The Knowing / Doing Gap: Why Product Teams aren’t doing the things they know they should

Access to high quality resources for product management is better than ever before. There are so many excellent people writing about product management that it’s easier than ever to find the knowledge that you need.

So why are there still so few product teams actually working in the ways described in all of these resources?

When I talk to other product people, I see the same thing again and again: Most PMs can talk convincingly about the benefits of and process for anything from customer discovery techniques, growth accounting, data driven validation, lean startup techniques, etc etc. But when I dig deeper and ask how much of this stuff do they are actually doing, the answer is too often something along the lines of “oh, we haven’t really started that yet.”

I call this the knowing / doing gap. 1

Knowledge about great product management practices is cheap. It’s available everywhere online and in countless books… knowledge is no longer your competitive advantage as a PM. Your competitive advantage is in actually doing it – and doing it well.

Why don’t more product teams do the things they know they need to do?It turns out it’s very easy to know you should be doing something, but then not do it. 

Why is this? Aside from the psychology of procrastination, I have a few theories:

Doing these things is hard

Doing customer interviews for example requires you to go outside the comfort and safety of your office and talk to real people. Many people find that really hard… but with customer discovery, it’s as unlikely as ever that the right answers are in the building.

Doing these things takes time

It’s easy to fall into the “we don’t have time to validate this” trap. Running a usability test on this prototype might take a few days, and we need to ship it next week! If we validate it we’ll be late!

It’s true: validating something, from a product idea to a user flow, takes time. But would you get behind the wheel of a race car if the mechanic told you, “we didn’t have time to test the brakes or the steering”. I wouldn’t; but that’s what you’re doing when you plod ahead shipping production code for an idea that’s never been validated.

One of my favourite quotes from Peter Drucker is:

“There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency that which should not be done at all.”

Product Teams don’t have autonomy

I wrote about autonomy recently after Marty Cagan did a talk on the topic here in Berlin.

When teams are set up to deliver the feature list as proscribed by a Head of Product or CEO, then validation work feels useless. The ultimate success or failure of the product rests with the CEO. Right?

Well; I always argue to people in this situation that the best thing that you can do is run the validation anyway. Bring your findings to your Head of Product or CEO and discuss them. Either they will applaud your initiative and encourage you to run more validation; or they will deny the results and tell you “we’re doing it anyway”.

(If the response you get is the second, I would encourage you to find a new company.)

How to get started

At the end of the day, there are seldom really good excuses for not doing better customer discovery and product validation. Resources and knowledge are plentiful. The only thing that’s holding you back – is you!

A simple way to start building a validation mindset: every time you find yourself looking at a product feature or solution you’re planning, force yourself to step back and ask these questions:

  1. What is the problem we’re trying to solve?
  2. For whom?
  3. How do we really know it’s a problem? 
  4. How do we really know this solution is the optimal one?

A validation mindset is all about moving from “I think” or “I believe” to “I know”. The first step is just asking the question: “How do I know?” 


1  I’m not the first person to use the term “Knowing / Doing Gap”. There is at least one book with that title and an article from Stanford Business from 1999. 

Ways to think about working smarter (not harder)

When Reid Hoffman talks about building a startup, he says it’s like jumping off a cliff, and assembling a plane on the way down. It’s a reference to the fact that when you start building a startup, you set a clock ticking. 
If you can find product-market fit and a viable business before the clock runs out, your startup has a chance of success. If you can’t, then you’re in for a hard crash landing.

That’s why for startup product teams it’s critical to move as fast as you can. The most valuable resource you have is time, so you need to be extremely wise with every hour you and your team spends.

The key to moving fast is not to work harder, but work smarter. It’s not about working weekends, skipping lunch or pulling all-nighters. It’s about making smart choices about how to get things done.
Here are a few ways to think about moving fast.

Stand on the shoulders of giants

Isaac Newton famously said: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”

When building a product, don’t be afraid to borrow from solutions that already work. Steal what you can with pride. Look for existing patterns and use them. Don’t waste time re-inventing the wheel, especially not in areas that aren’t key to your differentiation. 

