One of the toughest things about product is deciding what to do when. This is often the source of most conflict in an organisation and we can’t always please everyone. However there are some ways in which product leaders have shown they can mitigate conflict and answer questions through process. Here’s a quote that I think sums it up nicely:
“Good prioritisation always comes down to what value can be achieved over a given horizon with a given investment or effort. Any great product pursuit will have trade-offs to consider from time-to-time.” — Michael Cerda, vice president of product of Disney+ on Product Board.
5 keys to successful prioritisation of the product roadmap
There are 101 great ideas from all over the business, some processes that need fixing, a few bugs, a couple of senior management passion projects, and perhaps the company is pivoting to a new subscriptions model. How do you prioritise the roadmap and decide what to deliver with the resources you have available, as well as keep relationships intact when you can’t please everyone?
Product leaders are faced with these demands daily. Let’s break this down.
1. How do you decide?
Most leaders agree that prioritising the roadmap must be based on overall company objectives (we’ll go more into goal setting and measurement over the next few weeks).
Gannett, owner of USA Today and the largest local news business in the world, uses three things to set priorities. Kara Chiles, vice president/consumer products, summed this up nicely in a recent Product Initiative Meet-Up I hosted:
Level of effort: For this to be truly understood, great specs need to be written with clear deliverables in mind. Gannett did a lot of training around this in the early days.
Impact: It must work for the organisation as a whole and contribute to positive growth.
Timeliness: The nature of the business in news is prone to urgency. As Kara says, we can “blow up the roadmap if we think it’s worth it,” but it has to be intentional.
2. Who decides?
The short answer is everyone. OK, maybe not everyone, but each department that could have an impact on the product in question should be able to weigh in. Each department has different levers it can pull to help reach company objectives. Decisions cannot be made in isolation because they will inevitably have knock-on effects to other projects.
Of course the amount of people that can weigh into a decision is a spectrum. At one end, where dramatic changes are needed, the product lead will gather information, listen to requirements, and then make the decision. My favourite example of this recently is The Dallas Morning News, which “suspended democracy” until the launch of its new core products. Colleagues at the company recognised the need for change and respected the decision to (you can hear the explanation of this by Sylvia Borowski, director of digital products, around minute 28 of the Meet-Up, here).
The opposite end of the spectrum is where everyone gets involved and has a say in the ongoing product roadmap. At the Financial Times, an Investment board decides how funds are split up, sub councils look at the outcomes based on company OKRs, and then multi-disciplinary teams take the budget allocated, the OKRs, and resources available to decide the product roadmap. Every department is involved at different levels. This approach is framework-led, ensures all inputs are heard, and is results-oriented. But that also takes time and can have an overreliance on funding over other priorities.
If you are interested in the pros and cons of each of these approaches from an organisational perspective, Nine Media has been through both, which you can read about in an interview with their Head of Product Ben Haywood here.
We would be foolish to think that a consensus can be arrived at every time, even with most informed teams and best negotiators. So what happens then? Either the product owner makes the final call or, if people are loggerheads as to the best solution to a problem, possibilities can be A/B tested to find the best results.
3. Communication is key
Every product leader will tell you that communication and transparency are key. By people knowing and being part of the process, there are fewer questions about when things will be delivered. It also shows the bigger picture and can help people understand what others are doing.
However, how do you decide what to communicate to whom and how often?
Some organisations have tools that can be accessed by anyone. This allows full transparency (see Roadmapping tools below)
Again I’m going to use Gannett as an example as Kara Chiles put this succinctly:
4. How often are priorities set?
Most companies will have a combination of annual goals and objectives, quarterly executive/leadership meetings, monthly updates, and, when working to an Agile process, two week sprints.
Marek Kopec, group product director, at Axel Springer Polska took us through the company’s new workflow, which breaks down into two main areas:
Annual planning is strategic with the management board, C-Suite, and MDs. Here they look at company objectives and business prioritisation.
