May 13

Deep-Dive: Prioritizing for Product Managers

As a Product Manager, you’re constantly juggling everything – ideas, feature requests, strategic initiatives… the works. You want to do it all, but with limited time and resources, you know you have to focus on the work that will deliver the most value to your customers and drive your product forward. But let’s face it – prioritization is hard. Really hard.

You’ve got stakeholders with competing agendas, customers with conflicting needs, and an ever-changing market landscape to navigate. It’s like trying to solve a Rubik’s cube blindfolded while riding a unicycle. Okay, maybe not exactly, but it feels pretty close some days.

The good news is that prioritization is a skill that can be improved upon – it just takes time, practice, and a healthy dose of trial and error. We’ve had a number of speakers throughout our conferences and other events who have talked through prioritization and what’s worked for them. So, in this essay, we thought we’d tap into their collective wisdom and explore the art and science of prioritization, sharing some strategies and frameworks that you can adapt to your own context. From aligning with company objectives to ruthlessly culling your feature backlog, we’ll cover the key steps to building a rock-solid prioritization process.

Of course, as a PM, you’re not just prioritizing your product work but also juggling your own time and energy. We’ll dive into that, too – with some strategies for avoiding the dreaded “task saturation” and ensuring that you focus on the work that matters most.

Let’s dive in…

Laying the Foundation for Effective Prioritization

Laying the Foundation for Effective Prioritization

Before you can start prioritizing initiatives and features, you need a solid foundation to build upon. This means clearly defining the problems you’re trying to solve, aligning with your company’s strategic goals, and developing a compelling product vision. Without this groundwork, you’ll build on quicksand, and your prioritization efforts will quickly sink.

Let’s start with problem definition. As Cassidy Fein, Principal Group Product Manager at Microsoft, emphasizes, “There is so much work that needs to go into actually validating the hypotheses or things that we want to potentially build before we actually get to the work.” This validation process is critical to ensure you’re solving real user needs and not just chasing shiny objects.

But problem definition isn’t enough – you must also ensure you tackle the right problems at the right time. This is where alignment with company strategy and OKRs comes into play. Navya Rehani Gupta, Chief Product Officer at, suggests that top-down prioritization can be key to keeping everyone moving in the same direction. By starting with high-level objectives and themes, you can ensure that your team’s efforts are aligned with the bigger picture. But alignment isn’t a one-time exercise – it requires ongoing communication and transparency. Gupta recommends regularly sharing customer feedback trends with stakeholders to keep everyone informed and prevent the loudest voices from hijacking the roadmap. This exercise also helps surface misalignments and ensures everyone is on the same page about what matters most.

Once you’ve identified the right problems to focus on and everybody is properly aligned, you can then work to establish a clear and compelling product vision. As Rob Shallenberger, a former fighter pilot and author of Do What Matters Most, explains, building a house requires a blueprint. Your product vision is that blueprint – it paints a vivid picture of the future you’re trying to create and helps guide your prioritization decisions. Shallenberger recommends setting aside time to reflect on your long-term goals and the impact you want to have. By articulating a clear product vision, you’ll have a north star to guide you when the going gets tough.

In building this prioritization foundation, balancing quantitative and qualitative inputs is essential. As Fein points out, relying too heavily on either can lead you astray. Quantitative data like usage metrics and NPS scores can reveal patterns and trends, but they don’t always tell the full story. Qualitative insights from user interviews and feedback can provide the “why” behind the numbers and uncover unmet needs. The key is to find the right mix of both types of inputs and use them to paint a holistic picture of your users and their needs. By recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of different data sources, you can make more informed prioritization decisions.

Frameworks and Techniques for Product Prioritization

Frameworks and Techniques for Product Prioritization

Now that you’ve laid the groundwork for effective prioritization, it’s time to dive into the nitty-gritty of prioritizing your product initiatives. This is where frameworks and techniques come into play. But fair warning: there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. And in reality, there are likely dozens (maybe hundreds… or more?!) of frameworks out there that many people swear by. We’ll cover some of these – but as Sophie Lalonde, Product practitioner at Elephant Energy, points out, there likely isn’t one “best” framework. However, it’s important to familiarize yourself with many different frameworks to determine what will work best for you.

With that in mind, let’s explore a few popular frameworks and how they can be adapted to your specific context.

