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Prioritizing everything means prioritizing nothing

I was talking to a leader at a financial institution who was having issues prioritizing. They couldn't come up with just one #1 and one #2. They said, "Everything is important. If we don't do all of these, we will be in trouble."

I responded with, "So how’s that working for you?"

There are so many organizations that don’t do the hard work of setting clarity for the company. We talk about it in Scrum@Scale as a Mega Issue, in Path to Agility with the focus area of “Ability to Focus” and Patrick Lencioni says leaders need to “Set Clarity” and decide what we must do next. It is also a large theme in the book “Measure What Matters” by John Doerr. So what is causing this systematic problem in many organizations?

Here are a few things I try to address as we move towards organizational backlog prioritization.

  1. Lack of understanding of the company’s portfolio

  2. Lack of empathy for the value delivered by each product within the portfolio.

  3. Ability to articulate the value.

Let’s dive into each of these.

Lack of understanding of the company’s portfolio.

Leaders have focused on what they are creating and building without paying attention to what their peers are doing. Have you ever been to a meeting where someone is leading the meeting and they are the only person hearing the whole story? They go around the room and ask for each person’s update. While one person gives her update, the rest of the “team” is pounding away at email or working on a PowerPoint or something else. Likely no one from the group have not participated in the discussion. They have not learned anything about the issues each other is facing with their teams or the market. The only time they perk up is when someone uses one of their specific “bingo” words because maybe someone is trying to steal something that belongs to them. This is because this is a group of people, not a team. Patrick Lencioni says the first thing leaders need to do is create a cohesive leadership TEAM and then set clarity.

One specific example is an org where leaders were having their teams build 90% of the same thing in different technologies. What is even funnier is that both of those teams handed off these very similar things to one “operations” team. The ops team wasn’t empowered to question why things were built the way they were, so they just do what they were told. They would get confused about how the two products worked because what they did was so similar. We also saw the cost of “keeping the lights on” take over our annual budget. We addressed this by getting the teams to talk. We empowered the ops team to say “What the heck?” We got the Product people to talk to each other and leverage what each other has built to help reduce the cost of the creation of the product, a significant reduction in the cost to maintain the products, and oh, did I tell you these products were used by the same customers, so pulling them together also made the customers a lot happier?

Lack of empathy of the value other products deliver

If you are incentivized to build fiefdoms in order to get a promotion or a higher bonus, if you are ranked against your peers, you are less likely to want to work together with your peers in a group. This drives some really undesirable behavior if you are a company. Leaders and groups spending money on a pet project or area that is not delivering real value because they have already gotten 80% of the value out of the work already completed. Or how about a product leader who won’t give up a $5,000 to help address some stability issues? If people don’t understand the larger corporate portfolio and don’t understand the value those products deliver, it is very hard for leaders or product owners to say, “That is more important than my work. Let’s work on your thing.” We need leaders and product teams to really understand the value being delivered. We need them to understand the vision, see how the product works, absorb the product roadmap, and see how the product helps the larger organization and might even help them. That isn’t done through a PowerPoint presentation with a box showing what was recently delivered. Let them use the product, let them see the benefits to the customers, let them understand why the rest of the roadmap is important, or not.

Ability to articulate the value

This is a very big topic- worth its own blog.

Patrick Lencioni says if you prioritize everything, you prioritize nothing…

We know that by Prioritizing an organizational backlog, it creates clarity, it allows teams to make decisions about who to help when there is limited availability for a team.

Anecdotally, we know that most large organizations approximately 30% of the staff is working on this that are not prioritized. Add on the fact that the remaining 70% of your staff is working on the 65% of features that according to the Standish group say are “rarely or never used”. That leaves you with only 25% of your staff working on the important stuff. I think you can do better.

If you are having issues creating a prioritized backlog for your organization. Reach out. I can help.

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