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Where content meets technology

Dec 08, 2014


Prioritizing is hard when other people's requests fight for your attention. It is stressful. You feel attacked; and when you constantly shift your priorities in response to whoever cries the loudest, you get nothing done and you feel defeated. As hard as it is to prioritize your own time, prioritizing what to improve in a product is even harder. The decisions you make on a product have such a large impact. Living under this stress of competing priorities is the life of a product manager. Here are some tricks that I learned.

  1. Create and publish a model for prioritization.
    My prioritization framework looks like this. Being transparent about how you prioritize serves three functions: it sets expectations; it encourages stakeholders to express their requests in terms that you can easily evaluate; and it forces you to adhere to your own rules.

  2. Don't elevate the priority of one request. Push everything else down.
    It is easy to fall into a cycle of urgency inflation where each request tries to one-up the others in priority. Hysteria builds and you go into reaction mode as you try to keep up. When I feel like this, I try to visualize calmly but firmly pushing other requests down. You only have so much capacity. The highest priority thing should be whatever you are working on right now. It can't get any higher than that. Everything else will have to wait. It feels empowering to actively push requests down to make room for the one request that cannot be deferred. The alternative is passively accepting every request's own self stated importance. That feels horrible.

  3. Group niggling little things into a single item.
    One risk of prioritization is that some of the little things never get done. Individually, these details never get to the top of the stack. But in aggregate, they do matter. User experience is all about the details — sanding down the snags that get in the way of delight. To solve this, I like to group some of these requests together to give them a fighting chance against some of the larger initiatives.

  4. Strive for continuous improvement rather than immediate perfection.
    Your application is not perfect today and, no matter what you do, it will not be perfect next month. Rather that succumbing to the pressure of immediate perfection, focus on continuous improvement. One of my favorite articles about product management is "Make it Suck Less." While this sounds like an overly humble goal, software would be a whole lot better if every application was managed on this principle. Besides, if you achieved perfection, your job as a product manager would be over.

  5. Take a moment to celebrate your achievements.
    After you launch a new feature, resist the temptation to immediately jump to the next thing. Get closure by reflecting on what you accomplished. This will help in two ways: it will get you off the treadmill for a moment to enjoy your success; and it will allow you to evaluate what efforts have yielded the greatest impact so that you can be even more effective with your prioritization. Personally, I find the best time for this reflection is when reviewing release notes before publication and when preparing for a team retrospective.

These practices work for me in product managing my own time. Hopefully you will find them useful too.