The Three Levels of Prioritization. Or, how to eliminate scope creep and always deliver on time.

April 23, 2015 1 comment

tl;dr

The Three Levels of Prioritization:

  1. Must haves
  2. Nice to haves
  3. Wish we could have

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I wrote some time ago about Themes in Scrum.  The focus of that blog post was to address the issue of lower priority items in the Sprint backlog.  The idea was to be purposeful in planning around potentially low priority topics such as help and tutorial pages, or documentation.  Click here if you are interested in reading.

Over the years I have learned much about prioritization – both as it applies to backlog grooming, and how it applies more generally. Proper prioritization is the key to keeping your sanity as a Product Manager. The magic of good prioritization:

  1. Forces stakeholders to think about what they truly need and what they can truly live without.
    – the problem isn’t identifying the top priority, it really is identifying priorities 2, 3, 4, and so on.  And most importantly, which items are the lowest priority – which items will not make the cut if push comes to shove.
  2. Sets expectations
    – everything can’t be top priority.  If we agree to work on the top priority items, that means we are not working on the lower ones. At least not right now.
  3. Manages scope and feature creep
    – when new priorities pop up – or stakeholder focus shifts – always ask the question “is this important enough to stop what we are doing now?”.  Or, “if we work on this, what can drop off the list of deliverables?”
  4. Always deliver on time
    – It’s virtually impossible to deliver both a promised set of features AND on a promised delivery date.  However, a hard delivery date can always be met if the feature set is flexible, and the feature set is always flexible in Agile – it is the Product Manager’s job to convince the Stakeholders of this.

How to always deliver on time

After you have forced your stakeholders to think about what they truly need and can truly live without, then managing scope creep and delivering on time are all a simple matter of proper prioritization.  .The first step is to construct a long-term, agile roadmap.   Remembering that in Agile, requirements and priorities can change sprint-to-sprint.  This does not mean you should avoid creating a long-term roadmap, it simply means that it must be constructed in such a way as to maximize flexibility and minimize wasted development cycles.  Use the following three steps to create a flexible, agile, roadmap:

  1. Identify the Minimum Deliverable Feature set
    – sometimes called the MVP – Minimal Viable Product.  If production where shut down unexpectedly, which features would allow the product to still be delivered in some form or another?
  2. Identify dependancies
    – which features provide basic functionality that can be built upon in future iterations, You do not want to start with standalone features that don’t support the broader functionality of the product.
  3. Prioritize the major features into 3 categories:
    • Must haves
    • Nice to haves
    • Wish we could have

While items 1 and 2 deserve attention (maybe in a future post), let us focus on item 3 – the 3 categories for prioritization. Must haves are features that the product can not live without.  These define our MVP.  Nice to haves are features that we would really love to build – features that add real value, maybe features that differentiate our product from the competition – but are not part of the MVP, and at the end of the day, we could deliver without.  Wish we could haves are the “wish list” items. Everybody agrees these features would be great, these features add pizazz and polish to the product, but expectations are low that these will ever be delivered.

The Wish we could have list is the most difficult one to create.  Some might be tempted to put fit-and-finish issues – the polish – into this category.  However, prioritization is dependent on the goals for the product.  Are you trying to simply get to market quickly with an MVP?  Or differentiate your product from the competition with attention to detail?  Apple, for example, would probably consider fit-and-finish as a Must have feature, whereas a start-up company with a brand new technology that just wants to get a foothold in the marketplace might define only basic functionality as the Must haves – fit-and-finish is on the wish list.

With this prioritization scheme in place, it is now easy (relatively) to commit to a delivery date. The commitment date will include all of the Must haves, as many of the Nice to haves as possible, and maybe some of the Wish to haves.  Always schedule time and resources around the Must haves and the Nice to haves. That way, the Must haves will always be delivered.  Unexpected roadblocks might result in some Nice to haves getting dropped, while any overestimations in time or resources allow some of the Wish we could haves to be delivered.

The 3 levels of prioritization as a fractal

To achieve the greatest level of success with this methodology, make sure you apply it to every level of the planning process.  Apply it to the MVP and the high-level roadmap.  Then apply it to the Epics within each major product feature, and again to each User Story within each Epic.  Finally, use the 3 levels in Sprint planning to fill each Sprint with Must have and Nice to have stories.  Time permitting, bring in extra Wish to have stories, or drop Nice to haves when things don’t go quite as planned.  As priorities change over the course of the project, you as the Product Manager can reshuffle what is being worked on without sacrificing the Must have features and stories, and will be able to articulate at any point in the project what is being worked on, what is being delivered, and why.

Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. Motivation and the Podular Organization, optimizing for innovation rather than efficiency.

March 27, 2014 Leave a comment

Today I would like to talk about a couple of principles and a couple of books that have had an enormous impact on the way I work.  The first is “Drive – The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” by Daniel H Pink, which is a brilliant look at how the “carrots and sticks” motivational techniques of the past are no longer valid and why we need to think about intrinsic – as opposed to extrinsic (external) – motivators.  The 3 pillars of motivation are:

  • Autonomy – the desire to direct our own lives.
  • Mastery – the urge to make progress and get better at something that matters.
  • Purpose – the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

The other book I want to talk about deals primarily with the last point – “Purpose”.  Once properly motivated, how do we get everyone in the organization to feel ownership of the business?  The solution is to create a “business within a business”. And this is the subject of “The Connected Company” by Dave Gray where we examine the concept of the podular organization and optimizing for innovation rather than efficiency.

These principles fit in nicely with the basic tenants of Agile – the idea of self-organizing and cross-functional teams.  As with other Agile processes, it seems (although it is not true) that these principles are much more applicable to smaller, leaner, more start-up like companies.  I have seen firsthand how Agile organizations fall back into old Waterfall traps as the organization grows, middle management grows along with it, and communication, motivation, and innovation become secondary to efficiency and predicability.  In a world that increasingly requires people to think creatively, solve problems and remain flexible in uncertain environments, hierarchical, multidivisional organizations and extrinsic motivation just don’t work.  The answer is to build flat organizations around small, self-governing “business within a business” units, or “pods”.

My experience applying these principle has primarily been with Software Develop teams.  While Software development seems particularly suited to these principles, it is left as an exercise for the reader to think about how they might be applied to other business’s such as hardware development, or service organizations.  

Organizing a large company into a series of “business within a business” pods, allows each pod to function as a stand-alone business unit, ideally only answering to its customers.  These customers may be inside or outside the organization, but each pod delivers its own business value thus giving its members real, motivational ownership of the pods success.  This is how a company optimizes for innovation over efficiency.

Within the pod, team members are motivated by the intrinsic value of the units success.  Developers, designers, sales, support – every member of the team must feel ownership of the teams success.  Autonomy and Mastery come into play as each member of the team is encouraged to identify and provide working solutions to the day-to-day challenges of creating success.  The parameters for success become clear, aligned with the goals of the larger business, thus empowering every member of the team.

“The great innovators in business did not succeed on creativity alone,” Gray writes, “their success was a blend of creative thinking and business logic.”

A great article on Fast Company sums it up nicely:

“So if you want to set a context to bring out your teams’ inner Edisons, you need to align their incentives in three ways:

  • Incentives need to breed visible impacts on the business as whole
  • Incentives need to balance short- and long-term thinking
  • Incentives need to reward people for doing what makes the business as a whole more successful and healthier

In this way, a person’s individual work is linked to the collective endeavor. They get personal expression and collective validation. They’re incented to do their best work, for themselves and for the organization.”

 

The Death of Email Open tracking? Long live Email Open tracking.

December 17, 2013 Leave a comment

So the big news this week in the world of Email Marketing is that Gmail will begin to use an image proxy server for all images in an Email Message.

Gmail blog – images-now-showing

The Good the Bad and the Ugly

What does this mean to the Email Marketer?  Well, the most obvious ramification – and where most of the wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth is coming from – is that it may become much more difficult to track recipient Open Rates since the tracking image that is typically used will no longer be coming from the Marketers server, at least not in the same way it has historically.  While this will only apply to Gmail, Gmail’s market share continues to increase and accounts for around 3% of opens (www.emailclientmarketshare.com).

The Good

  • Gmail users will now see images by default in their emails
  • Good for users – an arguably better user experience
  • Good for marketers – more of the marketing message is now visible by default
  • Good for marketers – possibly more accurate unique open rate measurement (what?)

The Bad

  • Marketers may have to change the way they track unique opens
  • Multiple opens will be harder to track – but not impossible (read on)

The Ugly

  • UserAgent data will be suppressed – or worse, invalid.  This means no Geo data, no browser data, no referer data, no time data.
  • This move has the potential to increase Spam and increase the amount of irrelevant marketing messages recipients see

The Bigger Picture – Privacy vs. Responsible Marketing

I am sure if you are interested you can find your fill of articles on the interwebs about the death of open-rate tracking as it relates to this action by Google, and how to work around it.  But I have seen little to no discussion on the arguments for even tracking open-rates at all.  The subject is almost universally viewed as a necessary evil for Email Marketers.  However, I’m going to go out on a limb here and claim that not only is email open tracking essential for marketers, it is essential for consumers!

