Sometimes, an item is important not because it’s important to you but because it’s important to someone else—and that relationship is important to you.
People often assume prioritization—whether for a Scrum product backlog or a personal todo list—is an analytical problem best solved with value calculations and spreadsheets. But it turns out that great product people tend to use intuition, gut feel, rather than analysis to prioritize. In this episode, Peter and Richard introduce a set of heuristics gathered from the best product people that you can use to prioritize work quickly and intuitively.
Welcome to the Humanizing Work Show. Today we’re talking about prioritization. How do you decide what to do, in what order, and what to say “no” to. This is a huge topic that applies to how we individually prioritize our day, how agile teams prioritize their backlogs, and even how companies make strategic choices. There’s lots to dig into on this topic, so in this episode we’ll share some highlights for how to think about it and then we’ll give you a link to a page in the show notes where we’ve captured more details. If you know someone who struggles with prioritization (and really, who doesn’t), please like and share the episode. Leave us a comment if you’re watching on YouTube, and like and subscribe to the Humanizing Work Show to get a weekly dose of more content like this.
When we’ve surveyed Product Owners and Product Managers on the techniques they actually—not necessarily officially—use to prioritize their work, we consistently hear three answers, or maybe categories of answers:
The first category is “Squeaky Wheel.” In fact, one CEO we were talking with said that anyone that says anything besides squeaky wheel is lying,” which probably says more about that CEO than the process here.
The second category is what sometimes is abbreviated as the HiPPO process (which stands for Highest Paid Person’s Opinion), also, something that happens, but maybe not a great approach in all situations.
And the third answer, and this was by far the most common answer was “Gut Feel” or Intuition.
We expected to hear more analytical answers. Like named approaches, spreadsheets, and processes that people were using. Many of the people we talked to are fantastic product people– they have strong track records of delivering great products with strong business outcomes. And we thought, “You know, if most of them are using a gut feel approach, maybe there were patterns that are intuitive to them that we could make more visible.” We interviewed several of them, looked at our own approaches to prioritize our work, and then we synthesized a lot of the advice and literature about this to boil it all down; and what we found is that there are really about 18 heuristics in 5 categories that we’ve named so far.
We found that naming these patterns had two big benefits beyond just describing what people do. First, it allows the person prioritizing to better understand, reason about, and even tune their intuition. Second, a clearer understanding of why your intuition suggests a decision allows you to bring others along, get their input, and discover where you might have some blind spots.
The heuristics are also really helpful for personal prioritization-the same rules apply to figuring out what to focus on today and what to say no to.
All right. So we’re going to run through the 5 categories and highlight a few examples in each of them, but, as we said, check out the link in the show notes to get the whole list of 18 and more information about how to use those.
The first category of heuristics is what we call comparison. These are ways of ranking items by comparing pairs of them or focusing on the top or bottom of a set of options. By far our favorite of these, one we use all the time, is what we call “Guarantee one.” It works like this:
Given a set of items that all appear important, ask, “If you had a magic wand that could guarantee one of these, and you may or may not get the others, how would you use your guarantee?” This puts the focus on what you get rather than what you lose and reduces the loss aversion that can sometimes paralyze prioritization. I love this one with stakeholders who are reluctant to prioritize, and who insist “It’s all top priority; we have to have everything.”
“Sure. I understand it’s all really important, and I want to make sure we get what we most need, so if you could guarantee one, what would it be?” And that often gets people unstuck.
The second category of heuristics came down to thinking about value or economics, which you might expect, with prioritization, especially for backlogs, but it’s not always in terms of a precise, quantitative model. Two insights from this set:
First, many product owners use hierarchical prioritization, and use it well. For example, company strategy sets which features get prioritized, so they’re sitting inside strategic steps. within each feature user stories get prioritized, etc. across various levels of hierarchy. This seems obvious, but it has the significant advantage of keeping the total list of items small at each layer in the hierarchy. You’re not prioritizing 100 user stories; you’re prioritizing, perhaps, 8 of them within a feature.
The other useful heuristic within the value category is cost of delay, reasoning about how value changes over time. Again, it doesn’t have to be precise to be useful. Thinking through, “When could we experience the value from, say, feature X? And from feature Y?” and “How does that value change over time?” often gives the right sequence of items.
Category 3 is what we came to call “Anti-Tyranny of the Urgent.” Tyranny of the Urgent, of course, is the idea that urgent requests can crowd out what’s actually important, kind of the fancy name for “Squeaky Wheel.” The Eisenhower Matrix is one famous thinking tool around this. Two heuristics we like here are questions to slow down urgent items from jumping to the top of the list.
