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The right prioritization framework

As December draws closer, it being the month of reflection and planning for the upcoming year, my thoughts this past week keep darting back to the work I need to do with regards to this before the end of the year, all while pushing hard on progressing towards the goals I had set at the start of this year.

This is a situation that every Product Manager is familiar with, though. As there is always more ideas and features that can be worked on than there is time and resources. Which places such a heavy emphasis on planning and prioritization.

There are many approaches to effective prioritization, and it is a standard question that I ask in any interview that I take (or be asked when the roles are reversed) - as to how to pick the one or two ideas to work on first among all the possibilities.

The most popular answer that I get is always an evaluation in terms of impact vs effort. The ideas that bring the most impact with the least effort ought to be prioritized.

However, this always draws from me the follow up question of what will happen to ideas that have a lot more impact than others but never get worked on as they also take up a lot of effort. While the impact to effort ratio is still meaningful to invest in, it isn't high enough when compared to other lower impact ideas that can be done with even lower effort.

This is where candidates generally stumble and begin to brainstorm solutions or to start thinking aloud on the spot, which shows that this is a scenario they had not considered before it was brought up during the conversation.

Some of the ideas that come up to this scenario include dedicating a percentage of time (20-30%) to be invested in these high-impact high-effort ideas, or to make a business case for a new team to be created that will focus entirely on the high-impact idea, etc.

But, every single time, the solutions proposed are all building on top of the original impact vs effort analysis approach. Nobody has ever revisited the first approach itself and said, "when I come across such a scenario, I will take a different approach to prioritization that makes more sense".

This is because, one, people don't like to admit that the solution they have proposed cannot deal with the scenario raised and want to add qualifications to account for such a scenario (like dedicating an arbitrary percent of time to high-impact high-effort ideas). And because, two, people like one-size-fits-all approaches as it makes it easier to move forward quickly. Note, not effective, but easier.

While revisiting the first proposed solution, an alternate solution that I like under such scenarios is to look at a 2x2 matrix of the two key values that the product delivers on, or the two key user problems that the product addresses. If every idea is plotted in the matrix where each axis represents one of the two core values and is bifurcated into low-impact on that value and high-impact on that value, all the ideas that result in the high-high box of the matrix need to be prioritized first. And among them, we can resort to impact vs effort analysis.

This approach makes the impact vs effort analysis stronger as the analysis is now among (near) equals in terms of value delivered to the end user. Without this, product teams can end up spending several months shipping low impact features simply because they involve much lower effort than the high impact ideas.

When I sit down to chart a plan for 2019, this is the approach I will follow to determine what I need to focus on in the coming year.

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