March 19, 2021

Get Your (tech) Priorities Straight

Shane Bird

How to prioritize product features and improvements 

Startups fail from time to time. Not because of a lack of good ideas, but because the wrong idea’s been chosen. Most product managers will agree that the hardest part is deciding which features deserve the team’s blood, sweat, and tears. Okay, we lied. There’s no blood. 



First things first.

Goal setting is a serious problem. Before you can even think about prioritising your features, you have to figure out what it is you’re working towards. Think, “shared vision.” Without it, you’ll go round in circles. 


As Max McKeown, author of “The Innovation Book: How to Manage Ideas and Execution for Outstanding Results” writes:

Strategy is not a solo sport, even if you’re the CEO.”


Prioritization? It’s not personal. 

But… It can be. Humans are complex creatures. They have emotions, opinions and ideas. And when those ideas are shared with the team, they have to be acknowledged. Why? Because every idea is a reflection of someone’s hard work and experience. Fair enough. But it does make things complicated. 


It’s important to remember that you’re not picking someone’s idea over someone else’s idea. You’re picking what’s right for the company. So, prioritization? It’s not personal. Fact. 


Hippos and out-of-nowhere requests.

A bit confused? So is your team. The Highest Paid Person’s Opinion (HiPPO) has the power to veto certain ideas or insert personal choices without the necessary backing. Why? Because they’re usually in a senior position, so they’ve probably got good judgement. 


This can be frustrating for the team though. Nobody likes it when high-level ideas are added to the list as “must-haves.” Decisions made or changed without evidence have the potential to derail even the most thought-out plans and leave team members feeling lost. Most leaders don’t want that. So, no evidence? No action. 

What’s the opposite of subjective?

Objective. Correct. If personal bias can lead the team down the wrong road, then look at features through an impartial lens. Breaking them up into categories of criteria is a good way to do this.


  • Feasibility. Can you do it? And by “you,” we actually mean the technical team. Speak to your front-end, back-end and UI designers to understand what can and can’t be done. 
  • Desirability. Do your customers need it? If you’re solving a pain point, then yes. That’s great. But if you’re not, then you’ll have to rethink your solution.
  • Viability. Is your solution capable of succeeding long term? It needs to serve a bigger ecosystem. Will it keep up with the industrial times? Does it support your overall strategy? Hard to test, but worth it.


If you hear the word “gut instinct,” abort mission. This, along with customer requests and isolated economics are not ways to prioritise your strategic goals and activities. 


Constraints are the new filters.

Time constraints. Money restrictions. Lack of expertise. They’re all important. If you don’t have the time, resources or skills for the job, you can’t get it done. Simple. 


Constraints come down to two factors; people and processes. If you have the right people with the right skills to get the job done, then figure out which of those people will provide the best results. Someone who works well under pressure is better suited for time sensitive work. Are they more valuable than their peers? No. Not at all. The idea is to align certain personalities and working styles with certain outcomes. 


And if you don’t have the right people with the right skills, outsource. Or hire. Conflicted? We touched on the topic in this article. 


As for processes? Some teams use a home-grown approach, others a standard process. But a mix of the two is most common. The best processes are those that keep the team focused while allowing for the flexibility of everyday life. 


Our advice? 

Keep it real. There’s always a lot of hype around new features. They’re exciting! As a product manager, you need to be the voice of reason. Sorry.


Build a roadmap and add your priorities into it. This will keep the team on the same page and help you track your progress. Plus, we’re visual beings. We want to see what we’re working towards and how we’re going to get there. If you make data driven decisions, set aside time for regular check-ins and keep your roadmap front-of-mind, you’re in for a smooth ride. 



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