Ask for ranked wishlists

Other teams have a lot of requests for your product (or demands, depending on the culture of your company). Believe it or not, this is a gift. If every team has ideas of how to improve your product, that means they’re engaged in the product process. Internal teams (especially customer facing teams) have gold mines of feedback and insight. Treat them as the invaluable resources that they are.

But it’s time and energy intensive to understand, document, and rank dozens (hundreds? thousands??) of requests. You have long, dense lists of ideas, and no clarity on which items matter most. You have a prioritization problem. Prioritization takes a lot of mental energy. If the development team tries to do it alone, they will waste time and also miss out on the insights of other teams.

This post offers a simple, sneaky-powerful solution. Ask these teams to rank their wishlists, then ask them to narrow down to their top 5. That’s it. Doing this pulls them into the prioritization discussion. This saves the development team loads of time. But it also empowers other teams to ask hard questions and express product opinions. Most important of all, it ensures that we primarily spend time on the most important problems.

The Problem

We had a backlog that everyone referred to as "the black hole." We had a culture where everyone could write tickets, which was great. But the result was thousands of tickets. Some of those tickets were great ideas, others not so much. Some were huge problems for all customers, others were small nits from a single customer.

The onus of prioritization rested on the product development team. But we didn't know which tickets mattered most. A few times we tried and failed to go through every ticket in the backlog to start fresh. We would often pick up the most recent bugs, and ignore older tickets. Or we'd solve the easiest problems, since we didn't know which mattered most. Or we'd work on tickets from the most persuasive (or loudest) customer success manager. But none of these reactive strategies guaranteed we worked on tickets that actually matter.

Good tickets festered. Everyone's morale sank. Customer-facing teams who wrote these tickets felt ignored. The development team felt like they were letting everyone down. Executives wondered, "How do we even know if we're working on the stuff that matters most?" The black hole grew, and laughed at us. To summarize:

  • The product development team didn't have the time or information to understand every ticket.
  • Other teams had no say in the prioritization process.
  • Morale sucked.
  • As a result we spent a lot of time working on the wrong stuff.

The Solution

This solution might be the most useful thing you can do for the least amount of effort. One team at my previous company started ranking their wishlist. I loved it so much, I started asking this from every team:

  • We love that you have a wishlist. Keep adding to it. Your input is so valuable.
  • Put your list in order. We value your opinions so much that we trust you to rank your list. You tell us which matters most, and why. No two items can have the same rank.
  • Rank the list based on how severe the pain of the problem is, and how many users the problem affects.
  • Let's meet for an hour, and talk about your top 5 to make sure we deeply understand your most important issues.

This is a tacit acknowledgement that we cannot get to everything. So you tell us what matters most. We've brought them into strategic product thinking. This is a good way to honor them and say, "we care about your opinion." It also forces them to reckon with the brutal tradeoffs of product development.

Some interesting dynamics came out of this process:

  • A couple of the most important issues were simple text changes. We fixed them immediately. Easy, meaningful wins.
  • The most recent nit from a colleague dropped way down the list. As soon as he had to rank his own issues, he had to acknowledge that this nit was not very important. But he wasn't annoyed with us! That was his decision
  • We explained that one of their issues was actually a huge project that wasn't likely to happen this year. They understood, and at the next meeting they replaced it with another issue. They started gaming it out in smart ways. They were doing product strategy!
  • I noticed that one issue showed up on 3 different teams' top 5 lists. I hadn't realized how important this issue was, and started working on it immediately.

This solution is so simple it might sound silly. But it is transformative. Bring other teams into the prioritization discussion. Focus meetings on Top 5s. And of course, don't spend your week teasing out hundreds of old tickets that might not even matter.

John Drexler

John Drexler

John is a Product Manager and Founder at Thunk.