The Kano Model

This framework, developed by Professor Noriaki Kano in the 1980s, categorizes product features based on how they impact customer satisfaction. Cassidy Fein swears by this model, explaining that it helps PMs understand that not everything you’re adding to a feature or a product is driving as much value as the next thing.

The Kano Model breaks down features into three main categories: Basic, Performance, and Excitement. Basic features are the must-haves – think a car’s brakes or a phone’s ability to make calls. Performance features are those that increase satisfaction as they improve, like a car’s fuel efficiency or a phone’s battery life. Excitement features are the unexpected delighters that wow customers, like a car’s heated seats or a phone’s wireless charging.

By categorizing features using the Kano Model, you can prioritize based on the potential impact on customer satisfaction. Fein also notes that excitement features have a “decay of delight” over time, meaning that what’s exciting today may become a basic expectation tomorrow. Netflix’s recommendation engine, for example, was once a game-changing excitement feature but is now table stakes for streaming services. Even for us at Product Collective, when we first introduced the concept of an “Official Notetaker” at INDUSTRY: The Product Conference – somebody who would take notes that would be presented to all attendees on the day after the conference ended, that notetaker received a bigger ovation than any other speaker that took the stage that year. Now, it’s a feature of our conference that attendees expect as “table stakes.”

The RICE Model

Another popular scoring framework is the RICE model, which scores features based on Reach, Impact, Confidence, and Effort. Here’s how it works: for each initiative, you assign a score from 1 to 10 for each of the four criteria. Reach refers to how many users or customers will be affected by the initiative. Impact is about how significant the benefit will be for those users or customers. Confidence is your level of certainty in your estimates for reach and impact. And effort measures how much time and resources will be required to implement the initiative. 

Once you have scores for each criterion, you can plug them into a simple formula to calculate an overall RICE score: (Reach x Impact x Confidence) / Effort. The higher the score, the higher the priority. Our friends at Intercom talk through the RICE Model more here – and have visuals to help. 

One key benefit of using RICE is that it helps teams make more objective decisions and avoid the influence of personal biases or the loudest voices. Of course, no prioritization framework is perfect, and RICE has its limitations. Some critics argue that it oversimplifies complex trade-offs and doesn’t account for strategic or long-term considerations. Others point out that how you define and measure each criterion can heavily influence the scores.

No matter the model, prioritization isn’t just about individual features—it’s also about the bigger picture. As Navya Rehani Gupta reminded us earlier in this essay, it’s important to prioritize OKRs and themes before diving into specific features. Starting with high-level objectives ensures that your team is working on the most impactful initiatives.

The North Star Metric

The North Star Metric (NSM) is a powerful concept that can help product managers align their teams and prioritize their efforts around a single, critical metric that represents their product’s core value. Popularized by Sean Ellis, the NSM is the metric that best captures the value your product delivers to customers. By identifying and focusing on your NSM, you can create a clear, measurable target that guides your product decisions and helps you track progress over time. For example, Airbnb’s NSM is nights booked, reflecting the core value they deliver to hosts and guests. By orienting their product work around this metric, Airbnb’s teams can prioritize features and initiatives that directly impact the number of nights booked, such as improving the search experience, streamlining the booking process, or enhancing trust and safety features. The NSM provides a clear, common language for communicating priorities and tradeoffs and helps ensure everyone is working towards the same goal. While the NSM is not a replacement for a more nuanced understanding of user needs and product quality, it can be a valuable tool for product managers looking to create focus, alignment, and accountability within their teams.

Ultimately, the key to effective prioritization is finding the right combination of frameworks and techniques that work for your team and your business. By experimenting with different approaches and continuously iterating based on feedback and results, you can develop a robust prioritization process that helps you confidently make tough trade-offs.

Communicating and Aligning on Priorities

Communicating and Aligning on Priorities

You’ve worked hard to lay the foundation for prioritization and selecting the right frameworks and techniques for your team. But even the most well-thought-out prioritization process can fall apart if you can’t effectively communicate and align those priorities with stakeholders. 

One key to getting stakeholders on board with your priorities is transparency. When people understand how decisions are made and what criteria are used, they’re more likely to trust the process and support the outcome. Lalonde recommends using visuals to clearly communicate your prioritization framework and the rationale behind your decisions.