As Picasso said: “Good artists copy, great artists steal”. 

Rethink the constraints

Every project has constraints. For an artist that might be the size of the canvas. For a technology product it might be the business model or the underlying technology. 

But not all constraints are equal. Some are very hard, and others are flexible. 

Look at the constraints you have and ask: which ones are flexible? Which are not even constraints at all?

Can you simplify the task by challenging one of the constraints?

Do the simplest thing first

Alfred Einstein said (approximately): “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

Complexity is the silent killer of products. Complexity is a poison that spreads lethargy and chaos in your startup. The more complex your product, the harder it becomes to maintain. Avoid complexity at all costs.

Always start by doing the simplest thing first. Ask this key question: What is the smallest, simplest thing we can do that will validate our hypothesis and deliver value to our customers? 

Ask for help early 

I’ve seen people (and whole teams) bang their head against a hard problem for days, or weeks, without asking for help. Sometimes it’s a mix of stoic determination and pride; sometimes it’s that feeling of being ever-so-close to cracking the problem… for days and days on end.

Productive people know how to ask for help early. Whatever the issue is that you’re facing, the chances are there are people out there who can help you. Sometimes a point in the right direction is all you need to unblock yourself and save hours or days of wasteful wheel spinning. 

First and foremost, use your colleagues. Don’t be afraid to ask more experienced team members for help early on. It’s not your job to know all the answers; it’s your job to find the answers. There is no shame in asking for help! It’s how great people learn. 

Second, build your network outside of your team. This could be in your company, or outside it. Find the networks, groups or meetups in your area of expertise, and use them.

If you have any questions or would like some more detailed tips, get in touch!

How Marty Cagan measures Team Empowerment

Marty Cagan was in Berlin recently and did a talk about why teams are not truly empowered, and what teams might do about that.

He shared his “True Test of Empowered Teams”:

1. The team is staffed with competent people with the necessary range of skills.
2. The team is assigned problems to solve, and they are able to decide the best way to solve those problems.
3. The team is accountable for solving the customer or business problem (outcome).

This is a powerful lens to use to look at a team – either one that you’re managing, or one that you’re a part of – and assess the level of true empowerment.

The framework also fits well with the general idea of using OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) as a tool for managing autonomous teams:

1. The team is staffed with competent people with the necessary range of skills (the pre-requisite for any team to be productive and impactful).
2. The team is assigned problems to solve (ie, OBJECTIVES), and they are able to decide the best way to solve those problems.
3. The team is accountable for solving the problem – which you measure with metrics or other measurable outcomes/KPIs (ie, KEY RESULTS).

Basically this is a recipe for using OKRs to drive empowered teams:

Objective = problem to solve
Accountability = measurable outcome

You can use this framework while evaluating the teams in your company. It could also be used as a tool in a retrospective: the team can each provide a rating, say out of ten, to the extent that they feel they are empowered, measuring each of these three trajectories, and you can track this self-evaluation over time to monitor the trend.

You can watch a recording of the talk here.

Apps caught sending location and other data to advertising companies

From ZDNEt:

A team of security researchers behind a popular mobile firewall app say they’ve identified tens of iOS apps that are collecting location data from iPhone users, data they later pass on to monetization firms.

In all cases, researchers say, the collection occurs via packaged tracking code monetization firms provide to developers to embed in their respective apps.

The only surprising thing about this is that there are only “tens”, not hundreds, or thousands.

Back when I was at Nokia/HERE Maps, I was managing a product with several million active users. I was contacted nearly daily by advertising or data monetisation companies, offering us easy money to just add their small SDK to our codebase…

These companies make an offer for developers that’s easy to accept… spend a few hours implementing their SDK, and forget about it… and in exchange, receive “free money” for every active user. These companies are especially interested in apps that collect or handle location information.

I do have some sympathy with the developers who accept the bargain… the app business is a brutal, hard one, and when you’re trying to turn a profit, a few extra cents per MAU for essentially no effort can seem like a great deal… but you’re selling your customers’ privacy, and in the long run that’s going to backfire.

