarios than others, and picking the right one can help you achieve your goals faster.
However, frameworks are not always customizable to your product’s individual goals. When you use a framework, you’ll be prioritizing based on what the creators of these frameworks felt was important — not necessarily what is important to you.
We’ll cover how to tackle this issue by graduating into creating your own framework after we’ve completed this section. For now, let’s get cover some common frameworks.
RICE is a framework made famous by Intercom. It focuses on four criteria:
Each item is scored on its individual criteria and then ranked using this formula:
RICE = (reach * impact * confidence) / effort
Best for: Most products that are past MVP stage, feature prioritization
For each item on your list, you’ll score it against each of the four criteria. Here’s how to score each one:
Measured as a number
Reach is how many users will likely be impacted or touched by the item.
Measured as high, medium, or low
Impact is how much of an effect this item is going to have on your users. This can be very subjective, and each item’s impact score may depend on other items it is being scored against.
low: A bug fix that few people have reported
medium: A feature that may or may not bring in new users or retain existing ones
high: Features that fundamentally change how your application works
Expressed as a number
Effort is how long your team will need to pull this item off.
The unit of this number is up to you. For small teams, this could be measured in days. Medium teams may measure this in weeks, while large teams may use a month scale.
Expressed as a percentage
Confidence is an indicator of how sure you are of all your estimates above.
Know that button color change will take only a few minutes, its impact will be low, and it may impact 100 users? Your confidence score may be in the upper 90s.
Doing something completely new that no one on your team has ever done before? Maybe confidence is closer to the mid 30s.
Once you’ve scored everything, use the RICE formula to calculate the RICE score, and sort by RICE score to find the best things to work on!
You can do the scoring in a spreadsheet, or in Speckled, where you can re-use the effort and impact scores for other prioritization frameworks like DIE.
Video overview on how to use RICE
DIE is a framework made famous by Baremetrics. It focuses on three criteria:
Each item is scored on its individual criteria and then ranked using this formula:
DIE = demand + impact + effort
Best for: Companies looking to keep it simple, feature prioritization
Here’s how to score the various criteria of DIE:
Demand: How many features need this?
- high = 1 point
- med = 2 points
- low = 3 points
Impact: How much will this move the needle?
- high = 1 point
- med = 2 points
- low = 3 points
Effort: How much work will this take?
- xs = 1
- s = 2
- xl = 5
- xxl = 6
Once you’ve scored an item on all three criteria, add the scores together. Lowest score wins.
Once again, you can do the scoring in a spreadsheet, or in Speckled, where you can re-use the effort and impact scores for other prioritization frameworks like RICE as well.
Video overview on how to use DIE
The Kano model is a great method to find and prioritize the features you’re going to need to stand out from your competitors. It will help you avoid building features your customers don’t care about or flat out don’t like.
Kano will identify those “delightful” features your product needs.
Best for: Products in competitive industries and markets
Kano is best described with a graphic.
On the x-axis, we have feature sophistication (a.k.a how well you executed a feature).
On the y-axis, we have customer satisfaction (a.k.a how much your customers love a feature).
We then draw a few lines:
Excitement/Delightful features (green line, top)
- These are the things that your customers love - the kind of things they tell their friends about or see as differentiators from the rest of the bland products on the market.
Performance features (pink line, middle, slope of 1)
- These are the things that make your customer’s lives better, are useful, and provide value, but don’t have the same level of impact as delightful features
Threshold features (blue line, bottom)
- These are the bare minimum things your customers expect in a product of your sort
Now to further complicate things, think of the features your customers want as having a sort of time dimension added to it.
You want to avoid the kinda boring features that require a lot of maintenance work and build the delightful features that get better with time.
In the kano model, a good feature is one that customers love that also gets better and better with time.
A bad one is one that isn’t a big deal to your customer but requires a lot of maintenance.
Video overview on how to use Kano
MoSCoW is a straightforward way to prioritize features in a quick and dirty kinda way.
Best for: MVPs, getting a general idea of priorities from stakeholders
MoSCoW consists of four different “buckets” of features:
- Must have (absolutely must be included)
- Should have (not required functionality, but something to strive for)
- Could have (nice to haves)
- Won’t have (out-of-scope or things to save for another day)
To use this method, simply go through each item on your list and put it in one of the above buckets.
If at the end of MoSCoW prioritization you still have a bunch of must-haves, add a deadline or a timebox to cut things out or move to different categories.
P.S The "o"s are just thrown in to make the framework more pronounceable. MSCW just doesn’t have the same ring.
Video overview on how to use MoSCoW
The Eisenhower Matrix is a prioritization tool that uses urgency and importance to help you figure out which tasks should be done right now, scheduled, delegated, or delayed.
Best for: Day-to-day task prioritization
Here’s how to use the Eisenhower Matrix:
Gather up your task list. Go through it one by and one. For each one…ask two questions…
- is it important?
- is this urgent?
