In this post, we will talk about how to prioritisation can help us focus on what is important, steering us ever closer to our vision and goals.
- Good Decisions and Priorities
- Prioritisation Methods
- Prioritisation of Value and Desirability
- Prioritisation Grids
- Design Criteria Canvas (a.k.a. MoSCoW)
- Alignment Diagrams
- Decision Matrices, Scorecards and Formulas
- Prioritisation and Investment Discussions
- Recommended Reading
- What slows progress and wastes the most time on projects is confusion about what the goals are or which things should come before which other things
- Leaders understand that Activity is not necessarily Accomplishment.
- Companies that scale are the ones who choose to do less stuff.
- We don’t protect our hours from being stolen. We allow thieves to steal time from us, day after day.
- Priorities Make Things Happen.
- Any prioritisation method is should help facilitate making hard choices, taking in account not just feasibility, but also viability and desirability.
- What is your prioritisation policy and how is it visualised? How does each and every item of work that has prioritised helps get us closer to our vision and achieve our goals?
- Having clarity around prioritisation policy is good, even better is to have clear goals and principles!
- If discussions around priorities are getting the team stuck (or is hurting team morale), step up to the plate and help!
Good Decisions and Priorities
What slows progress and wastes the most time on projects is confusion about what the goals are or which things should come before which other things. Many miscommunications and missteps happen because person A assumed one priority (make it faster), and person B assumed another (make it more stable). This is true for programmers, testers, marketers, and entire teams of people. If these conflicts can be avoided, more time can be spent actually progressing toward the project goals (Berkun, S., Making things happen: Mastering project management, 2008).
Prioritisation versus “Being Busy” Addiction
Unfortunately, this sense of priorities might not always be clear with teams, either because leaders have not defined priorities, or priorities have not be clearly communicated.
It might sound a little counterintuitive, but the companies who scale are the ones who do fewer things. It works because they can do those few things really well. By comparison, the companies who get stuck often get stuck because they keep trying to do too many things. You can’t do too many things well (Azzarello, P., “Too Busy to Scale” in Move: How decisive leaders execute strategy despite obstacles, setbacks, and stalls, 2017).
It’s so tempting to stay busy, because — first of all — it’s scary to say no, and secondly, being really busy can make people feel heroic and important. Much of the busy stuff can be related directly to bringing in revenue. What could be more important than that? How can that be wrong. It’s wrong because is stalling you (Azzarello, P., “Too Busy to Scale” in Move: How decisive leaders execute strategy despite obstacles, setbacks, and stalls, 2017).
A few reasons why not every leader practices prioritizing (Maxwell, J. C., The 21 irrefutable laws of leadership: Follow them and people will follow you, 2007):
- When we are busy, we naturally believe that we are achieving. Activity is not necessarily accomplishment.
- Prioritizing requires leaders to continually think ahead, to know what is important, to know what’s next, to see how everything relates to the overall vision.
- Prioritizing causes us to do things that are at the least uncomfortable and sometimes downright painful.
Prioritisation versus the Time Thieves
When short-term pressures chronically prevent you from doing more strategic stuff, you end up burning all your time and resources reacting to issues and opportunities in an ad hoc manner, instead of making progress on strategic work that will let you scale (Azzarello, P., “Too Busy to Scale” in Move: How decisive leaders execute strategy despite obstacles, setbacks, and stalls, 2017).
We grumble the there just aren’t enough hours in the day and that someone else seems to have a lot of free time. But we regular mortals only have twenty-four hours in a day. The problem is that we don’t protect our hours from being stolen. We allow thieves to steal time from us, day after day. Who are these thieves of time? The five thieves of time that prevent you from getting work done include (DeGrandis, D., Making work visible: Exposing time theft to optimize workflow, 2017):
- Too Much Work-in-Progress (WIP): work that has started, but is not yet finished. Sometimes referred as partially completed work.
