Product management, as a profession, is so hot right now. As Hired’s 2017 salary report shows, it’s currently one of the most lucrative roles in global tech.
But every dollar of that high pay is hard-earned. As we’ve discussed before, product managers are the ultimate tech middlemen. They must simultaneously negotiate requests from the executives above and the customers and salespeople below in order to ship features and fixes that will drive a product forward.
Understandably, the greatest pain point for most product managers – the thing that sees them tossing and turning in bed at night – is prioritisation. Which items should sit atop the to-do list? Which items can wait? Fending off pressure-fuelled requests from often high-powered stakeholders can be a stressful undertaking, and one which doesn’t appear to come with a hard and fast set of rules.
In the search for some clarity on the issue of product prioritisation, we recently sat down with two professionals who have built successful careers around walking this exact tightrope – Liron Nehmadi, Head of UX at Winning Group, and Asher Saeed, Head of Product Growth at hipages.
But before diving headfirst into the dos and don’ts, Saeed first offers up a disclaimer. “Every company and product team is very different,” he notes, “and that’s why I usually avoid suggesting specific [prioritisation] frameworks or models.”
So, with that in mind, how do our experts handle the day-to-day product prioritisation within their respective organisations?
What not to do when prioritising
Like a workplace safety video that shows exactly how wrong things can go if you inattentively drive a forklift, lessons are always far more entertaining when you’re shown what not to do.
“Instead of running off and building what was asked for blindly, try exploring the idea more to understand what user problem it’s solving, what impact it will have on company/product KPIs and how it’s aligned to the product strategy.” – Liron Nehmadi, Head of UX at Winning Group
Nehmadi begins with a cardinal rule of business: don’t base decisions on feeling. “Many times a product team will be requested to do something based on the certain viewpoint of a stakeholder. While a person’s experience is a valuable guideline, the final decision of what to do should be determined based on a strict data analysis process.”
This point is particularly pertinent in product management, as that stakeholder could well be the CEO or founder of the company, making it extremely difficult to say no – an issue Saeed has experienced first-hand.
“Often CEOs (founder-CEOs, especially) have what I like to call ‘founder’s intuition’, where they come up with an idea that they think is a ‘silver bullet’. When they come to the product team directly with an idea, it can be hard to say no.”
His solution? “Instead of running off and building what was asked for blindly, try exploring the idea more to understand what user problem it’s solving, what impact it will have on company/product KPIs and how it’s aligned to the product strategy.” While perhaps time consuming, this at least gives you the hard data needed to show the stakeholder why you might deprioritise their request.
Saeed also notes that there can be a real temptation to build a feature simply because it sounds cool – a major mistake. “Products (and features thereof) that don’t solve user problems don’t have a place on product roadmaps. If someone in the company is really passionate about a feature, work with them to find if it solves an actual problem and where – if at all – it aligns with your product strategy.”
“Don’t build a feature just because some customers asked for it” Saeed adds. “I’m not advocating ignoring customer problems, but not every problem is worth solving. Building features results in technical and product overhead, and therefore, should only be done when it is aligned to your product strategy. This doesn’t apply to bugs obviously, but even bugs generally have an order in which they need to be fixed.”
Constructing a product prioritisation framework
As Saeed’s above disclaimer notes, the nature of product management means that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to prioritisation. Every organisation has a completely unique set of challenges that must be navigated, which demands pragmatism and adaptability. While many have attempted to produce a general solution – Radical Product is perhaps the most notable example – the amount of variables at play make this incredibly difficult.
But our experts have nonetheless found ways of operating that are close to universal. Saeed offers the following set of questions that he feels are useful to product managers across the board.
What is the user problem that is being solved? “It’s surprisingly easy to lose sight of the actual problem at hand, so it’s important to keep it in firm focus.”
What impact will the feature have on KPIs? “Shipping features that have no measurable impact on the product, its users, or the company is meaningless.”
Does this feature align with the product strategy? “Use a scale – is it not aligned, somewhat aligned, completely aligned? Deprioritisation is an easier discussion to have with stakeholders when the facts are laid out clearly.”
What resources will this feature require? “This is important because you should weigh up the impact and strategic alignment against what it’ll take to ship the feature. As a scale, t-shirt sizing works well (small, medium, large, XL).”
When pressed on prioritisation, Nehmadi reiterates hipages’ focus on the hard numbers. “Data is the driving factor. The decision of which sections we will focus on and what features will be created or improved will be decided based on analysing our users’ data.
“Unfortunately there is no single magic solution”, Nehmadi concedes. “[Prioritisation] really depends on the challenges at hand.”
Becoming comfortable in flux
What does all this mean for product managers? Without a hard and fast set of prioritisation rules, these professionals need to be comfortable as the middlemen. They need to be calm and confident in their approach, and put the good of the product over and above the wants of the stakeholders. Ideally they will align the goals of the product team and the stakeholders, and these goals will produce results that are beneficial to both the end user and the organisation as a whole.
The product management playing field is one that is constantly in flux. But for those with a passion for solving difficult problems and delivering market-leading solutions, the reward for effort can be unparalleled.