Ruthless Prioritisation in Product Management

11 December 2017 | Dan Griffiths | About a 4 minute read
Tags: business, context, develop, developer, Digital, goal, goals, head of product, prioritisation, prioritization, Product, product council, Product Management, product manager, product managers, strategy, tech, technology, vision


There’s a product management meme showing Ruthless Prioritisation (sic) written on a card in big red letters – one of the ten commandments of product if you like. Apparently, the meme originated with Marissa Mayer while she was at Yahoo! – but I’ve also seen it attributed to Sheryl Sandberg and other digital luminaries.


Whatever its provenance, ruthless prioritisation is certainly a key skill for any product manager. Resources are always finite (even perhaps at Facebook) so it makes sense to focus time and effort on the items that will deliver the most value. Being forced to prioritise also helps focus you on benefits – perhaps more so than if everything on your backlog were readily achievable.


Vision & Strategy

Prioritisation is rarely easy. Good product managers are always subject to competing demands: what the customer needs, what your key stakeholders want to see (often conflicting), the tech debt your Engineering team want to tackle — even before you look at the list of things your Product team believe are needed to move the product forward.


“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there” said the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland. Certainly, if you don’t know what success looks like for your product, you can prioritise your roadmap any way you like. Having a clear vision and set of goals for your product is key and provides an immediate first filter on any potential idea. If an initiative or feature doesn’t help advance your vision or strategic goals — don’t do it. See Why are you Developing that Product? for more on this topic.


Scoring your Initiatives

With a set of strategic goals agreed, weigh your larger initiatives or epics against them. Note down the 3-4 big themes you’re wanting to achieve. Then score each initiative on a 1-5 scale for what it contributes to that theme. Summed, plugged into a spreadsheet and sorted high to low, this is an easy way to provide a quick indication of which themes support the strategy most effectively.


Focusing on benefits or strategic alignment doesn’t take account of technical complexity, so you may want to introduce an additional column with a risk or effort score – perhaps weighted and subtracted from the benefit score. Items scoring less than zero suggest a benefit outweighed by complexity to deliver; items above zero deliver a net benefit – the higher the better.


You can even apply weightings to specific criteria – weighing tech debt higher for example or boosting a particular strategic priority. However, keep it simple. While a scoring model is a helpful best practice, the goal is not to replace good judgement with a spreadsheet. Use a prioritisation model to manage a long list and provide a first cut priority order as a starting point for a frank debate about what drives the most value and at what cost, risk or complexity.


Creating Alignment

It helps to have a forum for this debate. If you don’t, consider implementing a Product Council – a small group of product stakeholders who meet regularly and help set priorities for the roadmap. The Council meeting is chaired by the Product Manager or Head of Product and includes a small group of folk with a stake in the product’s success. The prioritisation and roadmap are presented for discussion, new concepts for consideration are reviewed, debated and priorities agreed.


That may sound like the Product Manager being relegated to facilitator, but there’s benefit in terms of having multiple points of view heard but also creating buy-in. Run well (and we have designed and led Product Councils for many of our clients) the meeting is an effective and helpful way to enable effective prioritisation.



So in summary:

  1. Have a clear vision of where you’re going to focus your prioritisation
  2. Do use a scoring model, but don’t make it unnecessarily complex
  3. Don’t let the scoring model ranking replace a passionate, good quality debate
  4. Consider using a Product Council to gather input and buy-in for your roadmap

In this blog we’ve touched briefly on some of the fundamental building blocks of good prioritisation. It’s a complex but rewarding topic which I’ll dig into further and expand upon in future posts.

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