- Unknown Dependencies: Something you weren’t aware of that need to happen before you can finish.
- Unplanned Work: Interruptions that prevent you from finishing something or from stopping at a better breaking point.
- Conflicting Priorities: Projects and tasks that compete with each other for people and resources block flow and increase partially completed work.
- Neglected Work: Partially completed work that sits idle on the bench.
Priorities Make Things Happen
As s design manager, I’ve always found that — while defining and shaping the Product Design vision to ensure cohesive product narratives through sound strategy and design principles — the way priorities are defined can potentially create a disconnect from vision, especially when tough choices around scope needs to be made. It’s important that we facilitated discussions around priorities, so the hard choices that needs to be made take in account not just feasibility, but also viability and desirability.
The goal with prioritization is to determine what to complete next in order to get maximum value in the shortest amount of time and to avoid multi-tasking due to competing priorities (DeGrandis, D., Making work visible: Exposing time theft to optimize workflow, 2017).
It’s essential to set priorities and remove distractions so that people can get on with providing service to customers, thus increasing profits and the value of the business (Kourdi, J., Business Strategy: A guide to effective decision-making, 2015).
There are a few things you should ask yourself and/or the team when we keep coming revisiting and renegotiating the scope of work (DeGrandis, D., Making work visible: Exposing time theft to optimize workflow, 2017):
- What is your prioritisation policy and how is it visualised? How does each and every item of work that has prioritised helps get us closer to our vision and achieve our goals?
- How will you signal when work has been prioritised and is ready to be worked on? In other words — where is your line of commitment? How do people know which work to pull?
- How will we visually distinguish between higher priorities and lower priority work?
If you have priorities in place, you can always ask questions in any discussion that reframe the argument around a more useful primary consideration. This refreshes everyone’s sense of what success is, visibly dividing the universe into two piles: things that are important and things that are nice, but not important. Here are some sample questions (Berkun, S., Making things happen: Mastering project management, 2008):
- What problem are we trying to solve?
- If there are multiple problems, which one is most important?
- How does this problem relate to or impact our goals?
- What is the simplest way to fix this that will allow us to meet our goals?
As I mentioned above, any prioritisation method is — in my option — only as good as it helps facilitate discussions around priorities, so the hard choices that needs to be made take in account not just feasibility, but also viability and desirability.
Many companies try to deal with complexity with analytical firepower and sophisticated mathematics. That is unfortunate, since the most essential elements of creating a hypothesis can typically be communicated through simple pencil-and-paper sketches (Govindarajan, V., & Trimble, C., The other side of innovation: Solving the execution challenge, 2010.)
To understand the risk and uncertainty of your idea you need to ask: “What are all the things that need to be true for this idea to work?” This will allow you to identify all four types of hypotheses underlying a business idea: desirability, feasibility, viability, and adaptability (Bland, D. J., & Osterwalder, A., Testing business ideas, 2020):
- Desirability: Does the market want this idea?
- Feasibility: Can we deliver at scale?
- Viability: Is the idea profitable enough?
- Adaptability: Can the idea survive and adapt in a changing environment?
With that in mind, you’ll probably notice that all the methods I’ll recommend involve some degree of facilitation through visual thinking.
Prioritisation of Value and Desirability
From a user-centered perspective, the most crucial pivot that needs to happen in the conversation between designers and business stakeholders is the framing of value:
- Business value
- User value
- Value to designers (sense of self-realisation? Did I impact someone’s life in a positive way?)
So how do you facilitate discussions that help teams clearly see value from different angles?
Outcome-driven Innovation (ODI)
Outcome-Driven Innovation (ODI) is a strategy and innovation process built around the theory that people buy products and services to get jobs done. It links a company’s value creation activities to customer-defined metrics. Ulwick found that previous innovation practices were ineffective because they were incomplete, overlapping, or unnecessary.