My advice to app developers is to reject the seemingly free money, and stay focussed on building great value for your customers, and building your monetisation model around that. Going for the easy money might make your ARPU look momentarily better, but it’s not what your customers are paying for.

On Strategy…

I came across this quote in a fantasy novel* I was reading:

“Strategy is just a fancy word for a special kind of common sense, the ability to see options, to make them where there were none. It’s not about knowing the rules. It’s about knowing how to break them.”

When it comes to building Product, There are thousands of frameworks, books and ways of looking at strategy. But at the end of the day, no framework will replace the ability to see… to be able to look at your situation, at the strategic context of your product, and see your options.

Frameworks can help you organise and explain what you see, and sometimes even deduce or discover things you might not have otherwise seen. But the strongest Product people I know use a strong combination of instinct and pattern recognition to see their strategic options and deduce the right way forward.

* The novel is called “A Conjuring of Light“, and it’s part of the Darker Shade of Magic series by V. E. Schwab.

Distribution-centric beats product-centric product companies

There is a lot of gold in this interview with Marc Andreessen.

The key insight for me was the notion that a superior product can easily be beaten by an inferior product with superior distribution.

“The general model for successful tech companies, contrary to myth and legend, is that they become distribution-centric rather than product-centric. They become a distribution channel, so they can get to the world.”

You need a great product, and the right product, to get to product market fit. But to scale beyond your early adopters you need distribution.

For consumer products, that’s going to be your growth loop: how to turn one cohort of users into another cohort of users.

Great interview.

Product Transparency, and some tips to help increase it

A little while ago I ran a retrospective with a product team where we focussed specifically on the product process. We invited a cross-section of the company: engineering, design, marketing, operations and the founders. Everyone present in the retrospective had the opportunity to give feedback on what was working and what wasn’t with regards to the way product management and product development overall was running in the company.

Sifting through the feedback, there was a common theme that encompassed nearly all feedback received: it all came down to transparency.

Everybody wanted more visibility into:

  • What the product team is doing
  • What they are not doing
  • Why they are/are not doing thing X
  • How the decision on what to do gets made and who is involved

Nearly all the different feedback points came back to one of these things.

It’s all about product transparency.

A more transparent product organisation leads to more trust and better-informed product decisions. It’s hard to imagine having too much product transparency. Some companies even publish their roadmaps publicly online for all to see.

Product prioritisation and planning should be an open book. There cannot be secrets in the product team. Any good product manager should feel comfortable articulating their rationale for any product decision whenever necessary. This is not about justifying themselves or proving anything – it’s about explaining the rationale so that everyone can understand why we do what we do. Often if the PM is uncomfortable explaining the rationale, it’s because there isn’t one – so the way to fix this problem is to ensure that product managers have a structured, goal-based and data-driven approach to product decision making.

People also want to feel like they are involved in the process. In my experience, people are happy to allow someone else to make a decision as long as they feel like they have been consulted and their opinion has been heard. Generally, people hate making decisions. It’s easier to find reasons not to decide at all – and if people aren’t involved in the decision process, that’s often exactly what they’ll do. But if they feel like they’ve been listened to, people are generally more than happy to let someone else take the responsibility for making the actual call.

Here are some tips for Product Managers who want to help make their product process more transparent:

