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5 Product Prioritization Strategies that Every Product Manager Should Know

By Greg Sylvester II – Global Director at Google Cloud

In the dynamic landscape of product management, effective prioritization stands as a cornerstone for success. In this blog, we delve into five distinct prioritization strategies identified by Greg Sylvester – Global Director, Systems Engineering and Analytics, Google Cloud, that every product manager should be well-acquainted with. These strategies offer a compelling framework for decision-making in the rich and diverse realm of prioritization. Amidst the myriad of options, understanding these five approaches provides a solid foundation to tackle feature prioritization challenges. Let’s explore these strategies that illuminate the path toward optimal feature prioritization, acknowledging that they are not an exhaustive list, but a crucial starting point.

Key Takeaways:

  • Prioritization, determining the order of tasks for product enhancement and development is pivotal for a company’s success. 
  • Here we will delve into five essential prioritization strategies, offering a strong foundation for product managers to make informed decisions.
  • Among the strategies, “Customer Centricity” shines as the ultimate guide, putting user needs at the forefront of decision-making. 
  • These strategies, from “Keep the Lights On” to “Innovation at the Core,” provide adaptable frameworks for effective prioritization in diverse contexts.
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    What is Prioritization?

    Prioritization is the process of determining the order and importance of tasks or activities based on their impact and alignment with goals. It emerges as a pivotal concern in the lives of product managers, engineers, data scientists, and other professionals.

    Why Prioritization is Important?

    The significance of this practice lies in its role, which encompasses tasks related to mending and enhancing existing products, as well as the gradual construction of new product facets and innovative features. The inflow comprises incoming requests and proposals, while the outflow incorporates outgoing ideas and motivational strategies for product development. Effectively sequencing these elements stands as a critical determinant of a company’s trajectory, and in the absence of adept prioritization, companies could encounter substantial challenges.

    How Does Prioritization Apply to Product Management?

    Within the realm of product management, the challenge revolves around the daily decisions of initiating, discontinuing, or persisting with particular tasks and projects. Failure to engage in effective prioritization, especially concerning backlogs and day-to-day tasks, can lead to discontented customers. This factor is often a focal point in job interviews for those transitioning or exploring opportunities in product management, underscoring its paramount importance.

    The framework for prioritization and side strategies that we will be discussing can be effectively applied to various types of products, a few of which are: 

    1. Platform Products: Platforms that scale the enterprise for a common cause.

    2. COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) Products: Purchased platform products.

    3. Internal Products: Products that aid employees (e.g. HRIS etc)

    4. Digital Products: Products that engage your customers directly.

    5. Core Products: The Company’s bread and butter products that are consumer or B2B physical or digital products.

    6. Data Products: Products that are created utilizing data.

    7. Physical Products: Products that are tangible for consumers or businesses. 

    Prioritization applies universally, extending beyond just products to encompass various areas. The central focus remains on addressing queries about implementing this approach in contexts such as B2B products, fully digital offerings like payment or data products – including complex setups like cube environments and data warehousing platforms – or even tangible items like phones. 

    Analogous to a Physical Product 

    Consider the analogy of a tangible product, like a ship depicted in the accompanying image. If one were a shipbuilder, they would represent both the product and engineering teams. Imagine a ship in a state of disrepair, rusted and deteriorating. Despite its condition, some team members might advocate for revitalizing this vessel, infusing it with new life. Yet, the gradual decline of the ship over time is evident. The analogy highlights the decision-making process: whether to rejuvenate components like the engine and structure or to retire the product altogether. Regardless of the choice made, the pivotal factor is the act of prioritization. Even if the decision is to persist with the product, the subsequent steps to restore it entail careful prioritization, much like addressing product support issues.

    In essence, the capacity to move forward, discontinue, or retain a product hinges on the act of prioritization. This, in turn, influences time-to-market outcomes. Opting to retain a product might require years of effort to restore it to its former state, preventing it from reaching a state of disrepair. While the analogy may seem lighthearted, it effectively underscores the significance of prioritization in decision-making processes.

    Core Product Prioritization Framework - Lines in the Sand

    The “Lines in the Sand” framework, which was conceptualized several years ago, constitutes a three-fold approach that encompasses essential aspects. Drawing an analogy to lines drawn in the sand, this framework provides a versatile model applicable to various business contexts, much like lines in the sand that can be swiftly altered or erased by factors like rain or others’ actions. This analogy translates into the dynamics of business, particularly within product management and engineering teams. These teams, akin to the analogy, must manage and allocate their efforts across different phases.

    1. Core Product Features (Launch Phase) 

    In the context of launching a new product, the initial focus lies on the core product features. At this stage, the entire effort is concentrated on establishing the product in the market. The analogy of drawing a line in the sand corresponds to defining the foundation for the product’s success. This phase, comparable to starting a race with a clean slate, demands pouring resources into developing and delivering the core features that will distinguish the product.