Clayton Christensen credits Ulwick and Richard Pedi of Gage Foods with the way of thinking about market structure used in the chapter “What Products Will Customers Want to Buy?” in his Innovator’s Solution and called “jobs to be done” or “outcomes that customers are seeking”.
Ulwick’s “opportunity algorithm” measures and ranks innovation opportunities. Standard gap analysis looks at the simple difference between importance and satisfaction metrics; Ulwick’s formula gives twice as much weight to importance as to satisfaction, where importance and satisfaction are the proportion of high survey responses.
You’re probably asking yourself “where these values come from?” That’s where User Research comes in handy: once you’ve got the List of Use Cases, you go back to your users and probe on how important each use case is, and how satisfied with the product they are with regards to each use case.
Once you’ve obtained the opportunity scores for each use case, what comes next? There are two complementary pieces of information that the scores reveal: where the market is underserved and where the it is overserved. We can use this information to make some important targeting and resource-related decisions.
The Kano Model, developed by Dr. Noriaki Kano, is a way of classifying customer expectations into three categories: expected needs, normal needs, exciting needs. This hierarchy can be used to help with our prioritization efforts by clearly identifying the value of solutions to the needs in each category (“Kano Model” in Product Roadmaps Relaunched, Lombardo, C. T., McCarthy, B., Ryan, E., & Connors, M., 2017):
- The customer’s expected needs are roughly equivalent to the critical path: if those needs are not met, they become dissatisfiers.
- If you meet the expected needs, customers will start articulating normal needs, or satisfiers — things they don’t normally need in the product but will satisfy them.
- When normal needs are largely met, then exciting needs (delighters or wows) go beyond the customers’ expectations.
The Kano methodology was initially adopted by operations researchers, who added statistical rigor to the question pair results analysis. Product managers have leveraged aspects of the Kano approach in Quality Function Deployment (QFD). More recently, this methodology has been used by Agile teams and in market research (Moorman, J., “Leveraging the Kano Model for Optimal Results” in UX Magazine, 2012).
Value Opportunity Analysis (VOA) maps the extensive to which a product or a service’s aspirational Qualities connect with an audience (Hanington, B., & Martin, B., Universal methods of design, 2012).
Desirability Testing gauges first-impression emotional responses to product and services, exploring the affective responses that different designs elicit form people based on first impressions. Using index cards with positive, neutral and negative adjectives written on them, participants pick those that describe how they feel about a design or a prototype (Hanington, B., & Martin, B., Universal methods of design, 2012).
Buy a Feature / 100$ Test have participants assign relative value to a list of items by spending imaginary “X” amount of current (e.g.: 100 US dollars) together. By using the concept of cash, the exercise captures more attention and keeps participants more engaged than an arbitrary point or ranking system (Gray, D., Brown, S., & Macanufo, J., Gamestorming, 2010).
These grids are visualisation exercises that help the team answer the questions like what’s actually worth our time effort? what’s worth the organization’s investment in the project? What’s worth our time and investment in the project?
Importance versus Feasibility
We answer these questions by figuring out what the tradeoffs are between the product’s importance and its feasibility/viability (Natoli, J., Think first, 2015).
Furthermore, we can adapt these axises in these prioritisation grids to suit the discussion at hand (value to business and time to market, number of customers impacted and speed to adoption, importance and urgency, etc.) as long as all the stakeholders involved agree on the which criterion are more useful to the decision being discussed, and if there is enough expertise and data available for the team making the prioritisation exercise.
Hypothesis Prioritisation Canvas
If you only have one hypothesis to test it’s clear where to spend the time you have to do discovery work. If you have many hypotheses, how do you decide where your precious discovery hours should be spent? Which hypotheses should be tested? Which ones should be de-prioritised or just thrown away? To help answer this question, Jeff Gothelf put together the Hypothesis Prioritisation Canvas (Gothelf, J., The hypothesis prioritization canvas, 2019):
The Eisenhower Matrix
Also referred to as Urgent-Important Matrix, The Eisenhower Matrix helps you decide on and prioritise tasks by urgency and importance, sorting out less urgent and important tasks which you should either delegate or not do at all (Krogerus, M., & Tschappeler, R., “The Eisenhower Matrix” in The decision book: Fifty models for strategic thinking, 2018).
