Thinking of Implementing a Decision-Making Framework? Read This First

Ah, the life of a PM. Endless meetings. Never-ending slack threads. Customer research to complete. Designs to review.

Oh, and somewhere in there, you also have to manage the roadmap.

It’s no wonder that decision-making frameworks have taken off in the product management world. Any tool or framework that can help to manage the chaos is worth a try, amirite?

Sanity through prioritization

If you ask experienced PMs what their key to success is, more than one of them will say “ruthless prioritization”.

That’s essentially what decision-making frameworks & prioritization processes help you do.

But with a lot more style and a wee bit more math.

lisa simpson with calculator saying it all checks out

Ruthless? That sounds so…harsh

The concept of ruthless prioritization is an uncomfortable one for many new PMs. Saying no to someone with more clout than you? Unthinkable. Won’t they fire me?!

However, stay in the game for more than a couple of years and you’ll quickly realize just how vital prioritization is to yours and your team’s success.

Common Approaches To Prioritization for PMs

As you may already know, prioritization is the process of deciding what’s important.

There’s short-term task prioritization for the day to day and strategic prioritization for the long-term vision. We’ll primarily talk about strategic prioritization from here on out.

The most common use for strategic prioritization in the product management world is to decide which feature requests, ideas, bugs fixes, improvements, and so on and so forth make it onto the product roadmap.

Three common approaches to making these decisions are…

  • Off-the-shelf frameworks
  • A custom framework
  • ¯ \ (ツ)/¯. Who needs a decision-making framework?? lulz

Deciding which approach to take (so meta)

Each of these three approaches have their pros and cons. Some are easier to start with than others (off the shelf), some get you better results but take more thought (custom frameworks), and some, well…some just kinda fall into place and are never questioned (whatever goes).

Prioritization process? Psssh. I don’t need one of those.

Without a process, choosing what goes on the roadmap can be a combination of…

  • gut feel
  • whatever your loudest stakeholders are demanding
  • customer requests
  • codebase improvements
  • urgent bugs
  • and any other number of things

We’ll admit, this approach has it’s place. It can work when you’re just starting out and you’re not yet sure what’s important.

But this approach sure as heck doesn’t scale.

backflip fail flop

After a few good feature flops and wasted engineering time you’ll start wondering if there is a better way.

Thankfully there is.

So, if you’re through with winging it, let’s figure out how to choose a prioritization process/decision-making framework that works for you.

Step one: Figure out what’s important

Remember the definition of prioritization? It’s the process of deciding what’s important.

Therefore, the first, most logical step of starting to prioritize is to figure out what’s important.

Let’s start with developing a list of values. 4-8 of them is a good starting point.

These values exist all around you. They may be explicitly stated in your company values or implied through your company culture.

If you’re not sure what yours are, here are some places to find them:

  • Company vision/mission/values statements
  • Your OKRs, company OKRs
  • Your market
  • Your customers
  • Other stakeholders
  • Your engineering team
  • Which department is “driving” the organization. For example, a marketing driven organization will have different priorities than a product driven organization

Can’t find any or feel stuck?

Hopefully you already have some values on your list. If you can’t think of anything, you can analyze what feels most urgent in your current situation.

Urgency is an imperfect but quick way of assessing what’s important. After all, what is urgency but importance with a time constraint?

  • If you’re feeling urgency to build fast to get an MVP out the door that can be iterated on, speed is likely very valuable to you
  • If you’re feeling urgency to build integrations that will allow your users to easily switch to you from a competitor, then perhaps reducing switching costs is an important value
  • If adding new interactions, animations, and improving loading/empty states are always pushed through first, then customer delight may be a value
  • If you’re a sales-driven organization and the sales team has promised that by adding this snazzy new feature, you’ll gain at least 20 new high-value accounts (and they always get their way), then new customer potential may be a value

Remember, just because someone is breathing down your neck about something doesn’t always mean its urgent. It’s up to you to distinguish between real urgency and people who are just being pushy.

Great, you now have a list of a handful of values that are important to you.

Next up, matching them up with a decision-making framework.

Step Two: Find a decision-making framework that matches your values

There are all sorts of decision-making frameworks out there. Your next task is to comb through these and figure out if and how you may be able to use one of them in your own projects.

Describing each of them is a post for another day, but some common ones include:

Popular off-the-shelf frameworks

  • RICE
  • Kano
  • QFD
  • Opportunity scoring
  • Value vs. risk / value vs. cost
  • Scorecard
  • Feature buckets
  • Story mapping
  • Moscow
  • Product tree
  • Cost of delay

Let’s just assume that in between the time it took you to read the above list and this line, you got all caught up on each of the different frameworks and kow which ones may or may not measure what’s important to you. ::insert clapping soudtrack here

If you found one that is a good fit for what’s important to you, you can skip the next step and just follow your chosen framework.

its incredible what a gifted mind can accomplish when priorities are in order

But before you move on…some quick words of wisdom…

Don’t pick a decision-making framework just become some cool silicon valley unicorn is using it. What’s important to them may not be what’s important to you. Small startups and enterprises are not the same. Neither should the way they make decisions.

If none of the off-the-shelf frameworks seem to match what’s important to you, there’s another option.

Create your own prioritization process

If you don’t find a framework that fits what’s important to you, then it is super simple to create your own.

You’ll just take your list of things that are important to you and use them to score your items.

The simplest way to do this is as follows:

  • score each thing you want to prioritize against your list of values
  • multiply each item’s scores together to come up with a composite score
  • sort your list on this score to find your “top” items

As you grow and mature your prioritization process, you may find that some things need more emphasis than others. One way to account for this is to add weights or create your own formulas. You can do this in a spreadsheet or in Speckled.

As your organization and objectives grow and change, it’ll be much easier to readjust priorities. Just swap out an old one or add a new one.

OK, I have a decision-making framework. What now?

Now it’s time to go through and prioritize! Some logical first places to start are your backlog, your long list of ideas, that board of bug fixes you’ve been meaning to get around to, or anything else that could use a good pruning.

Use your framework. Find the best stuff. Add them to your roadmap. And get to work!

Then, whenever you have a new strategic decision to make, bust out your prioritization framework.

What’s that feeling? Oh, that’s the feeling of PM superstardom as your product constantly exceeds expectations. Boom.

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