A Delicious Metaphor for Painless Prioritization

When I think about my own personal time management, I sometimes have to remind myself: “I can do anything; I just can’t do everything.” This is true about building products in the digital space too. No matter how effective and speedy the development shop is, product and project managers are responsible for reminding the stakeholders that we live in a world of finite resources, and that once we have our laundry list of all the stuff we want, we have to decide what stuff is more important than the other stuff.

This is always harder than you think it’s going to be, because the product you are building in real life is always competing with one the stakeholder imagined in her mind. I sometimes find it useful to employ a bit of shorthand to help everyone speak the same language when prioritizing. Metaphors are very effective for that, and ice cream is great, so here we go!

High Priority: The Ice Cream

Represents the features that constitute the basic conditions for satisfying the business need. Not a picture of ice cream, not ice cream without flavor, but a real, delicious, sweet frozen treat in at least one tasty flavor. It’s not worth doing the project ‘go get ice cream’ without this set of functionality. When imagining a new digital product, try to identify the pieces of work that are non-negotiable – the things for which the statement “It’s not worth doing this without x” evaluates to true. These are your success criteria. They are the minimum feature set necessary to be able to say that the product developed moves the business closer toward its objectives. As much as is possible, product managers must work to recalibrate their stakeholders’ expectations to maintain focus on this feature set. Remember, ice cream is, by itself, delicious.

Medium Priority: The Cone

After we’ve addressed the basic minimal needs of the product, we can start to look at features that add some more substance to the product. I relate these features to the cone: also quite tasty, definitely an improvement over the basic paper cup and spoon, convenient and environmentally-friendly disposal mechanism. But it stops short of being high priority because by itself, it does not make or break the ice cream experience. You wouldn’t go to an ice cream shop and ask to buy a sugar cone by itself because that would be crazy. The cone only adds value to the ice cream. It’s good at its job, but ultimately it’s not a ‘project ice cream’ dealbreaker. Try and imagine the features that would eliminate pain from the user’s process even if, without those features, the user could still get the job done.

Low Priority: Sprinkles

Asking for a bunch of sprinkles without an ice cream cone would make even less sense than asking for a cone by itself, and that’s because the sprinkles really only have any value when added on top of a solid foundation of sweet frozen dessert. In terms of digital products, this category describes those features that are nice-to-have, but require that the high-value items — remember, they are the reason we are doing the work — are in place before they make any sense or add any business value.

Prioritization can be a difficult exercise no matter what metaphors you use. No stakeholder is excited to imagine a world in which they don’t get all the things they want. Whatever analogy you choose to use, going through this exercise is critical for organizing your team’s effort to help ensure you minimize risk and maximize the odds that you will actually deliver on all of the value that the stakeholder needs.

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