What Would You Bet?
I’ve picked this one up from Jeff Patton. As the name suggest, ht method starts with the question What would you bet that your hypothesis is correct? (Patton, J., User Story Mapping: Discover the whole story, build the right product, 2014).
Innovation Ambition Matrix considers the newness of the product in the horizontal axis and the newness of the market on the vertical axis. This allows us to distinguish three different innovation types, core, adjacent, and disruptive (Pichler, R., Strategize, 2016)
Impact & Effort Matrix maps possible action on two factors: effort required to implement and potential impact. Some ideas are costly, but may have a bigger long-term payoff than short-term actions. Categorrize ideas along these lines is a useful technique in decision making, as it obliges contributors to balance and evaluate suggested action before committing to them (Gray, D., Brown, S., & Macanufo, J., Gamestorming, 2010).
Design Criteria Canvas (a.k.a. MoSCoW)
Whether you’re designing a new Value Proposition, Business Model, or even an entire strategy for the future, design criteria form the principles and benchmarks of the change you’re after. Design criteria incorporate information from your business, vision, customer research, cultural and economic context, and mindset that you have formed along the way (Van Der Pijl, P., Lokitz, J., & Solomon, L. K., Design a better business: New tools, skills, and mindset for strategy and innovation, 2016):
Also known as MoSCoW, the plain English meaning of the prioritisation categories has value in getting customers to better understand the impact of setting a priority, compared to alternatives like High, Medium and Low.
What I also like about discussing design in terms of principles is that forces the team to look at decisions with the bigger picture in mind. For whatever aspect of a design you’re critiquing, you can ask of them, “Does this help us reach our goal of …” or “Does this adhere to the principle of … that we set?” Followed by “How?” and “Why?” (Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design, 2015):
- Goals are the desired, measurable outcomes that result from a product being used. The team should feel that the goals set forth are achievable and meaningful and they should correlate to a change in user behavior.
- Principles are the qualities and characteristics that the product will exhibit in its content, behaviour, and so on as people use it and interact with it. Good principles should be somewhat specific. Characteristics like “fun” or “amusing” don’t make good principles because they are still pretty broad, and each team member might have a different interpretation of what “fun” is.
Having a clear prioritisation policy is good; having clear goals and principles is better!
Jim Kalbach uses the term alignment diagram to refer to any map, diagram, or visualization that reveals both sides of value creation in a single overview. They are a category of diagram that illustrates the interaction between people and organizations (Kalbach, J., ”Visualizing Value: Aligning Outside-in” in Mapping Experiences, 2021).
Such diagrams are not new and already used in practice. Thus his definition of alignment diagram is less of a proposition for a specific technique than a recognition of how existing approaches can be seen in a new, constructive way.
You may have already used them: service blueprints, customer journey maps, experience maps, and mental model diagrams are widespread examples.
Customer Journey Maps
Customer Journey Maps are visual thinking artifacts that help you get insight into, track, and discuss how a customer experiences a problem you are trying to solve. How does this problem or opportunity show up in their lives? How do they experience it? How do they interact with you? (Lewrick, M., Link, P., & Leifer, L., The design thinking playbook. 2018)
Experience Maps look at a broader context of human behavior. They reverse the relationship and show how the organization fits into a person’s life (Kalbach, J., ”Visualizing Value: Aligning Outside-in” in Mapping Experiences, 2021).