One of those is asking, “What things are at the top just because they have a close deadline or there’s a squeaky wheel? What are they crowding out that might be more important?” I love that last question because surfaces the opportunity cost of the urgent. If we decide to put something at the top of the list, it implicitly means that we’re not going to do another thing.
We recommend a variation on this to teams who get lots of mid-sprint interruptions. What we suggest doing is, during the Sprint Review, just make visible the urgent things that got done and then hold them up against the planned things that would have gotten done without the interruptions, asking, “Did we make the right tradeoff here?”
Another “Tyranny of the Urgent” heuristic is what we call “Prohibit Last In/First Out,” which is not usually literally prohibiting that, but pretending the most recent additions to your list, kind of as a thinking tool, just aren’t allowed to go to the top and asking, “What would I do next if the most recent additions to my list weren’t an option for the top of the list?” Then, that usually leads to a comparison heuristic to evaluate whether the new item really is the most important, versus the thing you would have otherwise done if this new one hadn’t jumped in; so, it’s just kind of a tool to slow you down.
An example of this category came up in a recent Product Owner community of practice session that we were running. One participant brought up how a leader throwing “shiny objects” at a team can really derail progress and how these and other techniques are an important tool in the Product Owner’s toolbox to keep a team focused on what really matters. He shared how using some of these approaches often shifted the discussion in a positive direction, which helped the team stay focused while not risking his career by simply telling the leader to get lost.
Category 4 is heuristics about considering larger systems, not just looking at the specific items on a backlog or to-do list.. For example, thinking about long term sustainability or which items create more options and prioritizing to emphasize those factors.
Two in this category that we really like are…
First, what we call the “Key Stakeholders” heuristic. This one considers the human system around the team working on a product, or around you, if you’re looking at your own to-do list. Sometimes, an item is important not because it’s important to you but because it’s important to someone else—and that relationship is important to you. This one, by the way, layers really well with strong slicing skills so you can provide value to that stakeholder without investing too much on items you really objectively don’t think are most important.
The second systemic one we want to share is what we call “Batching.” Some small things aren’t worth the task switching overhead to make their way to the top of the list on their own,, but can have positive results when batched so you can focus on several in succession. One team we worked with had a category of items like this on their product backlog called “JDI”s, short for Just Do It. These were little items that didn’t have enough stand-alone value to ever make it to the top of a list. JDI’s would actually make it to the top in two ways: Sometimes, we’ve got a bit of slack in our schedule. There’s not enough time or energy to start a big new thing, but we can knock out a few small ones. That team used JDIs that way. The other approach, which was closer to the term “batching,” was one that my team used to use. Those small little items rarely made the top of the list either, but every few months we would batch several of them up and create some sort of container for a bunch of cleanup or small tasks. Sometimes this took a few days, other times we had an entire what we called “polish sprint” where all we did were the little things to make everything in the product feel better. We thought of this as the desk getting messy over time, and then we needed to set aside some time to “Clean up the desk” of our products’ overall look and feel.
Getting back to the idea of using our intuition as a guide, often we’ll have an emotional reaction to a potential thing we might prioritize. That reaction can be positive or negative. We can be excited or kind of repelled by an item. The heuristics in this 5th and final category, what we call “Emotion as Info,” invite us to get curious about what the emotion is telling us. For example, we might have a lot of energy around an idea. The things you’re particularly drawn to might be important and purposeful. Or they might just be fun. The key move here is treating that energy as data and then getting curious about it and what it might tell you.
And sometimes the opposite happens. When you think of adding an item to your list, you might groan a little bit and feel stuck. That internal resistance is also a source of info. You might be procrastinating on something because it really is low value and you just feel obligated to do it. Or you might be procrastinating because it’s really important and there’s a lot at stake. Treat the resistance as data and get curious about it.
We’ve mapped out all 18 of the heuristics across the 5 categories in the article linked in the show notes. Check it out, share it with others, and let us know what other heuristics you’ve used that we didn’t mention. Feel free to ask questions as well if you’d like us to elaborate on any of these in a future episode or article.They’ve been super helpful to us as we’ve worked on improving our own prioritization, and we think they will be for you too, whether you’re trying to prioritize you individual work, whether you are responsible for prioritizing for the team, or whether you’re working on your company strategy.