Everything a priority? – Techniques for prioritisation

Are your stakeholders telling you everything is a priority? Here’s an approach for prioritisation.

It was my final term at university and getting close to exam time. I was in a revision class for one of my courses when the professor told us to focus on the topic he had just covered as it was likely to appear in the exam. Great, that would help me to prioritise my revision, I thought. As the weeks went by, in more and more of the revision classes, the professor would give similar tips for other topics. Eventually it became clear he was actually hinting that every topic from the course was likely to appear in the exam!

This was an interesting lesson in prioritisation, over time, by telling us everything was a priority he pushed us to work on the whole syllabus. A situation which was workable as a student revising for an exam, but as a product manager having stakeholders telling you everything is a priority is a real issue.

Are you being homer?

In large organisations, as a product or project manager you will likely have to deal with multiple stakeholders who have a view on what you should be delivering. As a result everything you could build is likely to be a priority to someone, I’ve also come across instances where one user group activity doesn’t want something another group does – particularly when it will result in organisation change or changes peoples jobs.

In cases like this it is really important that you establish a clear set of priorities and get agreement they should be driving the delivery process. Without this a number of scenarios could emerge:

  • constant reprioritisation.
  • stakeholders attempting to derail or sabotage your work because they don’t see the value,
  • attempts to build the homer car.

Write down everything you are told is a priority

A first step can be to make it transparent that you are getting a conflicting set of priorities. Over the course of a couple of weeks, try writing down every topic that your sponsor and/or stakeholders tell you is a priority. This will help you get a feel for whether they are all pushing in the same direction. If they are, great, if not you will need to do something about it.

Importance / urgency grid

A good tool for helping prioritise features for you product is the Eisenhower Matrix, which users a 4-box grid to map features in two axis. To make it applicable for prioritisation with stakeholders and more easily accepted, it is good to change the access to be as per below, using more and less helps people consider the axis as a continuum rather than definitive statements.

Walk through each of the key feature areas with your stakeholders and plot them out on the grid as shown below, this should now help everyone to agree to the overall priority items:

Top Right – These items should be the first priority

Bottom Left – these should either be cut from the backlog completely or placed at the bottom

Top Left & Bottom right – These areas will need more consideration and discussion to ensure they are fully understood.

Eisenhower matrix for prioritisation

With large groups of stakeholders, or where bringing them together isn’t feasibly, or where you expect there to be a lot of organisational politics it can be useful to run individual sessions with each stakeholder (or small groups) to draw out their priorities and reasons so you have a really clear understanding of what each stakeholder wants.

You are then in a good position to decide how to progress:

  • If it looks like they broadly agree then it may be easy to present a roadmap everyone is happy with,
  • If there are a couple of outliers you can work with them to understand why they are differing in opinion and then decide how to tackle individually
  • If there are a very wide set of priorities coming out you may need to consider whether they are actually asking for different products and therefore you should not attempt to please them all together, or depending on the organisational politics, you may be able to defer to an overall sponsor.

Throughout this process it is useful to remind people of the wider organisational goals and vision, and the underlying business case for the product to ensure everyone is focused on those rather than other ideas they may have.

Any other prioritisation approaches you have found successful? let me know in the comments.

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