Okay, let’s say you already have a clear strategy that users have validated. You’ve done customer development, and you have a set of features that were derived from validated hypotheses. Now it’s time to prioritize the features for the next release. So what is your prioritization criteria?
A common mistake many of us make is to “take a stab” at the priorities using our gut and then release them to the development team. After all, you’ve put all that work into learning about your customers, so we know what’s right for them, right? Not so fast. You still need to get buy-in from your Executive team.
It is true that as a Product Manager, you get to propose the contents of the release. But your decision is not final. It’s just a recommendation. You still need to get buy-in from others. After all, you are not the CEO of the product,
You may be concerned that your initial prioritization will go out the window as soon as you start collecting buy-in from others. We’ve all been there. Everybody has different ideas on what the next release should look like. Sales, Marketing, Engineering, and Support all have great arguments for why their features should be the ones to make it in.
Having robust voice-of-customer data behind your prioritization will increase your chances, but you still have to defend your feature set. To make a strong case and get consensus, I recommend using a scorecard framework. It’s easy to use, understand, and implement. A few of the top Product Management tools (like Aha! and ProductPlan) already support this approach, but the good thing is you can also use a simple spreadsheet.
How to use a scorecard
1. Make sure you have a solid strategy and a defined theme for the next release.
2. Agree with your stakeholders on the scorecard criteria for that release before prioritization starts. When defining a scorecard, I suggest you come to the table with your proposed list of parameters and weights and then work with Executives to fine-tune them. If you start the meeting with a blank sheet of paper, the process will take much longer. At that point, you are asking them to drive, as opposed to you leading your process.
For example, here’s a scorecard with some possible categories and weights.
In the example above, I’m giving features that impact Operational Efficiency the highest weight because the theme of the release is related to improving that area.
3. Identify the most relevant features related to that theme. If you apply the scorecard criteria to every possible feature in your backlog, you run the risk of losing focus and not driving towards your strategic goals. So first group together features are good candidates for the release theme, and only apply the scorecard to those features.
4. For each of those features, assign a score (1-100) for each category on the scorecard. A score of 100 means the feature will have an extremely high impact on that category.
Here is an example:
The first feature, Monthly Report, has been assigned a score of 90 under the Customer Engagement category because its release will have a very high impact on customer engagement. The total priority level for the Monthly Report feature is then calculated as follows: Monthly report = 90*20% + 90*10% + 50*30% + 20*40% = 50.
After you complete this calculation for all relevant features, the result will be a prioritized list tied to the company strategy.
Pro tip: You can assign a negative weight to a particular category if you want a higher score there to reduce priority. For example, a “Risk of implementation” category could have a negative weight (-20%). Therefore, this category subtracts from the total when you calculate the score. The result is a prioritized list where riskier features are lower in priority.
Now, keep in mind that the scorecard can often change, even at every release. The scorecard categories and weights should adapt to what’s going on in your company to ensure you are always focusing on the most critical items for that release’s theme.
When creating the scorecard categories, consider other departments’ needs.
Now, notice that in the scorecard example, I’m representing several groups within the organization (sales, UX, operations, etc.). I agree that our responsibility is to look after the customer’s needs, but often, Product Managers forget that what the customers need is not only new features or more “innovation.” Sometimes your product is lacking in usability, performance, or stability. Those are “hidden” areas of a product, but they affect the customer as well.
At other times, your product lacks internal operational efficiency, meaning that your internal team lacks the tools to manage and support your infrastructure. All those internal tools are needed, but since the customer does not see them (and the Sales team can’t monetize them), it is sometimes difficult to convince executives and peers to invest in that functionality.
Our job as Product Managers is to surface those needs and prioritize them accordingly. A scorecard with the correct categories and weights can be a great tool to support a release’s short-term direction without losing focus on the long-term strategy.
For example, let’s assume that you are really lacking in internal tools. Then you can agree with your Execs that operational efficiency should be the theme of the next release, and therefore your scorecard should support this direction. On the table above, notice the values for the “Health monitor” feature. It scores low on all categories except operational efficiency. But because that is the theme of the release, then this feature immediately gets the highest priority.
On the other hand, sometimes you might need to throw features into the scorecard that are highly desired by your colleagues in other departments but which do not match the current release’s theme. Using a scorecard, you can show you are genuinely considering their needs and bringing them to the prioritization table. But there are currently competing priorities that better support the strategy.
The Bottom Line
It’s up to you, the Product Manager, to lead feature prioritization for each release, make sure you are using your development resources in the best way possible, and keep both your customers and Executives happy.
Scorecards are just one of the frameworks you can use for prioritization. For additional prioritization frameworks, here’s a great article by Jim Semick, and here’s an in-depth look at the Kano Model by Jan Moorman. Regardless of which one you pick, make sure you have a method for aligning features with the overall strategy and more immediate internal and external needs.