Plot your responses on a graph that looks like this:
For each task, you’ll take one of four actions:
- Do (urgent, important)
- Schedule (not urgent, important)
- Delegate (urgent, not important)
- Delay/Eliminate (not urgent, not important)
Oftentimes, it can feel like we have more items in our “do” column than we would like. Don’t forget about the non-urgent things though! They can be the most strategic items and focusing on them can often lead to a decrease in the number of “do” tasks we have.
Video overview on how to use the Eisenhower Matrix
Story mapping is a more qualitative and narrative-focused way to prioritize. Rather than score or categorize things, you create a sort of “map” containing the major activities you expect your user to partake in to reach their goal.
Best for: Figuring out what goes into an MVP
A story map is an opportunity to understand every step that a user needs to go through to reach their goal.
Typically, it is a very visual and collaborative process that ends up with sticky notes everywhere.
Now, if you’re not familiar with story mapping, check out this outline of one by @ebstar.
In the first row at the top are the major activities that you expect your user to partake in to reach their goal.
Now under each of these stickies, the activity is broken down into smaller tasks.
Underneath those will be all of the basic functionalities that a user needs to complete that task.
Once all of your activities, tasks, and functionalities are mapped out, the next step is to figure out which of the lower-level functionalities you should prioritize building.
When you do this in real life, it will be a lot easier to see what your top priorities should be. If it isn’t so obvious, ask yourself the following questions:
- What in the list of functionality if released will make everything else in the list easier?
- What will take the least amount of time to release?
- Are there features that would logically be clumped together and should be built at the same time?
- Are any of these things we can do manually and don’t need to write code for?
Video overview on how to use Story Mapping
RICE, DIE, Kano, MoSCoW, the Eisenhower Matrix, and story mapping are just some of the most popular prioritization frameworks. Some additional ones we did not cover that you may want to explore at your own leisure include:
- Product tree
- Cost of delay
- Opportunity scoring
- Value risk / value cost
Developing your own custom framework
Frameworks are great. But what if your top goals aren’t delight, reach, impact, effort, or any of the other various criteria that they may include?
If you’re using the RICE framework but your top priorities are focused on retention, increasing ARPU, and improving your CSAT scores, then you may choose the wrong tasks to work on.
If you’re using story mapping to prioritize but your main goals are to improve your onboarding completion rate and referral rate, your results may be lackluster.
What we’re trying to say is that prioritization can be a pointless exercise if you’re prioritizing using criteria that don’t align with your goals.
Creating a custom framework is the best way to ensure you’re prioritizing the right things.
Custom? That sounds like a lot of work!
It’s actually not. You don’t need an MBA to build one out.
All you need is an idea of what’s important to you, a spreadsheet (or Speckled), and some sample tasks to test it out against.
- List out 3-5 criteria you want to prioritize against
- List out the items you want to prioritize
- Score each item against each criterium
- Sort and rank each item using your custom formula to find the best one
The trickiest part here is determining:
the method in which you measure criteria
- You can measure things on a numerical scale, percentage, H/M/L, or t-shirt size (or whatever method floats your boat)
your “custom” formula
- Use other frameworks as a model, straight up multiply or add them all together, use a weighted average, or develop your own formula by playing around with some sample tasks
However, once you have a custom model worked out, you’ll be able to identify your top priorities with more precision and consistency.
What to do after prioritization
Prioritization was successful! You have a list of activities to complete, ranked in order of what’s most important.
There may be tweaks you need to make.
And here’s where the squishy, human-centered part of prioritization comes into play.
If all of a stakeholder’s items are low down on the list, you may want to manually adjust a couple of them upwards so they feel they’re not being ignored.
If your engineering team feels like you’re not taking the long-term health of the codebase into account, you may need to sneak some of their items on there or lengthen the estimates on features that make contribute to technical debt if rushed through.
If you work on a product that has both internal and external sides and on your prioritization list, only one is getting love, then you may instead choose to go “every other” and for every internal features you work on, you also work on an external one (or vice versa).
Once your list is tweaked and perfected, don’t forget to socialize it with the rest of the team. Here it may be a good idea to run it by your engineering team to ensure your estimates are correct. You don’t want to present a potential feature to your executives as taking 3 weeks when in reality it may take 3 months but you didn’t know because you didn’t cross-check it beforehand. It just makes everyone upset. So run it by some key people you trust before putting it out in the wild.
As time marches on, new things will pop up. It’s up to you as a PM to prioritize them and determine where in the pecking order they fall.
If it turns out that things get pushed down the list, you may have to break the bad news to those it may affect. Some things that get pushed down the list you may not agree with.
As a PM, you’ll need to get comfortable with saying no as well as disagreeing and committing. Here are a few helpful articles to get you started on that.
Prioritization is an ever-evolving process at every company. We hope that this provided a good starting point from which you’ll be able to figure out what’s truly important to you. And act on it!
If you’re ready to get started with prioritization, be sure to sign up for Speckled. You can jump right in with RICE prioritization and then upgrade to additional frameworks like Eisenhower, DIE, and custom creations.