  • Share the quarterly product goals/KPIs/OKRs regularly. Everybody should be able to easily quote what the product team is focussing on at any given point of time.
  • The Product Roadmap should be a public document that’s available for everyone to see. Keep it up-to-date and make it available on the intranet or somewhere that everybody has easy access to. Each item on the roadmap should clearly map back to one of the product goals (see point above).
  • For new features, run workshops to collect feedback and ideas from different people across the company.
  • Create an “idea box” that anyone in the company can use to submit product ideas/suggestions. Screen these suggestions often and interact with the contributors, so they know that someone is reading their suggestions. It should be understood by the team however that not every product suggestion will align with the product goals, so not every suggestion will be turned into a product feature.
  • Identify the stakeholders in the company for any key decision, and always try to collect direct feedback from them before making a decision. Even when – or especially when – your decision does not align with the stakeholders’ preferred outcome, the fact that you’ve consulted them beforehand will greatly reduce the likelihood that they will try to sandbag your progress after you make your decision.
  • Open your sprint/development planning meetings for anyone who is interested in attending. You should explain to any visitors that in order to keep the meeting efficient, they should avoid interrupting or asking questions – but the process of planning should be open and transparent for everybody.
  • Document the results of planning or design meetings, including the rationale for any decisions made, and post it somewhere shared such as the company wiki.
  • Share your learnings from all product workstreams as early, as often and as widely as you can. Whether it’s the results of an A/B test, findings from a customer survey or discoveries from customer interviews – document everything you learn and share it with the company. This helps bridge organisational boundaries and helps everyone align around a shared understanding of the customer. Plus the act of documenting and sharing information helps you as a PM understand and internalise the learnings as well – so it’s a double-benefit!

If you have some other ideas on how to increase transparency, I’d love to hear them! Either leave a comment below or send me a mail.

How to prioritise your time and stay sane as a Product Manager

I recently finished training a new Product Manager and on-boarding him onto a project. After his first week alone on the job full-time, he came to me on a Friday afternoon with a frazzled look on his face and asked me: “How do you cope with the continual and immense demands for my time as a PM – and then on top of that still find time to think about strategy, talking to customers, and evangelisation?”

This is the science, and art, of prioritisation.

I could point him to a ton of resources about how to approach product backlog prioritisation, such as the ICE method. But what he really needed to hear is not how to prioritise a backlog (although this is also important). He wanted to know how to prioritise his time.

I came up with these principles:

  1. Ruthless prioritisation of everything. You have to sort the world into “things that are important and urgent right now” and “things that are not”. And then to make this work, you have to ignore the things in the “not important” column! This is where many people get tripped up: they prioritise well enough but then end up working on stuff from the ‘not important’ area because an executive wants it, or because an important customer is asking for it…
  2. But in order to prioritise, you need to have clear product goals. This sounds like “duh” but you’d be surprised how many product teams I’ve seen who have no idea what the goal for the quarter is. They have a roadmap, sure… but what is the measure of the success of that roadmap? What ONE result/metric are you trying to move in this period (month/quarter/year)? A test of a good goal is that a) everybody can remember it immediately, and b) you can use it to make individual prioritisation decisions at any level (feature level, roadmap level, strategy level, etc). If for any item on your backlog/roadmap, you can clearly say that it either contributes directly to that goal, or it does not: then it’s a good goal. If you cannot, it means that goal – or at least, that articulation of it – is not useful for prioritising your strategy, which means it’s not useful as a goal.
  3. Related: Stack rank everything. For any two items, you must always be able to say which is more important than the other. Try the experiment: pick any two items from your roadmap, backlog, or wherever. Then ask yourself: if you could only have one of these things, which would it be? Do you have an answer? Good! If you don’t, then you need to get better at stack ranking.
  4. And finally: get used to disappointing people. It’s natural for Product Managers to measure their success against how happy they make their customers – both internal customers (colleagues, executives, engineers, designers, etc) and actual customers. But you’ll never be able to please everybody. We all agreed years ago that “design by committee” is a bad idea: try to build something for everyone, and you’ll end up building something for no-one. And yet, how many low-value items have you ever snuck into the roadmap because Sarah really wants it for her campaign, and she asked so nicely… Resist that urge. Learn to say (politely) no to requests, ideas and requirements that don’t align with what you’re trying to achieve right now. By all means, collect ideas often and from as many sources as you can: this can be a great source of inspiration and creativity for you. But don’t create expectations that every idea is created equal (because they aren’t).

This is how to stay productive – and stay sane – as a Product Manager.

Good luck!

Three Core Characteristics of Great Product Teams

There are many characteristics of great product teams. But when I think about what the very best teams have in common, there are a few common core elements that I think tend to lead naturally to many other great attributes. Characteristics like high levels of trust and motivation, proactive attitude, open communication and knowledge sharing – these all spring from having solved three core team competencies.

great-product-teams

Read on to see the details of each criteria and rate your team on a scale of 0-5 for each. How great is your product team?

