Product management can often be a difficult balancing act, in which you find yourself constantly trying to satisfy many competing agendas for your product. Your sales team wants a new set of features. Your executives want the product market-ready by a certain date. Development wants to push a few items off until the next release. The investors want to shave costs wherever possible. You want to make sure your product doesn’t fall behind the competition. And your customers want everything.
And because it can be so difficult to know exactly what to prioritize amid all of this noise, product managers can easily fall into several pitfalls — and prioritize the wrong things for their products. Below are common prioritization pitfalls, and ideas for avoiding them.
1. Prioritizing based on what your competitors are doing.
One of the easiest traps a product manager can fall into when he’s not sure what strategic direction to take his product is to chase the competition. This can be especially tempting when a competitive product has functionality the PM’s product doesn’t.
The problem, though, is that when you base your product’s development on what your competitors are doing, the best-case scenario will be that you release a me-too product. And the more likely scenario, which will be even worse, is that you remain behind the competition. After all, if their product already has the functionality that you’re prioritizing for your development, your competitors have likely moved on to building new functionality. This means your product will always be behind.
“When you prioritize based on your competitors, the best-case scenario is that you will build me-too product.”
You can’t ignore your competitors entirely, of course. But your product’s development should be based on the research, your customer feedback and innovative ideas that you and your team compile — not on what another product is doing.
2. Prioritizing based on requests from your sales team.
This is another common trap product managers fall into, for several understandable reasons.
First, their sales reps are on the front lines with customers, many product managers reason, and if they’re convinced that a feature set or defect fix should be prioritized over everything else, they must be right.
Product managers also often defer to their sales team for direction on what to prioritize because it’s easy. Sales will always have an opinion, after all, and deferring to that opinion requires less effort than stepping back and looking strategically at your market, gathering and analyzing feedback from your user base, etc.
This is why product managers should spend more time reviewing their product roadmaps, and why those roadmaps should provide a high-level strategic view of the product’s objectives and the reasoning behind them.
A product manager who doesn’t frequently review her product roadmap can easily lose all sense of direction for the product’s strategic purpose. This makes it a lot more likely that the product manager will fall prey to whatever prioritization strategy that Sales — or whoever offers the loudest or most passionate demands — wants to advance.
Speaking of which…
3. Prioritizing whatever requests are loudest, most passionate or even most recent.
Let’s say a product manager doesn’t have (or fails to regularly review) a high-level strategic roadmap for her product. By the time she is weeks or months into the day-to-day development details of the product, it will be easy for this product manager to lose a sense of the product’s ultimate strategic purpose.
And because she will likely be juggling many competing demands for prioritizing the limited development time and resources she has, this product manager can fall into the trap of placing undue weight and importance on whoever’s request is most passionate, or even the most recent request she’s received.
This bias is built into human nature. You’ve probably had the experience of listening to two people debate and, assuming they were both relatively persuasive, agreeing with the person who spoke last. This phenomenon even plays out in the legal system, which is why judges in court cases often have to warn juries not to be swayed by the attorney who speaks last.
A product without a strategic direction is essentially being developed in a vacuum. If product managers don’t establish this direction and then protect it throughout the development process, other agendas can and will come in to fill that vacuum.
4. Prioritizing what’s easy.
Another way that a product manager without a strong sense of strategic direction for a product can fill that vacuum is to place undue significance on any items that can be completed easily for the next release.
This can give the product manager a sense of pride and accomplishment, but it often leads to a lackluster release that can leave sales and marketing with little to tout.
For example, your developers might tell you that they can get a lot of items checked off of the list, make a lot of minor tweaks or fix a lot of issues with the current version of your product. And if you don’t have a strategic vision and plan for the product’s next release, this might sound like a viable strategy.
“Completing items on your backlog just because they’re easy is not a product strategy.”
The problem is, completing items on your backlog just because they’re easy is not a product strategy. In fact, doing so is a strong indication that you are not working strategically toward an objective for your product or your market. So even if you manage to accomplish every item on that “easy” list for your next release, that release is likely to fall flat.
5. Prioritizing based on your gut instinct alone.
Finally, some product managers mistakenly prioritize their gut instinct over everything else — including market feedback other real-world data.
Strategically driving a product to a successful market launch certainly requires a skilled product manager’s instincts. But it also equally demands hard evidence to support the product manager’s decisions.
This evidence might come in the form of industry research, user surveys, conversations with customers, feedback from the company’s sales or support teams, a combination of these metrics, or other quantifiable data points. The key here is to understand that a product’s strategic direction has to be backed to some degree by data, not merely by a product manager’s hunch.
One powerful strategy in your development process is to set out with a metric that you want to improve with your next release or next several releases. That metric will help you determine whether or not the releases are a success. You might decide at the beginning of your development cycle, for example, that you want to increase the average number of sales, or to help your sales team sell to more small businesses.
When you have this primary metric in place, it will help guide your strategic thinking and planning and will help keep you proactive and focused on what matters as all of the day-to-day requests and issues come up during the development process. In other words, having a data-driven strategic goal can help you avoid a lot of the prioritization pitfalls we’ve been discussing up to this point.
This is another reason to build and refer often to a visual product roadmap. With the right roadmap application, you’ll be able generate an at-a-glance strategic view of your product’s goals and the metrics you’ll be using to track those objectives. This will help keep you on track strategically throughout the process — and will help you tune out the noise coming at you with competing agendas.
Do you know of other pitfalls? Please share them in the comments sections below.