Quarterly planning is with business leads and product management teams. Here they focus on measurement, risk and business review of OKRs, all of which feed into sprint workflow.
Another example worth looking at is MediaNews Group. CJ Jacobs, head of product and technology, took us through her planning and communication in an interview here.
5. How often do you look back and review?
One thing to notice on the slide above is “continuously verify results.” This can be an overlooked part of product, especially where there is a focus on product development with an end date to the delivery. Looking back to see if the product did as well as expected, both after launch and after a period of time, will help hone the process and help teams recognise things as they gain traction/become successful. Decisions can then be made around whether they need more resources.
We’ve been carrying out an informal survey of tools that teams use for roadmapping. Often these aren’t prescribed company-wide, leaving teams to decide what works best for them.
Here are some things to look for when choosing the best tool for you:
Easy of use: An obvious one but necessary when multiple people, and multiple types of people, to spend time inputting to something.
Flexibility: As well as being easy to use, the tool will need to give different users flexibility. Think of the difference between an executive overview looking at the holistic roadmap and a project manager focusing on details on a specific project.
Visualisation: This is an important aspect when you want to be able to use the same tool for different reasons.
Compatibility: How easily does this fit into your existing suite?
Cost: Many of the tools are seat-based. Given that you’re likely to want transparency within an organisation, this can be at odds. But before you write off a tool based on seats, check to see if there is a free “read only” access that may give you what you need.
And these are some of the tools that have been mentioned by INMA members:
Do you use a different tool we should know about? Let us know! E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tweet of the week
This should actually be thread of the week. It’s a good one. Read the full thing here.
I’ll be going into both of these areas over the next few weeks so if you have anything to add or any comments, please send them my way! As always, I’m at email@example.com.
The “CEO Guide to Product” by Tanya Cordrey: As many of us know, explaining product to people is half the battle! This is a great guide that breaks it down in smart, simple CEO terms. “At its heart, a product-centric approach focuses on outcomes not outputs. The success of a great product team can easily be measured through the value it creates for the company. This is very different from a project-led approach which is based on outputs (stuff being built), which as an approach is often more expensive and less successful.” Thanks to INMA member Peter Bale at Stuff in New Zealand for sharing this.
“An introduction to Aggregation Theory” by Fredrik Haga: This is an excellent breakdown of Ben Thompon’s theory of the large Internet companies. Specifically on Facebook’s disruption of newspapers, he says: “So it turns out that what the newspapers actually had more than anything was a monopoly on the distribution of content in their region. Readers and advertisers to a large extent paid publishers because they did not have alternatives. Now that Facebook owns the eyeballs (demand) and can serve an infinite amount of content, most publishers are commoditised, lacking access to their potential customers, and have an inferior ad offering for advertisers. A newspaper might not like this and stop posting on Facebook, but that void will simply be filled by an infinite amount of other content that would love access to Facebook user’s eyeballs. Simply put, the newspapers have been disrupted.” Full article here. Thanks to INMA member Karl Oskar Teien at Schibsted in Norway for sharing this.
“Growing our business through customer value” by Jason Jedlinksi, The Wall Street Journal: “One of a product leader’s most important decisions is identifying what NOT to do. We focus the organisation’s attention not only by clearly identifying targets, but also by declaring ‘we’re not aiming there.’ We call these intentional tradeoffs. For example: Given our focus on customer value, we decided not to chase visit depth, pageviews per session or ‘one more click.’ (We’re also not pursuing ‘dormant’ members. If they didn’t start using their subscriptions during the pandemic, will they ever?).” Jason also has some straightforward tips of some of the “quick wins” that have worked for WSJ: A prominent “View Watchlist” link on our desktop homepage led to a 90% increase in unique visitors to that feature. A new “Podcasts” link in our navigation drove a 16% increase in podcast plays in its first month.
About this newsletter
Today’s newsletter is written by Jodie Hopperton, based in Los Angeles and lead for the INMA Product Initiative. Jodie will share research, case studies, and thought leadership on the topic of global news media product.