I have had the opportunity to have this discussion with Google themselves.  I spent some time consulting with them on their own Email Marketing efforts, and a significant amount of that time was spent convincing them that they needed to track opens.  As responsible marketers, it is essential to track opens.  What is the difference between a “spammer” and a responsible marketer?   Both use tracking images – one nefariously, the other to measure engagement.  Where good marketing breaks down and where consumers start to get resentful, is when that marketing isn’t targeted, or becomes irrelevant.  For example, tampon ads during the Superbowl.  Nobody objects when they are thinking “I’m thirsty”, and then notice that their favorite beer is on sale.

Responsible marketers want to know how to target their messages.  Not because of the ethics or the morality of sending Spam, but because of the ROI.  The most profitable and affective Email Campaigns are those that are highly targeted and relevant.  How do they get that way?  With intensive testing and measurement.  The very definition of Spam is messaging that is unwanted, unasked for, or irrelevant.  As responsible marketers, knowing when, how often, and who is opening a message is essential in determining whether or not to send the next one.  Knowing how – or if – any particular recipient interacts with a message is at the very core of making sure that future messages are as closely aligned with that recipients interests as possible.   Responsible Marketers track email opens because Responsible Marketers are not Spammers.

What now?

So what are marketers to do?  Well, I think that in the long-term the move by Google could actually help marketers.  Just the fact that Gmail recipients will see images by default should be a boon for click-thru rates.  Email Marketers will need to make sure that their tracking images are properly configured.  It turns out that tracking images will still work pretty much as it has in the past if ESP’s have their servers configured properly.  Useragent data may also still be possible to retrieve if everything is done properly.

If you are interested in a discussion on how to continue to use tracking images effectively, here is an article that I found interesting.

How Gmail’s image caching affects marketing and email tracking

The relationships that companies have with their customers is based on trust.  What this means for the Email Marketer is that they need to continue to put their best efforts into understanding their customers and delivering the most relevant messages possible.  It is good to understand that modern Spam filters have evolved away from simplistic checks like opt-out language and tracking-images, and now rely heavily on transparency.  Trusted sources, closed-loop DNS records, reliable reply-to addresses, and CAN-SPAM compliance are what get emails delivered.  Circumventing these measure will continue to erode the trust of consumers.   At the end of the day, this move by Google should give consumers more reasons to trust the marketers whose messages they have let in to their inboxes.

Change

October 15, 2013 1 comment

Do not be afraid of change.  Different isn’t always better, but Better is always different.

Companies that cannot embrace change cannot be innovative.  In order to move any product forward, it must change – hopefully for the better.  Customers will resist change, even while asking for it.  Innovative change must move a product forward, and must enable a company to acquire new customers.  This will inevitably mean the loss of some existing customers.  A company that cannot embrace this “two steps forward, one step back” mentality, cannot innovate.

Change.  It does the body good.

Creativity comes from the darndest places

So we just finished our first sprint and the team is really energized.  Our velocity for this first sprint was 20 story points.  We used Fibonacci series planning poker to weigh user stories and decided to limit any user to 8 story points or less if it was to be included in the sprint. Anything greater than 8 had to go back into the backlog until it could be split up into smaller stories.  This left us with 5 stories, and a total of 20 points.  I am confident that our velocity will start to dramatically increase in a very short time.  We delivered all 5 stories, btw!

The grooming of the stories in this manner has revealed some interesting trends.  Since the user stories are fairly general, and only define “what” the software needs to do instead of “how” it does it, the development team has far fewer specifications on which to base their solutions.  At first, some team members where hesitant to move ahead without the details they were accustomed to in their past waterfall projects.  As Product Owner, I made sure the team knew that I trusted – and in fact was counting on – their creativity.  When a team member was not sure how I wanted a particular user story implemented, I would say something like “I don’t care how you do it.  Give me a couple of suggestions of how you would do it.”

It quickly became obvious that the developers were coming up with solutions that were far more clever than I or any Product Manager could have, and they were also taking into consideration far more of the long and short term ramifications of those solutions.  One of the devs said to me, “Man, the backend architecture is really going to require a lot of rework,” and then proceded to outline his solution and how he would implement it.  It was a very elagent solution.  “I hope we get this solved in time, some of the tasks in this sprint are dependent on it” he said.  To which I replied, “Even with your help, if I had gone off fully speced a backend solution myself, it would have taken me weeks.  And then I would have come back with a design for you to implement that probably wasn’t very flexible, and would have delayed the rest of the project.  By telling you what I needed instead of telling you what to do, you just solved the problem far more elegantly, and it’s only the 2nd day of the sprint!”