For example, you could create a simple matrix that plots potential initiatives based on their impact and effort. By visually showing stakeholders where each item falls on the matrix, you can help them understand why certain things are prioritized over others. You also need to balance stakeholder inputs with customer feedback. It’s easy to get swayed by the loudest voices in the room or the highest-paid person’s opinion (those corporate HiPPO’s can get in the way of our priorities). Still, as Navya Rehani Gupta points out, that can lead you astray. She recommends regularly sharing customer feedback trends with stakeholders to ensure everyone has a holistic view of user needs. After all, there’s nothing better to counteract an opinion than actual data

One way to do this proactively is to create a “voice of the customer” report that aggregates feedback from multiple sources (e.g., user interviews, surveys, support tickets) and highlights common themes and pain points. Regularly sharing this report with stakeholders can help them see beyond their biases and prioritize based on real user needs.

Of course, even with a transparent and customer-centric prioritization process, there will inevitably be times when you have to say no to stakeholder requests. This can be uncomfortable, especially when those requests come from high-level executives or important customers. But saying no is a crucial part of the PM role. Having a clear prioritization framework in place can help say no easier. When a stakeholder comes to you with a last-minute request, you can walk them through the framework and show them how their request stacks up against other priorities. You can also reframe the conversation around trade-offs. Instead of simply saying no to a request, explain what you would have to deprioritize in order to accommodate it. This helps stakeholders understand the opportunity cost of their request and makes them more likely to reconsider if it’s not truly critical.

For those last-minute requests that need to be accommodated (and let’s face it – there will be times when that’s necessary). Lalonde recommends setting aside a percentage of your team’s capacity for ad-hoc work and being transparent about that percentage. That way, when an unexpected request comes in, you have a clear evaluation process and determine if it’s worth pulling someone off their planned work to tackle it.

Prioritizing Your Own Work as a Product Manager

Prioritizing Your Own Work as a Product Manager

As a Product Manager, it’s easy to get caught up in daily firefighting and lose sight of your priorities. With a never-ending stream of meetings, emails, and Slack notifications vying for your attention, it’s crucial to have strategies in place for staying focused on what matters most.

One concept that can help you avoid getting overwhelmed is what Rob Shallenberger calls “task saturation.” Just like a fighter pilot can become task-saturated when there are too many critical signals to process simultaneously, PMs can become task-saturated when they’re trying to juggle too many competing priorities.

To avoid this, Shallenberger recommends regularly stepping back and assessing how you’re spending your time. He suggests using a simple matrix to categorize your tasks into four buckets: high-priority/high-stress, high-priority/low-stress, low-priority/high-stress, and low-priority/low-stress. By identifying which tasks fall into each bucket, you can start to prioritize your time more effectively.

Ideally, Shallenberger says, you should be spending most of your time on high-priority/low-stress tasks. These are the important but not urgent items that are easy to neglect in favor of putting out fires. By proactively carving out time for these tasks, you can steadily progress on your most important priorities without burning yourself out.

It can be challenging to stay on track amidst the chaos of daily life. That’s where tactics like pre-weekly planning and time-blocking come in. Pre-weekly planning involves setting aside time at the beginning of each week to map your priorities and create a game plan for tackling them. You can hit the ground running on Monday morning with a clear sense of direction by proactively thinking through what you need to accomplish and how you’ll do it.

Time-blocking takes this a step further by allocating specific chunks of time on your calendar for different types of work. For example, you might block off two hours every morning for deep work on strategic initiatives or set aside Friday afternoons for learning and personal development. By creating dedicated space for different types of work, you can ensure that you’re progressing on your priorities even amidst the chaos.

This type of planning allows you to let your schedule work for you instead of potentially having it filled by others who send calendar invites your way. I’ve found this to be extremely useful for times when I know that deep work is required. 

Of course, unexpected fires will always crop up, no matter how well you plan. That’s why building some flexibility into your schedule is important and being willing to adapt as needed. Lalonde recommends setting aside some “flex time” each week for ad-hoc requests and last-minute emergencies.

At the end of the day, prioritizing your own work as a PM is about being intentional with your time and energy. By avoiding task saturation and using strategies like pre-weekly planning and time-blocking, you can stay focused on what matters most and avoid burning out in the process.

Continuous Improvement and Avoiding Pitfalls

Continuous Improvement and Avoiding Pitfalls

Prioritization is an ongoing process, not a one-time event. As a PM, you must constantly reassess your priorities based on new information and feedback. One way to stay on top of changing priorities is to build regular check-ins into your process. For example, you might set aside time each quarter (or even better, each month) to review your product roadmap and adjust course based on new insights or shifting company objectives. Or you might meet monthly with key stakeholders to discuss emerging trends and gather input on what to prioritize next.