    2. Keeping the Lights On (Maintenance Phase) 

    Once the product has gained traction and secured a customer base, attention shifts to addressing customer needs, wants, and support requirements. This equates to keeping the lights on, as the existing customer base relies on the product’s functionality. Alongside this, considerations related to legal and business risks arise, demanding adaptations to the product. This phase reflects the erodible nature of lines in the sand, as efforts pivot to accommodate the product’s ongoing vitality.

    3. Innovation (Future-Proofing Phase) 

    The pinnacle of any technology-driven enterprise is innovation. This phase mirrors the expansive nature of drawing lines in the sand, signifying new frontiers and ideas. To ensure the company’s continued relevance, resources must be allocated to ideation, experimentation, and the pursuit of novel concepts. Innovation perpetuates the lifeline of the organization, underscoring its adaptability and forward-looking stance.

    The positioning of the metaphorical line in the sand determines the allocation of resources and prioritization. Depending on the current stage of the product lifecycle, the focus and allocation of resources shift accordingly. While the specifics might vary, the overarching concept remains: how the “lines in the sand” are drawn profoundly influences the direction and velocity of progress, mirroring the adaptive and dynamic nature of business initiatives.

    Throughout the implementation of this framework, vigilance over primary KPIs is indispensable. Regular monitoring and assessment of key metrics form the bedrock of outcome-driven decision-making. Whether in the context of launching, sustaining, or innovating, KPIs serve as navigational markers that guide the efficacy of actions and initiatives.

    Top 5 Product Prioritization Strategies

    In discussing the product prioritization strategies, envision a music subscription platform to illustrate and compare each strategy’s application. These strategies apply universally, and for the purpose of analysis, the scenario presented is a music subscription platform. 

    Strategy 5: Keep Your Lights On (KTLO) 

    The fifth strategy is unsurprising with its presence in the framework, referred to as “Keep the Lights On” (KTLO). It underscores the necessity of prioritizing essential requests to ensure smooth operations. This approach is often synonymous with “Run the Business” (RTB) or “Essential Tasks” (ET).

    For instance, in the context of a music subscription platform, managing digital rights becomes crucial. With features like digital rights management (DRM) that enable downloads, legal and risk management aspects require attention. Further different countries have distinct music laws related to DRM, and global compliance is essential, non-compliance can lead to shutdowns in certain regions. This underscores the importance of constant collaboration with legal and risk management teams.

    Infrastructure monitoring is also a key aspect of KTLO. Neglecting aspects like computing, network, and storage can impact the platform’s performance. In a cloud-based subscription service, considerations such as app isolation, zoning, and appropriate infrastructure management are critical. Hence a failure to address these elements can result in disruptions to the streaming service, affecting customer experience.

    The term “Keep Your Lights On” conveys the urgency of these tasks; without them, the existing customer base could erode rapidly. Instances of companies deprioritizing KTLO requests have led to customer attrition, emphasizing the strategy’s significance. While other strategies may also hold importance, KTLO serves as the foundational pillar for maintaining operational integrity. 

    Strategy 4: Enterprise Thinking 

    The fourth strategy, “Enterprise Thinking,” encompasses a wide scope, yet its importance can sometimes be undervalued among product managers, engineers, and data scientists. It becomes particularly relevant when considering the notion of control in product development. Here imagine the creation of a music subscription service.

    The desire for control often leads teams to construct monolithic products, whereby they oversee every aspect, from digital rights management to content servers, user interfaces, and mobile apps. “Enterprise Thinking” while offering control, can lack modularity and advocates for breaking down products into modular components that can be repurposed and scaled, even beyond their original context.

    For instance, using digital rights management as an example, if conceived as a separate module, it could evolve into a standalone product serving multiple companies. Similarly, machine learning models that predict music preferences could become products themselves, applicable in various contexts.

    This approach extends to global market considerations, while building a music subscription service for a specific region like Japan or Korea, it’s crucial to contemplate global expansion possibilities. Although expanding to new markets might not be an immediate priority, factoring this potential into your product’s design can save future reengineering efforts.

    However, the choice to globalize must align with your overall strategy. If, for the present, focusing on a particular market is the priority, that’s valid. The key is to intentionally decide whether to create a product with potential cross-market applicability or to focus on a market-specific solution.

    Strategy 3: Must-Have Outcomes or OKRs 

    Ranked as number three, the “Must-Have Outcomes or OKRs” strategy serves as a fundamental framework for prioritization. This approach, often pioneered by John Doerr during his time at Intel in the 1990s, has become a cornerstone for many companies, including giants like Google.

    “OKRs” stands for Objectives and Key Results, and establishes a structured highway that guides teams in setting and pursuing clear priorities. Think of it as a map, steering all teams toward a common destination. This strategy significantly aids in tackling the complexity of prioritization, ensuring alignment and coordination throughout the organization.

