Manage the Funnel – Prioritization Is Painful, But Your Credibility Depends On It

I recently found an excellent conversation on Branch kicked up by Hunter Walk.  The core question was, ‘Does the world need Product Managers any more?’  The conversation includes some heavy weights and as you would expect they deliver some excellent thoughts.  Josh Elman introduced one point that really stuck out, “Bad product management taints the lot for everyone,” which was seconded by Adam Nash, “Mediocre product management is common, and counterproductive.”  Of course what does ‘bad product management’ mean?  There are a lot of examples and ways in which product management can fall short of being great.  Here I’ll focus on one key area with the potential to wreak all kinds of havoc if done poorly – prioritization.

Organizations of any size have to make the decision about what problems they need to solve.  Often, finding opportunities is not hard.  If you work in product you’re likely getting ideas-a-plenty from current customers, potential customers, Sales, Marketing, Operations, Analysts and your own market research.  Each has nuggets of good problems people would pay to have solved.  But, alas it’s a zero sum game.  Resources are always constrained even in the biggest organizations.  Therefore it becomes imperative to figure out the RIGHT problems to solve.  While there are many ways product management can be great or bad, finding and understanding the right problems is one of the most critical.

Things go sideways when you don’t manage the funnel

If you can’t properly prioritize problems the downstream effects can include:

  • Dilution – you fail to say ‘No’ enough. As a result, teams cannot properly focus and become spread too thin.  They struggle to ship quality because they cannot vet scenarios and work through the intimate details of design or execution.  This breads frustration and your teams will begin to feel personally and professionally diluted.  That feeling will drive your best people out of the company.
  • Incomplete – perhaps you succeed getting a V1 MVP out, but you never get to iterate on it because you’re jumping to the next thing. Speed to market is often critical and the MVP approach can be very valuable, but you’ve got to learn from it and iterate so you can get to MLP (minimum lovable product) quickly.
  • Ambiguity – without clear direction teams attempting to execute and bring products to market get confused and lack certainty.  They fail to see how solving one problem fits into the general direction of the organization.  Don’t underestimate the importance of connection to the vision.  Smart and innovative minds thrive on cohesion with something bigger.  This is another way to drive smart people out of the company.
  • Infrastructure – when you’re running too thin, scalability, infrastructure and operational needs get cut first. You can sometimes do this, if you’ve done it with clear intent, but as they say – pay for it now, or pay for it later, with interest. When you fail to properly prioritize you may differ this bill without proper consideration and intent.  The cost can be collapse if you get heavy utilization, and for most products heavy utilization is the goal right?

All of these situations are bad.  You don’t want to end up in any of them.  Obviously you need to make some decisions and provide some focus to teams so you can ship something cohesive, complete, and delightful.  But, prioritization is really hard.  There are tons of great thoughts out there about how to do it, and lots of opinions. This of course means there is no single method.  There is no time-tested model that you can simply bring into your organization and apply without change.  However, there are some common approaches that, with tweaks for organizational fit, could go a long way to avoiding the scenarios above.

You cannot plan without a strategy

As you consider your approach there are a few key assumptions that are really important to note.  These are qualifiers for success.  Don’t ignore them.

  • Organizational Strategy – without a defined strategy it’s effectively impossible to properly prioritize. This starts with the vision from your CEO and drives the alignment of the entire organization.  You may own translating that vision, or you may have a Strategy group who’s focused on articulation of the vision in a very clear way.  The vision must be understood.  This point cannot be emphasized enough.
  • Stakeholder Collaboration – there is no scientific approach that is entirely driven by data. As a result, the process itself is often more about creating buy-in from various stakeholders.  You’ll want to be driven off defensible data as much as possible, and create a model that is predominantly objective, but at some level you’re going to have to make some subjective decisions.  Getting participation from stakeholders early and often is key to getting agreement that leaders can live with the results.
  • Outcomes matter – don’t forget that while process is a powerful tool, outcomes are what drive the business and move the products forward. Make sure you are monitoring the success of your model.  Prioritization is a key part of success, but ultimately the scorecard for your products will have outcome based metrics.  If you’re not hitting those, make sure incorrect prioritization isn’t one reason.
  • Research – research is a critical component of proper prioritization. If you haven’t done your homework then it will be very difficult to use any empirical methods in your prioritization model.  You probably won’t have an entire army of research professionals at your disposal, and even if you did there is a tipping point where you’ve got to stop researching and start making decisions. Therefore you’ll need to find the right balance based on the available resources you have for research and the demands of your market.


You cannot afford to lose credibility

Prioritization is extremely tough, but it’s a critical function of product management. Organizations depend on you as a product lead to find the right problems and help provide direction.  This means you will have to say ‘No’ to leaders.  To do that you need a method that is defensible.  If you never say ‘No’ or your model is not defensible you’re going to lose credibility.

One of my favorite lines from Chris Vander Mey’s book Shipping Greatness is, ““The first step in negotiating properly is to understand that even though you are a product owner, you’re not the boss.  Your team is working with you because they like you or they like the product.”  If you lose credibility you not only threaten your ability to get others behind you, but you can also undermine other product managers in your organization.  Don’t ruin the lot for the rest of us.  The success of your organization depends on it.


How do you prioritize?

There are lots of methods out there, and many opinions about what works and what does not work.  In an upcoming post I’ll get into the specifics of a few different approaches.   Until then, how do you prioritize opportunities and features in your organization?