If  you trust the people who know the problem to solve the problem, the solutions start to flow like water.

Backlog Grooming

April 27, 2012 1 comment

I have been spending a lot of time this week – as you might imagine – grooming the ol’ Backlog.  I have been focusing on both the set of user stories for the upcoming sprint, as well as the longer term release schedule.  It is becoming increasingly important to look down the road and flesh out and prioritize the tasks and features we most need in our next release.  At our current sprint size of 2 weeks, we have a total of 12 sprints until we deliver the next public release.

Angela Druckman on the Scrum Alliance site, talks about backlog grooming:

Sometimes called StoryTime sessions, the purpose of these meetings is to make improvements to the Product Backlog.  That definition is deliberately vague because the meeting is quite versatile.  A Backlog Grooming session can be used to:
• Write user stories (it is possible to build a Product Backlog “from scratch” in a series of one or more StoryTime sessions)
• Break down user stories that are too big (epics)
• Improve user stories that are poorly written
• Estimate backlog items
• Add acceptance criteria
• Look deeper into the backlog to do longer-range technical planning

That last bullet is an important one.  Some people mistakenly believe that doing Scrum means never focusing on anything but what is coming up in the next sprint.  This is not true.  Instead, backlog grooming sessions are a great place for a Product Owner to say “The March release is coming along great, so today I would like to spend time looking at the user stories I hope to get in the July release.”  Doing this gives teams an opportunity to look further into the future of the product, and can alert them to technical challenges and “gotcha’s”.

For the entire article, click below:

How to Hold Effective Backlog Grooming Session

Themes in Scrum

April 18, 2012 1 comment

There is considerable discussion among Scrum practitioners on the subject of themes.  Sprints often have a theme, which is more akin to a goal.  User Stories are also quite often organized into themes to help with managing the overall progress of a project.  Id like to look at User Story themes a little more closely.

One issue that I foresee in our own evolving scrum process is that certain types of projects may not ever bubble their way up into a sprint.  For instance, features and UX may often seem to deliver the highest Business value, while refactoring and documentation may be viewed as important – even essential – yet never quite deliver the business value when compared to other more visible projects.  The situation reminds me of the old sports adage, “Second place is the first loser.”  The point here is, how do we make sure that our sprints address a wide range of topics, and don’t get overly focused on only the highest priority items?

As an example, an epic user story describing a rich product feature that delivers a great deal of tangible business value is decomposed into perhaps a dozen smaller user stories of decreasing business value.  The highest value stories are the ones that deliver the minimal marketable, or minimal usable feature set, and their associated validation processes.  Next in line might be features that are essential to a finished and professional product, followed by “nice to have” features.  Finally, if we are smart enough, we have added stories for documentation and help, sales support, or even training.

So, what happens when we complete a sprint or two and deliver the highest value subset of stories and now start planning the next sprint?  Well, there is a very good chance that other high value features are in the backlog that trump the remaining stories in our first feature set.  Now, our goal may very well be to deliver as may minimally viable features as we can, which is a fine goal.  However, were does this leave the “nice to have’s”?  The documentation and sales support?  It would be nice if we could prioritize these before we forget everything that went into building the higher value stories.

I think the solution is to create themes for the user stories and commit to adding stories from all themes into sprints as appropriate. For example, maybe documentation and help is only 25% as valuable as the major features of the product.  Now, we clearly don’t want to neglect the high value features, after all, customers don’t buy a product because it has good help screens.  However, customers do stay with a product and tell their peers about it when it is polished and the user experience is great – so we don’t want to neglect these features either.

What I propose is that the Product Owner commit to organizing the backlog into Themes that allow some of the lower relative value items to be addressed on a periodic basis.  For instance, in our example above, we determined that documentation and help generally had business values around 25% of that of the highest value feature stories.  Then the team should commit to addressing stories in this “theme” once every four sprints.  In other words, the goal of every 4th sprint should be to focus on documentation and help themed stories.  That way, the highest value items always get the highest amount of attention, but 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place see a little action, too.

Here are some suggested themes that I think might work for our specific sprints:

  • Major user functionality
  • User experience (UX)
  • “Nice to have” features and product polish
  • API’s
  • Documentation and Help
  • Training and Sales support
  • Marketing support
  • Back end architecture and Data Modeling
  • Refactoring

This list is very much off the top of my head, but I am sure it could be fine tuned.

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