    Imagine the music subscription service once again. Suppose a company-wide objective is to enhance the customer payment experience within a year, aiming to reduce payment friction and cart abandonment. Each team involved in the service, such as digital rights management, content management, and payments, aligns its efforts with this overarching objective. For instance, the digital rights management team, aware of the shared objective, focuses solely on enhancing the payment process within their domain. This streamlines efforts and prevents divergent priorities that can lead to misalignment.

    To emphasize its importance, consider a quote from Peter Drucker, a renowned management leader: “You can’t manage what you cannot measure.” OKRs provide the means to measure progress, guide priorities, and achieve transformative results. This strategy empowers teams to collectively work toward quantifiable goals, fostering a culture of alignment, accountability, and strategic achievement.

    Strategy 2: Innovation at the Core 

    Ranked as number two, “Innovation at the Core” underscores the crucial role of creativity and experimentation in ineffective prioritization. This strategy centers on embracing new ideas and pushing the boundaries of what’s possible.

    Innovation doesn’t simply entail traditional A/B testing or incremental improvements; it encompasses a broader scope of fresh ideas and creative solutions. This can include entirely new features, user experiences, or approaches that resonate with users in unique ways.

    Consider the music subscription service once more, and imagine you’re aiming to leverage geolocation data to enhance user experiences. If you tailor your content recommendations based on a user’s location, you’re embracing innovation. Such experiments can uncover novel engagement strategies and delight users in unexpected ways.

    Innovation isn’t limited to net new creations; it also extends to learning from others. Further, analyze market trends, study successful companies, and identify groundbreaking practices that can inspire your own endeavors. An innovation-centered approach should be integrated into your backlog to ensure continuous progress.

    Backing innovation aligns with the principle of making forward investments in your product. While not all experiments may succeed, the lessons learned are invaluable for shaping future directions. Innovation mitigates the risk of stagnation and positions your product to adapt and thrive in changing landscapes.

    Strategy 1: Customer Centricity – Anchoring Prioritization in User Needs

    At the pinnacle of effective prioritization stands “Customer Centricity.” Placing the customer at the core of decision-making is an unwavering principle that should guide every facet of the product development lifecycle. This strategy ensures that every action taken, from creating new documents to innovative endeavors, stems from addressing customer needs or market demands.

    Consider this strategy as the North Star, irrespective of your product’s stage. Whether you’re addressing Keep the Lights On (KTLO) requests, focusing on innovations, or aiming to achieve specific OKRs, the underlying motivation should always align with serving the customer better.

    Let’s delve into an illustrative example in the realm of physical goods. Think of the Swiffer, a household product that revolutionized cleaning routines. Its inception came from a customer focus group, where real-world customer needs were acknowledged and addressed. This seemingly small product concept led to a multi-billion-dollar industry.

    In the digital space, whether it’s a music subscription service or any other offering, this strategy implies constantly engaging with customers. This can involve focus groups, analytics-driven insights, usability studies, and more. By blending qualitative and quantitative methods, you gain a comprehensive view of customer preferences and pain points.

    The heart of “Customer Centricity” lies in recognizing that innovation can be inspired by customers. It’s a reminder that your priorities should be guided by the desire to enhance the user experience. This strategy fuels time-to-market efficiency as you address real user needs, rather than engaging in speculative development.

    Time to market is intricately linked with prioritization, as highlighted throughout the discussion using the framework. The five strategies presented offer a robust foundation, adaptable to any product, service, or offering. It’s important to remember that prioritization isn’t rigid. The allocation of time and resources across different aspects of your product can evolve based on your product’s lifecycle and strategic shifts. Flexibility is key to effectively responding to changing circumstances and priorities. Above all, the paramount principle is customer centricity. Aligning your actions, strategies, and innovations with the needs and preferences of your customers underpins successful prioritization. Embracing this approach leads to better products, enhanced user experiences, and a more effective market presence.

    Frequently Asked Questions

    Prioritization is crucial as it determines the order and significance of tasks, guiding the allocation of resources for the product development process. It influences a company’s trajectory, time-to-market outcomes, and customer satisfaction.

    No, there are numerous prioritization methods and frameworks that can be employed based on specific contexts and goals. These five strategies provide a solid starting point and versatile frameworks for product managers to use, adapt, and build upon.

    The discussed prioritization strategies are adaptable and can be applied to various types of products. The key is to understand the underlying principles of each strategy and tailor their application based on your product’s nature, goals, and lifecycle stage.

    Yes, whether you’re dealing with tangible products, services, or even non-profit initiatives, the concepts of customer-centricity, innovation, and strategic alignment remain relevant.

    The “Lines in the Sand” framework can be implemented by identifying the current stage of your product’s lifecycle (launch, maintenance, innovation), and allocating resources and priorities accordingly. Followed by regularly monitoring KPIs to ensure alignment with your chosen stage.

    About the Author

    Greg Sylvester II – Global Director at Google Cloud

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