Pre-Prioritization: How Vision And Product Goals Guide The Process
It’s time to dispel a common business myth.
Prioritization is an important step in achieving success at every level of an organization.
However, prioritizing is not the first step. You first need to understand how you’re going to prioritize competing, sometimes mutually exclusive items of importance for you and your organization.
This misunderstanding of sequence can and does cripple efforts to align and focus teams and organizations around a common goal or goals. We’ve seen this happen again and again whether we’re partnered with a startup or a Fortune 500 company.
So let’s examine the important, but often overlooked act of pre-prioritization. You can also hear more of my thoughts on this subject on our YouTube Channel.
Vision At Every Level
Generally speaking, when we conduct a prioritization and/or visioning workshop for an organization, we are often presented with a huge backlog of all the stuff they want to do but in no clear order. Or, leadership may come armed with a list of their top priorities (note the plural) sometimes numbering around 100.
A list like that doesn’t make much sense because when everything is a top priority then nothing is.
So one of the things that we say is, okay, we've got your big backlog of all the projects you want to complete. Now let's backtrack a little bit. What’s your vision?
Now, most everybody in Agile knows about this idea of a Product Vision. But some don’t fully understand or utilize it.
With large companies, we establish a vision not just at the product level, but at the program level and even at the portfolio level. Why? Because it's very hard to prioritize products if you don't know what the vision for the portfolio is.
Therefore, before you start your prioritization, you want to first craft the vision for your portfolio.
Know What MUST be Done
Another important question we like to ask is, “Where do you want to see yourselves in one to two years?” Personally, I like to get that time horizon down to one-year or even over the next few quarters for large companies.
This helps us focus on what we’re trying to achieve from a collective perspective.
Throw in an additional question like, “what do you want people to say about your stuff?” and you’re now taking part in a very revealing conversation.
You’ve got the vision, you have a timeline, now you’re ready to discuss just what’s stopping you from doing these things tomorrow.
The value created here is identifying which projects or products an organization doesn’t think they need to achieve the vision.
That is a big part of developing your pre-prioritization roadmap, you have to identify what must be done to achieve your vision and goals. The rest aren’t priority work and should be swiftly removed from consideration.
Everything is not a top priority. I can’t say that enough.
However, I am a pragmatist. I’ve worked with the business world for a long time now and I do understand that there always are competing projects that deserve to be considered when prioritization takes place. Each could generate untapped opportunities and customer value.
The problem is the finite nature of both people and resources. Scrum does improve productivity but there is still only so much that can be done at any given time. As for resources, there is only so much that can be spent on something before its costs outweigh its value.
For effective prioritization, you first need to pick a uniform, objective way to measure the value of a product or project that also weighs the cost and effort it would take to complete.
There are many such prioritization matrices out there. None of them are perfect. What’s important is that you and your organization pick or generate one that can be applied to all the items you’re going to prioritize.
Sometimes it's as simple as return on investment or ROI. This approach takes a look at the proposed effort and investment divided by the expected return. This can be effective, but personally, I don’t find it detailed enough.
I tend to advise the combination of those ideas with other attributes like urgency and opportunity to generate a weighted shortest job first (WSJF) score.
If you take those numbers or any other metrics that the leadership group wants to look at and then divide that by our proposed notion of effort, you come up with a very objective prioritization number.
Each number can then be compared to others to make empirical decisions on what your priorities are or need to be.
Another important step in pre-prioritization is the use of business cases. You want to make sure that each one of these products and projects that are being considered for prioritization has a solid business case. And that they align with our overall portfolio vision and strategy.
An honest examination may reveal instances where business case and vision diverge. Then, you have to ask yourself, “do we want to go in that direction?” or, “Is our vision divergent?”
If the answer is yes, maybe you should not be doing it.
Establish A Baseline Capacity
Some things just aren’t ever going to get done. That’s a hard truth to swallow. But it’s still the truth.
So we try to establish a baseline capacity at every company we work with. We ask how many projects they delivered last year and the year before that. if we can't understand what the overall group or overall company's capacity is, then we can’t efficiently prioritize because we don’t know how much they can actually deliver.
A perfect example of this took place at an automaker we worked with. We asked, “how many projects do you currently have?” The answer was more than 900.
“Ok,” I said, “how many projects did you finish last year?” 118 they replied.
Clearly, there was a disconnect.
So we drew a line at #118 and said, “everything under this line is probably not going to get done.” Implementing Scrum did help them make their way past #118, but nowhere near the 900-plus they originally identified.
When you’re pre-prioritizing (or prioritizing for that matter) you need to be willing to accept what will not get done. Those are tough conversations to have because nobody wants to give up their pet project(s). Nobody.
This reinforces why pre-prioritization is so critical.
Using an objective prioritization matrix or model based on things like business cases and business value, and incorporating intangible benefits like expanding brand recognition, urgency, and opportunity can help these conversations stop being personal and start being about what matters the most for the business.
Think of it this way; you have a project that will bring in $100 million and faces major competition. Another project has projected revenue of $500 million and faces no major competition. You will be disappointed if your project loses out but you can live with it because you understand the rationale.
Pre-Prioritization Is Like Mediation
We in the Agile and Scrum communities are big on happiness. We should be (you should be too) because it is a leading indicator of productivity, and invaluable when it comes to recruitment and retaining talent.
So, what I’m about to say may surprise you.
If everyone leaves pre-prioritizations or prioritization happy then you didn’t do it right. Or well.
Everyone should leave with a full understanding of the rationals used, the matrix and metrics, the context, and the why. And if you do it right, everyone leaves a little bit upset because they didn’t get everything they wanted.
Trade-offs have to happen. No has to be said more often than “yes” or “we’ll see.”
That is why pre-prioritization is like mediation.
You need an objective standard for comparison. Decisions need to be made based on vision and data, not personality or perceived level of power.
Everyone who takes part in these work sessions needs to adapt to this kind of empirical mindset.
Remember, it's about what is best for the organization. The decisions made will be turned into Product Goals, decomposed into Product Backlog Items, and used to set Sprint Goals. Prioritization is not an exercise, it’s a chance to align the entire organization.
Pre-prioritization work enables organizations to have a rigorous, ruthless, but objective prioritization schema. That is what the modern world requires for success.
And you don’t need to spend six months creating the perfect system. Even if you just use the Fibonacci Sequence and planning poker to estimate business value, urgency, opportunity, and effort, that is better than saying everything is a priority. That’s a recipe for failure.
Everything is not a priority. See, I told you I can’t say that enough.