 

Shared understanding of the customer

Great product teams understand that great products come from a deep understanding of the customer: their needs, their problems, their desires. All other things being equal, the company that understands the customer best will win the market.

It’s crucial that the customer is at the core of every decision, and that everybody has the same shared view of who the customer is, and how you deliver value to them.

Level What you should expect at this level
0 Who is our customer again?
1
  • Your Product Manager receives product ‘requirements’ from the founders/business/marketing/sales team, and consolidates these inputs directly into a backlog.
  • The priority or target users for these features are not discussed among the team.
2
  • Your Product Manager uses the customer segments provided by the marketing team to build the product strategy.
  • the PM makes priority and strategy decisions alone, or with the founders/business team directly.
  • the engineering and design team execute work from the backlog.
3
  • Your Product Manager spent some time at the start of the project out of the building talking to some customers to validate the segments provided by marketing, but hasn’t really spoken to many (or any) customers since.
  • Your design team perform usability tests from time to time, but the results are not widely shared outside of the design team.
  • the Product Manager has some rough personas, but these are not documented. The design team also has some personas they use, but these are different from those used by the PM. Engineering don’t have any personas at all.
  • Customer research results and analysis is rarely shared between groups.
4
  • Your Product Manager and designers can succinctly answer the question “Who is your customer?”
  • Your Product Manager is in regular contact with existing users as well as non-users from your target market.
  • Your Product Manager and Designers regularly use aligned customer personas when making product decisions.
  • Your designers perform regular usability tests.
  • Results and analysis of user research is presented to the team at regular intervals in knowledge-sharing presentations.
5
  • Your team shares a complete understanding of the customer. Any member of the team – from PM, to QA, to engineering – can succinctly answer the question “Who is your customer?”
  • Your Product Manager is in regular contact with existing users as well as non-users from your target market.
  • Usability testing is a regular and recurring part of your product development lifecycle.
  • All members of your team regularly take part in usability studies.
  • Results and analysis of user research are distributed and discussed widely in the team.
  • You have clear customer personas for your target segments and they are used by all members of the team when making all product decisions. All members of your team regularly say things like “What would [our key persona] Alex do in this situation?”

 

Focus

Great product teams understand that great products come from a deep understanding of the customer: their needs, their problems, their desires. All other things being equal, the company that understands the customer best will win the market.
It’s crucial that the customer is at the core of every decision, and that everybody has the same shared view of who the customer is, and how you deliver value to them.

 