User Story Maps
User story mapping is a visual exercise that helps product managers and their development teams define the work that will create the most delightful user experience. User Story Mapping allows teams to create a dynamic outline of a set of representative user’s interactions with the product, evaluate which steps have the most benefit for the user, and prioritise what should be built next (Patton, J., User Story Mapping: Discover the whole story, build the right product, 2014).
Jeff Patton is one of the few people that has been able to translate Agile into a User Centric practice, and User Story Mapping is probably my favourite visualisation tool to create shared understanding around product, users, context and it really helps with prioritisation discussions.
Many teams generate a lot of ideas when they go through a journey-mapping or experience-mapping exercise. There are so many opportunities for improving things for the customer that they quickly become overwhelmed by a mass of problems, solutions, needs, and ideas without much structure or priority (“Opportunity-Solution Tree” in Product Roadmaps Relaunched, Lombardo, C. T., McCarthy, B., Ryan, E., & Connors, M., 2017).
Opportunity solution trees are a simple way of visually representing the paths you might take to reach a desired outcome (Torres, T., Continuous Discovery Habits: Discover Products that Create Customer Value and Business Value, 2021):
- The root of the tree is your desired outcome—the business need that reflects how your team can create business value.
- Below the opportunity space is the solution space. This is where we’ll visually depict the solutions we are exploring.
- Below the solution space are assumption tests. This is how we’ll evaluate which solutions will help us best create customer value in a way that drives business value.
Opportunity solution trees have a number of benefits. They help product trios (Torres, T., Continuous Discovery Habits: Discover Products that Create Customer Value and Business Value, 2021):
- Resolve the tension between business needs and customer needs
- Build and maintain a shared understanding of how they might reach their desired outcome
- Adopt a continuous mindset
- Unlock better decision-making
- Unlock faster learning cycles
- Build confidence in knowing what to do next
- Unlock simpler stakeholder management
Like highway maps that show towns and cities and the roads, connecting them, Impact Maps layout out what we will build and how these connect to ways we will assist the people who will use the solution. An impact map is a visualisation of the scope and underlying assumptions, created collaboratively by senior technical people and business people. It’s a mind-map grown during a discussion facilitated by answering four questions: WHY, WHO, HOW and WHAT of the problem the team is confronting (Adzic, G., Impact Mapping, 2012)
Mental models are simply affinity diagrams of behaviors made from ethnographic data gathered from audience representatives. They give you a deep understanding of people’s motivations and thought-processes, along with the emotional and philosophical landscape in which they are operating (Young, I., Mental Models, 2008).
Service Blueprints are visual thinking artifacts that help to capture the big picture and interconnections, and are a way to plan out projects and relate service design decisions back to the original research insights. The blueprint is different from the service ecology in that it includes specific detail about the elements, experiences, and delivery within the service itself (Polaine, A., Løvlie, L., & Reason, B., Service design: From insight to implementation, 2013).
Value Stream Mapping is a practical and highly effective way to lean to see and resolve disconnects, redundancies, and gaps in how work gets done (Martin, K., & Osterling, M., Value stream mapping, 2014)
Strategy Canvas help you compare how well competitors meet costumer buying criteria or desired outcomes. To create your own strategy canvas, list the 10-12 most important functional desired outcomes — or buying criteria — on the x-axis. On the y-ais, list the 3-5 most common competitors (direct, indirect, alternative solutions and multi-tools solutions) for the job. (Garbugli, É., Solving Product, 2020).
Decision Matrices, Scorecards and Formulas
A decision matrix is a list of values in rows and columns that allows an analyst to systematically identify, analyze, and rate the performance of relationships between sets of values and information. Elements of a decision matrix show decisions based on certain decision criteria. The matrix is useful for looking at large masses of decision factors and assessing each factor’s relative significance (Wikipedia, Decision matrix. Retrieved July 28, 2021).
Here are some of the most useful matrices, scorecards and formulas for facilitating discussions around investment decisions.