The key is to stay agile and be willing to pivot when necessary. Just because something was a top priority last month doesn’t mean it still is today. Regularly reassessing your priorities and being open to change can ensure that you’re always working on the most impactful things.

Of course, even with a robust prioritization process in place, it’s easy to fall into common pitfalls. One mistake Lalonde sees PMs make is getting bogged down in the details too early. If you have 508 things on your to-do list, it’s probably a good idea to take a step back and ask yourself what problems you’re actually trying to solve. What areas, categories, or objectives are you really trying to make an impact on? You can avoid getting lost in the weeds by starting with a higher-level strategy and then drilling down into specific features.

Another pitfall is being too dogmatic about your prioritization process. While frameworks and weighted scoring models can be helpful tools, they shouldn’t be treated as gospel. Again, these are tools in your toolbelt. 

To avoid some of these pitfalls, create space for you and your team to try new approaches, even if they don’t always work out. It means fostering an environment where failure’s okay as long as you learn from your mistakes. And it means regularly reflecting on what’s working and what’s not and iterating accordingly.

Ultimately, staying humble and learning is the key to avoiding prioritization pitfalls. No matter how experienced you are as a PM, there’s always room for growth and improvement. By regularly reassessing your priorities, avoiding common mistakes, and fostering a culture of experimentation and learning, you can continue to hone your skills and deliver more value to your users and your business over time.

Summing it all up

If there’s one thing I hope you take away from this essay, it’s this: prioritization is a skill that requires continuous practice and refinement. There’s no silver bullet or one-size-fits-all approach that will work for every team, every product, or every situation. The key is experimenting with different strategies, learning from your successes and failures, and iterating over time.

So, what does that look like in practice? Here are a few key takeaways to keep in mind:

  1. Start with the why: Before diving into the what and the how of prioritization, take time to align on the bigger-picture vision and objectives. What problems are you trying to solve? What outcomes are you hoping to achieve? By grounding your prioritization decisions in a clear sense of purpose, you can ensure that you’re always working on the most impactful things.
  2. Embrace flexibility: Prioritization frameworks and weighted scoring models can be powerful tools, but they shouldn’t be treated as rigid rules. Be open to adapting your approach based on new information, changing circumstances, or unique constraints. The most effective prioritization processes are the ones that can evolve and improve over time.
  3. Communicate, communicate, communicate: Prioritization doesn’t happen in a vacuum. To be effective, you must bring stakeholders along and build shared ownership around your priorities. That means being transparent about your decision-making process, actively seeking out diverse perspectives, and finding ways to visually communicate your priorities in a way that resonates with different audiences.
  4. Put on your own oxygen mask first: As a PM, it’s easy to get so caught up in prioritizing your team’s work that you neglect your own well-being. But just like on an airplane, you must put on your oxygen mask before helping others. That means setting boundaries, proactively carving out time for deep work, and regularly reassessing your own priorities to avoid burnout.

So here’s my challenge to you…

Pick one idea from this post that resonated with you and put it into practice this week. Maybe it’s trying out a new prioritization framework with your team, setting aside time for pre-weekly planning, or having a tough conversation with a stakeholder about trade-offs. Whatever it is, take that first step and see what you learn.

And if you ever feel like you’re losing sight of what matters most, just remember: you’re not alone. Every PM struggles with prioritization at times, even the most experienced ones. The key is to keep learning, growing, and pushing yourself to be a little bit better than you were yesterday.


Mike Belsito

About the author

Mike Belsito is a startup product and business developer who loves creating something from nothing. Mike is the Co-Founder of Product Collective which organizes INDUSTRY, one of the largest product management summits anywhere in the world. For his leadership at Product Collective, Mike was named one of the Top 40 influencers in the field of Product Management. Mike also serves as a Faculty member of Case Western Reserve University in the department of Design and Innovation, and is Co-Host of one of the top startup podcasts online, Rocketship.FM. Prior to Product Collective, Mike spent the past 12 years in startup companies as an early employee, Co-Founder, and Executive. Mike's businesses and products have been featured in national media outlets such as the New York Times, The Atlantic, CNN, NPR, and elsewhere. Mike is also the Author of Startup Seed Funding for the Rest of us, one of the top startup books on Amazon.


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