I joined SendGrid in July 2013 as the company’s first Product Management (PM) leader. At that point, the company was four years old, with 150 employees and an impressive revenue growth rate. Installing and optimizing PM at a rapidly scaling company is hard, so I’d like to share some of our learnings as we tackled various challenges, in hopes that it benefits the broader PM and technology community. This post is the sixth in a series (here are links to earlier posts on Growing the Team, Prioritizing Usability, Maturing the Planning Process, Leveraging Product Usage Tracking Data, and Investing in Customer Validation) and addresses the topic of how to prioritize effectively.

It’s a Tough Job, But Somebody’s Gotta Do It

Prioritization is the most difficult aspect of PM. For scaling companies, demand to take on projects always far exceeds the bandwidth of the product delivery teams. There are also good ideas everywhere, from customers, partners, execs, engineers, and customer facing teams.  Dealing with the maelstrom of inputs and opinions in the face of tight capacity constraints can test the limits of even the best PMs. But without strong PM prioritization, the product development process can devolve into noisy chaos. Learning how to prioritize effectively as an organization is critical. How would you assess your organization’s ability to prioritize?

Start with Strategy

The best run companies have clearly defined company and product strategies. If you don’t enjoy clarity in this area, then prioritizing at a more granular level becomes much more difficult. The CEO and Head of Product should be attached at the hip to ensure that the company strategy and product strategy are clear and complementary. Once the company and product strategies are clear, then your job as a PM is to make sure that each of your high priority project candidates contributes to the company and product strategies. If not, de-prioritize it.

Make it Objective

In a scaling PM organization, you’ll end up with multiple teams, each with their own area to prioritize. It can be extremely difficult to compare the value of a project in one area versus another, particularly when it comes to revenue generating projects vs. non-revenue generating projects. My suggestion is to pick an objective priority scoring system so you can reasonably compare across teams and project types (revenue generating, tech debt, security, etc). We settled on a system called RICE which was cooked up by the team at Intercom. The RICE acronym scores each potential project along the following dimensions:

  • Reach – how many users will this impact in its first quarter of availability? (projects with high reach score higher)
  • Impact – how much impact will this project have on target users? (higher impact projects score higher)
  • Confidence – how confident are we in our scores overall?  (higher confidence projects score higher)
  • Effort – how many person months do we expect this project to consume across PM, Design, and Engineering? (smaller projects score higher)

Each item in our “opportunity backlog” has a RICE score attached to it, which helps us narrow our focus to the highest scoring items. The RICE score isn’t a definitive priority metric (PM judgment is still required), but it’s an important priority input.

Answer Hard Questions Early

Once the prioritized opportunity backlog is defined, PMs then enter into a customer validation phase to ensure our highest priority candidates truly deserve engineering cycles. In my last post, I explained our process for customer validation, during which we ask PMs to answer a series of hard questions, such as “why must we do this now?” Answers to these questions are backed up by customer interviews and analysis. Oftentimes learnings from the validation process will impact our view on priority, and helps us whittle down our list of project candidates to those with a truly high likelihood of success.

Make it Transparent

Once you hone your priority list, validate your projects, and decide what to work on, now it’s time to “show your work.” Almost everyone in your company will have a strong opinion on product priority, and it’s often heavily influenced by their own departmental worldview. This is understandable and natural.

One of the toughest aspects of PM is communicating priority decisions that are unpopular with stakeholders. The best approach to communicating priority is to a) make it transparent, b) explain why, and c) make it objective. At SendGrid, we have several forums to communicate priority:

  • Bi-weekly cross-functional stakeholder reviews where deeply involved stakeholders can review our opportunity backlog and voice their opinion on priority. These reviews are limited to hand-picked representatives from relevant functions to limit the number of participants to a reasonable level.
  • Quarterly product planning meetings where we inform stakeholders of our priorities for the upcoming quarter, and why they are important.
  • Monthly product showcases where we educate the company on what’s coming up, and why they should care.

Conclusion

Product prioritization is a complex and often an emotionally charged topic. On the bright side, effective prioritizing can lead to the best possible product outcomes and also reduce organizational noise and confusion. The keys are to align product priority with company strategy, develop an objective priority scoring system, and use product validation techniques to surface the highest priority projects. Finally, be open and transparent about your prioritization system and product plans.

I hope you took something from this post, and best of luck gaining control of your product prioritization process!  Stay tuned for Part 7, which will cover the topic of “Optimizing the Go-to-Market Process.”



Scott Williamson

As VP of Product Management, Scott leads SendGrid’s 16-person Product Management team. Scott and his team are responsible for driving SendGrid’s product strategy and new product development, with the mission of delivering products that customers love and value.