You can create a formula so that you can compare the Return of Investment (ROI) of proposed initiatives and derive a priority list. Scoring even job, them, feature idea, initiate or solution allows you to develop a scorecard ranking each against the others (“A formula for Prioritisation” in Product Roadmaps Relaunched, Lombardo, C. T., McCarthy, B., Ryan, E., & Connors, M., 2017).
In the example above, CN stands for Customer Needs, BO stands for Business Objectives, E stands for Effort, C stands for Confidence, and P stands for Priority.
Use Cases Lists: Pugh Matrix
The UXI Matrix is a simple, flexible, tool that extends the concept of the product backlog to include UX factors normally not tracked by agile teams. To create a UX Integration Matrix, you add several UX-related data points to your user stories (Innes, J., Pugh Matrix in Integrating UX into the product backlog, 2012)
The UXI Matrix helps teams integrate UX best practices and user-centered design by inserting UX at every level of the agile process:
- Groom the backlog: During release and sprint planning you can sort, group, and filter user stories in Excel.
- Reduce design overhead: if a story shares several personas with another story in a multi-user system, then that story may be a duplicate. Grouping by themes can also help here.
- Facilitate Collaboration: You can share it with remote team members. Listing assigned staff provides visibility into who’s doing what (see the columns under the heading Staffing). Then team members can figure out who’s working on related stories and check on what’s complete, especially if you create a hyperlink to the design or research materials right there in the matrix.
- Track user involvement and other UX metrics: It makes it easier to convince the team to revisit previous designs when metrics show users cannot use a proposed design, or are unsatisfied with the current product or service. Furthermore, it can be useful to track satisfaction by user story (or story specific stats from multivariate testing) in a column right next to the story.
I’ve created Use Cases Lists (or Pugh Matrix), which is decision matrix to help evaluate and prioritize a list of options while working with Product Management and Software Architecture teams in both AutoCAD Map3D and AutoCAD Utility Design projects to first establish a list of weighted criteria, and then evaluates each use case against those criteria, trying to take the input from the different stakeholders of the team into account (user experience, business values, etc).
Using the Outcome-driven Innovation Framework above, you can prioritize the Use Cases based on their Opportunities Scores
The RICE Method consists of four factors: Reach, Impact, Confidence and Effort. This method is used to rank features and calculate a score from these four factors to help in prioritisation (Sandy, K., The influential product manager, 2020).
Pareto Principle states that 80% of the benefit can be achieved by doing only 20% of the work. Applied to problem management it means that 80% of the occurrences of an undesired effect (e.g.: downtime) can probably be traced to 20% of the causes (Powesta, H., The Business Analyst’s Handbook, 2008). In product design, the Pareto Principle can be applied to optimization efforts. Within any given system, only a few main variables affect the outcomes, while most other factors will return little to no impact.
Cost of Delay is a numerical value that describes the impact of time on the outcomes you hope to achieve. It combines urgency and value so that you can measure impact and prioritise what you should be doing first (Perri, M., Escaping the build trap, 2019).
Prioritisation and Investment Discussions
As I mentioned in a previous post, designers must become skilled facilitators that respond, prod, encourage, guide, coach and teach as they guide individuals and groups to make decisions that are critical in the business world though effective processes. There are few decisions that are harder than deciding how to prioritise. The mistake I’ve seen many designers make is to look at all of the above as a zero-sum game:
- Our user centered design tools set may have focused too much on needs of the user, at the expense of business needs and technological constraints.
- We need to point at futures that are both desirable, profitable, and viability (“Change By Design“, Brown, T., & Katz, B., 2009).
So the facilitation methods and approaches mentioned above should help you engage with the team to find objective ways to value design ideas/ approaches/ solutions to justify the investment on them. From that perspective, prioritisation does goes hand in hand with selecting alternatives.
My recommendation is to look at the methods and approaches mentioned above like any other facilitation tool: if discussions around priorities are getting the team stuck (or is hurting team morale), step up to the plate and help!
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