What is Prioritization?

Prioritization is the process by which potential development items are ranked in order of importance. In terms of product management, this means determining which themes, initiatives, or features should get slotted into the product roadmap and the next set of upcoming product releases.

Why is Prioritization Important?

Prioritization might just be the most crucial job product management does. According to our 2022 State of Product Management Report, it’s the most challenging. In the report, 22% of survey respondents ranked it their biggest hurdle.

Because of the relatively endless set of possible items the product development team could implement, determining which items in the product backlog actually get worked on plays an essential part in a product’s overall success, growth, adoption, and versatility.

Since product development teams have limited resources and there are only so many things that can be worked on at once, the organization must determine which projects make it to the top of the list based on their overall impact on meeting strategic goals and objectives. That also means that certain other items are removed from consideration and not pegged for future work at all.

These decisions profoundly impact the direction of the product. The user experience, its value proposition, and its appeal to different customer segments impact a product. Each item that gets prioritized—or doesn’t make the cut—represents a divergent path for the product and its future traction and success.

Who is Involved in Prioritization?

Although product management generally leads the charge and facilitates prioritization exercises, it should always be a group effort. The opinions, perspectives, insights, and knowledge of various stakeholders from across the organization add immense value to the debates and decisions pertaining to which items get prioritized for the product roadmap.

Product management ideally assembles a group of representatives from each relevant part of the business to participate in prioritization activities. Encouraged to share their individual perspectives based on their specific roles within the company, each offers a different take on the potential impact of any new initiative under consideration. They can also provide guidance on any negative ramifications if a particular item isn’t implemented.

With this broad context and perspective, the prioritization group can weigh the pros and cons of each item under consideration. Forgoing the opportunity to hear from different parties within the company can result in good intentions leading to bad outcomes if, for example, a major customer was promised new functionality or a significant change in the price point due to a COGS modification alienating a thriftier segment of a target market.

How Do You Prioritize?

Prioritization exercises are usually conducted in a group setting—in person and/or virtually—with each participant getting the opportunity to comment and contribute to the discussion before ultimately weighing in with their own rankings. These sessions are typically led by the product manager that owns the product in question or a more senior product leader.

Before getting underway, all participants should get a refresh on the strategic goals and objectives the organization has set for itself and the product in question. These should be the guiding principles for any subsequent ratings and rankings, helping participants steer clear of the most common prioritization mistakes.

The exercise itself is usually scaffolded with one of the many, many prioritization frameworks freely available to product organizations. While they vary in a number of ways, most are based upon the general principles of scoring each item up for consideration on multiple attributes and then tabulating the results to form a consensus. Facilitators should select a prioritization framework based on their stakeholder analysis and the general corporate culture of the organization.

Some of the most popular prioritization frameworks include:

2×2 Prioritization Matrix

The 2×2 prioritization matrix uses a visual framework to identify top priorities. It uses a priority matrix grid with four quadrants, with the vertical axis labeled “importance” and the horizontal labeled “effort.”

Each quadrant in this grid has one of the following labels:

  • High value, low effort
  • Low value, low effort
  • High value, high effort
  • Low value, high effort

Everyone then places each backlog project or task in the appropriate spot, based on the item’s estimated value and the effort required to complete it.

MoSCoW Prioritization

MoSCoW represents four categories of initiatives: must-have, should-have, could-have, and won’t-have, will not have right now, or are “wish list” items. The prioritization group then slots each idea up for consideration into one of these slots, using this scale:

  • Must-have items are mandatory, non-negotiable projects. These will always be at the top of the to-do list.
  • Should-have ideas are essential to the product strategy, but the product can function without them for the time being.
  • Could-have items can also be considered “nice to have.” Their absence doesn’t impact core functionality or user experience, so they can be de-prioritized.
  • Will not have projects have been ruled out for the immediate future. This declaration keeps them from sneaking back in due to scope creep.

Due to the highly subjective nature of the MoSCoW sorting process, it helps to have stakeholders use an objective scoring process prior to the actual prioritization activity.

Story Mapping

Story Mapping puts the emphasis on user stories rather than explicit features and functionality. It emphasizes the customer journey and user experience, enabling the team to view the product from the user perspective.

This method often finds holes in the customer journey where users might get frustrated. It can then provide detailed context regarding how different types of users engage with the product. And since it’s a collaborative, iterative exercise, it gets the whole team involved.

Using Multiple Frameworks

Organizations don’t have to stick with the same prioritization framework forever. In fact, there are significant benefits to using multiple prioritization frameworks over time, as each one might net slightly different results.

However, using the same few favorites also creates some familiarity among the various stakeholders. In turn, stakeholders spend less time reviewing the ground rules and more devoted to discussion and debate. Product leaders should frequently poll participants after the fact to see which aspects of the framework worked well or if there were some elements that didn’t match the tastes, preferences, or expectations of any fellow prioritizers.

What Happens After Prioritization?

Prioritization exercises offer clarity and build consensus around the key themes the organization is prioritizing for the near term. With this foundation, product management can then build out the product roadmap.

By involving stakeholders early on in the prioritization phase, the product roadmap’s contents shouldn’t be too surprising. The involvement of stakeholders smooths the path for sign-offs from the executive team. In turn, this creates additional positive momentum as implementation begins.

Want to learn more about prioritization? Watch the webinar, below: