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Balancing your product diet
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2021-11-30 / 4 minute read

Prioritisation is hard. Prioritising in a high growth company is hard.


Here you are. You've spent 2 months building out big feature X. You've worked through an unclear problem, discovered the full set of requirements, found some nasty surprises in the code - but you did (nice).


After a brief celebration and some early metrics coming in, the next opportunity presents itself just in time. Another big one. Oh.


Problem


Given that this is our reality, if teams are not careful with how they balance their time, they build awful products and demotivate their product teams, co-workers, and customers who care about the product.


To get a grip on the problem, we have two axis. On the X-axis we have time, and on the Y-axis we have attention. To maintain balance, one wants to ensure that - over time - all important stakeholders get attention. If we don’t get this right, we’re heading towards rough water. This means that you - as someone leading a team or part of the product - need to ensure you take drinks from several pools and not get stuck in just one.


Symptoms of unbalance might not be clear. Spend time with the different stakeholders. Listen to what they say, notice what they stop saying (or don’t say). Here’s the cases that come up:


Without visible progress - even if you’re working on something - customers become bored (or worse - frustrated) that the product is standing still. Their issues aren't being fixed.


If your new features don't affect all customers, non-prioritised segments feel left out. Their issues aren't being fixed.


Your internal teams begin to disconnect. You hear less feedback, less ideas. They forget that they’re important members of a product company with important feedback and perspectives.


Last of all, tension builds in your team. If you have a team that truly cares, they'll start to disagree with the PM or business direction. They'll feel as though they don't have time to polish. They don't have the ability to help others. They're cogs in a bigger machine. They're not allowed to fix issues.


Nasty stuff.


Why it’s a problem


Prioritisation follows value, often a single dimension (money, time, if you're unlucky "daily signups"). It's easy to lose perspective. A lot of PMs focus purely on providing direct value to the business. I have some I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-beef with these (don’t stress - there’s lots of issues that are safe to serve to vegans also).


First: prioritisation is a complex system. Inside complex systems, direct cause-and-effect cannot reliably be estimated.


Second: Many trick themselves into thinking that hard work = great payoff. The correct frame here is to look at the work you do as a series of bets. These might pay big, they might pay small - they might not even pay at all.


So, there's no objective "best" path forward, and we're not certain that anything will produce what we want. This makes the world feel enormously difficult.


Solution


Despite the doom-and-gloom tone, I want to flip this around: we can (and should) be confident that the major efforts will deliver the value we want. We should, though, hedge our bets in a small way (like diversifying your portfolio). We can do this by ensuring that we continually take small bites alongside our big ones. These - at worst - make a customer happy and builds trust within your team. At best - who knows.


The role of a PM cannot be reduced to science. There's always taste involved. PM’s that take a scientific approach are most often beaten by those with good taste and the ability to think outside the box. It’s like an artist painting by numbers - if you do it like this, you’re going to miss a lot of opportunities and hidden pathways.


Our role as product companies is to provide a home for our customers' problems. We can spend our time shifting big bricks (don't forget: this is important), but if we focus only here - we're going to end up with a lot of holes and an awfully cold home come winter.
What I propose is a tweak to how we look at investing our time in tech. Most teams with a strong product (and PM) have many sources of inputs. They hear things from colleagues, from listening in to sales calls, from customers, from the market. With so many influences spinning around, it's most often not possible to make an objective prioritisation


So, the conclusion: leave space outside the highest priority to take small bites. Small bites? Something that brings joy to someone. Don’t be too scientific here, it’s purely down to having good taste and a good reading of temperature. Pick something that will make customers happy. Internal users happy. Developers happy. Make it happen. Follow up on it.


To get here, you need a PM and an EM who cares. Without backing from the PM especially, this will be very hard to do. Extending beyond this, you need trust between the organisation and your team. They need to trust that the decisions made are for the best of the product.


You need to ensure that you and your team all care about the work you're doing. Your customers. Your company. Your team. This whole model breaks down if nobody actually cares. As a leader - your team is your product. Your role is not to build the product, your role is to inspire the team to build the best product possible.


Remember: Your whole team doesn't need to work on this every week. It can be one person. If people are hesitant - your role is to inspire love for shipping product. Love for helping customers and team members. The EM in the team should be watching for how often these moments happen, and who's doing them. Is it balanced? Does the work make sense? If you're the EM: measure this. Make sure to give it positive attention during retrospectives.


Wrapping up


Would this work for your team? If not - why? What needs to change?


My challenge to people helping plan their company's technical investments. You have 6 weeks. Can you find 3 things that haven't had attention but will help make a customer or internal users' experience with your product or company better?


Get your team to execute them, and as importantly - ensure you collect feedback.