Stop prioritizing features

By Adriana Beal

What do you think of our process to prioritize new features?

Whenever I hear this question, my first thought is that I don’t even need to look at the process to conclude that it is wrong.

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Whether you are working on a small custom software application, or a product sold to millions of customers, your primary focus should never be new features, but rather value creation

We all understand where this obsession with feature prioritization comes from. Managers get nervous when product owners are not writing new requirements and developers are not producing more code. There’s always a pressure to “come up with themes for the next release”, “deliver more user stories per sprint”, and so forth.

Sadly, the fixation on productivity and feature throughput is as likely to lead to  “bloatware”, customer aggravation, and quickly losing relevance in the market, as to produce the expected growth.

The way to avoid this trap is to shift the focus away from feature prioritization and toward desired business outcomes.

What are the top business priorities for your company?

As Richard Rumelt writes in Bad Strategy, Good Strategy,

A leader’s most important responsibility is identifying the biggest challenges to forward progress and devising a coherent approach to overcoming them.

In practice, it’s common for leaders to fail to acknowledge the most important challenges facing the business. They ignore the power of choice, trying to accommodate all types of conflicting demands and interests across the organization.

But good product owners and business analysts demand more from those who lead. They’ll insist on gaining a clearer picture of what fundamental problems the company is trying to address, and will not rest until there’s an agreement on a focused and coordinated set of actions to tackle those problems.

How do these business priorities affect the priorities of the product or project you’re currently working on?

Let’s say you are a product manager in charge of the requirements for the next release of a SaaS (software-as-a-service) application that is offered by your company in a subscription model. And the high stakes challenge facing the business is customer churn: the company is being able to attract a large number of customers to try the software every week, but the majority of them cancel the subscription a few days after registration.

Now, instead of immediately starting to brainstorm new features that could be added to encourage customers to stick around after trying the software, you would dedicate time to understanding the root cause of the problem. You might learn from support tickets and feedback from former customers, that the main reason for customer churn is how difficult the product is to learn and how long it takes to set up.

Armed with this information, you’d be able to prioritize things like user interface redesign and improvements to the onboarding process as the most critical actions to support the goal of reducing customer churn.

Or, imagine you’re a business analyst in charge of an internal application that helps the sales team manage the sales pipeline. And the biggest challenge the sales team is facing is time wasted with unqualified leads, which is slowing sales down. Upon investigation, you may identify the scoring method used to predict the lead’s “likelihood to close” as the top obstacle to qualified leads, and prioritize enhancements to the scoring algorithm to support the goal of making the sales organization more efficient.

Note that in both examples, the deliverables that most contribute to the desired outcomes have nothing to do with building new features. In the first scenario, improvements in usability and the onboarding process could be the best alternatives to reduce customer churn. In the second scenario, improving the lead scoring algorithm might provide the highest impact in helping the sales team spend time only on the leads that are the most sales-ready.

These examples highlight the biggest problem with feature prioritization models: they start from the faulty assumption that the solution to business challenges must reside on new features, when the best opportunities for improvement may be found elsewhere. When you start from the question of where the best opportunities lie, new features become one of many alternatives to achieve the business goals. They’ll be rightfully competing with bug fixes, performance enhancements, process improvement activities, user interface redesign, marketing efforts, and many other actions capable of delivering business outcomes.

An effective prioritization process doesn’t revolve around features and release scope. It starts from shedding light into business goals and advance toward a commitment on the outcomes the team plans to support, before arriving on software features it plans to implement.

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Photo Credit: Kelly McCarthy