Level What you should expect at this level
0 No product focus: it’s Product Anarchy.
1
  • There is no clear product roadmap or backlog. Tasks are thrown to the team ad-hoc.
  • Prioritisation is random, and is generally based on the HiPPO’s feature requests or who is screaming louder.
  • There is no clear KPI defined for any tasks.
  • Your team spends a lot of time doing low effort/low impact work.
  • Stopping work on something the team has started but not finished is extremely frequent. You have a massive pile of started-but-not-finished work.
  • The majority of the design work from the design team is never implemented into the product by the engineering team. You have a massive backlog of old designs that were never implemented.
  • The engineering team frequently starts work on things that haven’t been fully specified or designed yet because they are suddenly ‘urgent’.
  • The team appears to be constantly putting out fires.
2
  • There is a product backlog, but it changes every week. There is no roadmap beyond the next 1-2 months.
  • Prioritisation appears random, and is generally based on the HiPPO’s feature requests or who is screaming louder.
  • There is no clear KPI defined for any tasks.
  • Your team spends a lot of time doing low effort/low impact work.
  • Stopping work on something the team has started but not finished is frequent.
  • A lot of the design work from the design team is never implemented into the product by the engineering team.
  • The engineering team occasionally starts work on things that haven’t been fully specified or designed yet because they are ‘urgent’.
3
  • There is a clear, prioritised product backlog. There is a clear product roadmap for the next 12 months. The roadmap goes through major change about once every 2-3 months.
  • Prioritisation is based on business needs, but HiPPO feature requests or emergencies frequently get thrown in on top.
  • Major product epics/tasks have clear KPIs so you know exactly when you’ve achieved the stated goal.
  • The team only occasionally stops work on something they have started but not finished.
  • Small amounts of design work from the design team is never implemented into the product by the engineering team.
  • The engineering team rarely starts work on things that haven’t been fully specified or designed yet because they are ‘urgent’.
4
  • There is a clear, prioritised product backlog. There is a clear product roadmap for the next 12-24 months. The roadmap rarely goes through major change.
  • Prioritisation is based on business needs and product objectives/goals.
  • Most product epics/tasks have clear KPIs so you know exactly when you’ve achieved the stated goal.
  • The team rarely stops work on something they have started but not finished.
  • Generally all of the design and specification work from the Product and Design teams is implemented into the product by the engineering team.
5
  • The roadmap and product backlog are clearly prioritised against business and product objectives/goals.
  • Changes to the backlog or roadmap are accompanied by a clear rationale that is linked to external forces or changing business needs.
  • Prioritisation is based on leverage to impact the stated goal, versus effort.
  • All product epics/tasks have clear KPIs so you know exactly when you’ve achieved the stated goal. You probably use OKRs or similar for articulating product objectives.
  • The bulk of your work is in the high effort/high impact area (generating core business value).
  • Your team avoids low effort/low impact work.
  • Stopping work on something the team has started but not finished is extremely rare, and only happens in conjunction with major external forces.
  • A great sense of urgency in the team is based on a shared desire to deliver value to the customer as quickly as possible. “Firefighting” emergencies are rare.

 

Product, Design and Engineering Teams are 
tightly integrated

Great products are a perfect synergy of an urgent and pervasive market problem, and a solution based on a delightful user experience, enabled by technology.

Product, design and technology.

So it should come as no surprise that the teams who deliver the best products integrate product, design and technology closely.

Level What you should expect at this level
0 PM Dictatorship: subversion will be punished!
1
  • The Product Manager works alone with the founders/business teams. Priorities and instructions are given as ‘marching orders’ to design and engineering teams.
  • The Product Manager presents complete specifications, including wireframes and UX specifications, to design. Design’s job is to ‘make them look good’.
  • Engineering receives finished designs, and told to ‘implement this’. Engineering teams implement blindly and do not question, even when the design is contradictory or doesn’t make sense. (“It’s not my fault – I followed the spec!”)
  • Design and Engineering teams feel little or no ownership of the product.
2
  • The Product Manager works predominantly alone with the founders/business teams on the product strategy and roadmap.
  • Design feel some ownership of the product, but their view of the product strategy and agenda is created separately from Product or Engineering.
  • Engineering are working on a technical framework roadmap, but doing so separately from Product or Design.
  • The Product Manager involves Design in the solution definition for most product initiatives/tasks.
  • Engineering are handed final specs for execution.
  • There is little knowledge sharing between disciplines.
3
  • Product Strategy, Design Strategy and Engineering Strategy continue to exist as separate entities, but they are discussed collectively and an effort is made to link them to one set of business objectives. Ownership of each strategy remains fully within the respective domain.
  • Design is involved in the problem definition phase for most product initiatives/tasks.
  • Engineering is involved to provide feedback on feasibility, but is not encouraged to comment on the problem definition or solution beyond effort and feasibility.
  • Information is starting to flow between disciplines, but the flow is controlled by the respective discipline leads.
4
  • Product Strategy, Design Strategy and Engineering Strategy are combined into one overarching Product Strategy. Ownership of the strategy is shared collectively among the Product Manager, Lead Designer and Lead Engineer.
  • Product, Design and Engineering are involved in the problem definition phase for most product initiatives/tasks.
  • Prioritisation and solutions are frequently discussed between the three domain leads. The PM occasionally pulls rank to veto a decision she/he doesn’t agree with.
  • Everybody in the team is encouraged to give feedback on the product, specifications and designs.
5
  • The Product, Design and Engineering teams work inseparably from each other.
  • The Product Manager, Lead Designer and Lead Engineer work closely together daily. They constantly share knowledge, learning and advice among each other.
  • All three disciplines are involved from the start of any project or product initiative. Product strategy, roadmap and prioritisation are performed collectively.
  • The Product Manager, Lead Designer and Lead Engineer each have deep understanding of their areas of competence, but are comfortable discussing and challenging other areas.
  • The Product Manager, Lead Designer and Lead Engineer work together for all major decisions, but also trust each other sufficiently that decisions can happen if someone isn’t available for a discussion. Nobody is a bottleneck.
  • Everybody in the team is encouraged to give feedback on the product, specifications and designs. Nothing is taboo.
  • Disagreements and debates are based on an objective discussion of user value and the personas.
  • The PM never pulls rank to veto a decision she doesn’t agree with.
  • Product, Design and Engineering teams feel shared and complete ownership of the product.

 

Summary

The characteristics of good teams mostly comes down to team culture: and culture is the product of the norms and ways of working that are established in the team.

You – Product Manager, Lead Designer, founder – have more influence over this than you probably think.

Think about how you can up-level your team in each of these three categories. If you get to a 5 for all three of these areas, I guarantee you’ll have a fantastic, high-performing team and a great product.

If you have any feedback on the model, I’d love to hear from you!

A simple framework to triage and prioritise new ideas

For any product startup, prioritisation is everything. Spend time working on the wrong things, and you’ll waste both time and money – two things you have in very limited supply as a startup.

Lots has been written about prioritisation in product teams, and it’s often cited as one of the biggest challenges facing startups and product teams today. But it’s really not that difficult if you approach it with deliberate focus.

At it’s core, prioritisation is simple:
Find the highest-leverage things (features, services, tools) and focus on those first.

speed-prioritisation-focus

As a Product Manager you’ll be constantly bombarded with new ideas: the might be your own ideas, they could come from the founders, from customers, from investors, or from your team. There’s never any shortage of ideas – and that’s great. The problem is that investigating and assessing these ideas takes a lot of time. To make sure you only spend time on the things that matter, (and to keep your sanity), you need to be able to quickly and effectively triage this flow of input.

I have a simple two-step framework I use to quickly triage ideas.

STEP 1:
Does this idea, if implemented, directly and positively impact our key product goals/metrics?

This step is simple. You just need to ask: if we do this, will it have an impact on what is important?

(The prerequisite is, of course, that you already have a clear view on what your product goals actually are. If you don’t, then you need to get that clear right now – otherwise, how can you prioritise anything? With no key goals to prioritise against, how can one thing ever be more important than another?)

Will this idea, if implemented, have a positive impact on the goals you’re trying to achieve? Does it have leverage? If the answer is ‘no’, you know you can immediately stop investigating. Maybe this idea will be useful later, when your product strategy matures and focuses on other goals, or maybe it will never be useful. Either way, don’t waste any more time on it.

Note that in Step 1 we don’t consider how to implement the idea. How is irrelevant at this stage: the only question that matter is: is this the right thing to do?

STEP 2:
Is the effort/impact tradeoff aligned?

Once you’ve weeded out the ideas that are not going to impact the product goals you care about, you can assess if the value/effort tradeoff is aligned. Map the idea on the Effort/Value grid:

effort-value-grid

If the idea doesn’t fall into the top part of the graph, discard it. You don’t want to focus on low-value items: even when the effort is really low. Avoid the trap of thinking “oh well, it’s only a couple of hours’ work, so…”. Every hour you spend on low-value work is an hour you’re not spending on high-value work. Don’t do it.

(You can read more about the effort/value grid here.)

If you’re honest with yourself about the value each idea contributes, and to which goal, you’ll find you can safely discard many, if not most, of the new ideas that come flowing your way. When you learn to filter and triage quickly and effectively, you’ll minimise the time you spend on dealing with noise and be able to spend more time focussing on what’s important.

Try it out and feel free to let me know how it works for you.