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How to Prioritize Work When There's so Much to Do

Erika Carter

We’ve all got a lot on our collective, proverbial plates. The role of a product manager, especially, can be extremely demanding. It’s a high-pressure job with high visibility, high expectations, and many responsibilities.

This post explores tips on how to prioritize work to get the most stuff done under as little stress as possible when product managers feel especially overwhelmed with work. Or underwhelmed. Or even just whelmed. These tips include:

  • Using a prioritization framework
  • Being clear about company priorities
  • The importance of documentation

Use a prioritization framework 

Rice is a well-known cereal grain, and the most widely consumed staple food for over half of the human population; RICE, however, is a prioritization scoring framework that product managers especially find especially helpful.

RICE:

  • Reach
  • Impact
  • Confidence
  • Effort

The RICE scoring helps product teams quickly create consistent frameworks in order to objectively evaluate the relative importance for competing ideas and product strategy - the good, the bad, the new, the old: such as new products, product extensions, new features, testing, product prioritization, and the like.

Here’s a quick breakdown of how the formula works:

Reach

How many people will your initiative reach in a given timeframe? This is the first factor in determining your RICE score. It’s up to you to decide what “reach” means according to context and timeframe over when you want to measure it - a week, a month, a quarter, a year, a century? Probably not the latter. Then decide if that reach will refer to the number of customer transactions, free-trial signups, retention, or how many existing users you’re zeroing in on.

Your reach score will be the number you’ve estimated; so, if you estimate your project will lead to 150 new customers within the next quarter, for example, your reach score is 150. Or, if you estimate your project will deliver 1,200 new prospects to your trial-download page within the next month, and that 30% of those prospects will sign up, your reach score is 360.

Impact

Your impact score can reflect a quantitative goal, such as a conversion goal, or a more qualitative goal, such as making your customers jump for joy.

Intercom developed a five-tiered scoring system for estimating a project’s impact:

  • 3 = massive impact
  • 2 = high impact
  • 1 = medium impact
  • .5 = low impact
  • .25 = minimal impact

Confidence

Your confidence score helps you control for projects in which your team has data to support one factor of your score but is relying more on intuition for another factor.

For example, if you have data backing up your reach estimate but your impact score represents more of a gut feeling or anecdotal evidence, your confidence score will help account for this.

Intercom likewise created a tiered set of percentages to score confidence. The options are:

  • 100% = high confidence
  • 80% = medium confidence
  • 50% = low confidence

Regardless of your reach and impact scores, if you arrive at a confidence score below 50%, your priorities should probably be elsewhere.

Effort

Scoring effort is similar to scoring reach. Just estimate the total number of resources (product, design, engineering, testing, etc.) needed to complete the initiative over a given period of time—typically person-months—and that is your score.

In other words, if you estimate a project will take a total of three person-months, your effort score will be 3.

And that’s RICE. Of course, there are other prioritization frameworks, prioritization processes, and prioritization techniques out there that can suit your company’s needs. RICE is just one (albeit popular) example.

Be clear about company priorities

Be clear about company priorities and objectives. This way, you can evaluate what’s most important to your team in the same context as what’s most important to the company’s goals for the most efficient time management.

Being clear is one of the most important aspects of leadership. It sounds so simple. So why is it so seemingly hard at times?

Well, things end up becoming murky if you mark something as a priority, but don’t implement the necessary changes to make it so. To stop this from happening:

  • Choose a direction
  • Remove other work
  • Be transparent

Choose a direction

Setting a good direction is a team effort. At Shortcut, we recommend setting goals from the top and innovating from the bottom.

A balance should be struck between how much an organization is top-down vs. bottom-up. Getting this wrong can create a directionless org that neither responds to user needs nor acts with any sort of strategy or urgency.

The best organizations have company goals set by senior leaders, while the individual features and roadmaps for each are driven by the individual contributors (ICs) closest to the user. A top-down goal may be about hitting a revenue number or competing in a new space, while the roadmaps and features required to hit that goal may be driven largely by individual product managers and their squads.

Too often, senior leaders try to do both, which only ends up making individual teams feel disempowered. Plus, in larger companies, senior leaders can be so far removed from the end user that their feature ideas end up mediocre at best.

To help support senior leaders and ICs in maintaining this balance, Shortcut provides high level Milestones, Roadmaps, and detailed Reports inside the tool itself to provide all team members a clear view into the progress of each team's work:

Shortcut Roadmap

Remove other work

If you say, “This is the most critical thing to do right now,” it follows that other things on the agenda must be less critical. It’s unreasonable to expect team members to focus on high priority items while also focusing on all the other work that must be done. So how best to remove other work? You can delay it, and come back later once the priority tasks have been accomplished. You can cancel it, which is best if there’s a crisis or urgent manner to deal with, or you can reallocate it, which means moving it to another team or within your team to different people. The point is, failing to deal with this existing, less important work increases stress for your team. You need to give your team explicit permission to focus on the clear priorities you have set or you won’t have the right outcomes. You do that by putting a plan in place to handle the work that they will no longer be able to do.

Be transparent

With transparency, there is less bad news. At Shortcut, transparency is not only one of our core values, it’s something we truly embrace. If you saw our internal Slack, you’d see that almost all channels are public. That’s because we believe that everyone in the organization should have access to all the information around decision-making.

We also use our own product to keep record of communications on prioritization and solutioning. Because of this, there are fewer surprises for stakeholders, which means fewer tough conversations, and everyone can follow along on the decision making that went into the work we prioritize as a company.

Document, document, document!

Document priorities to make sure that the document is transparent so everyone across the org always knows what’s most important, and what’s coming next.

Docs is Shortcut's newly released documentation tool - a new way for you to create documents for your team and for yourself that works seamlessly with the rest of Shortcut.

The Docs feature exists because we believe that fresh, living documentation updated in real time is the only kind of trustworthy, useful written information. That’s why, in Shortcut, Docs and the rest of your work stay synced automatically to exist as a single source of truth.

For example, you can highlight any text in a Doc and create a Story from that text to be forever synced across Shortcut. This way, if an engineer updates that Story while they're working in the code, it automatically updates in Docs. You can also link Docs to Epics, Milestones, Labels, and Iterations.

Shortcut Docs

Cool ways Docs can help prioritize work when there’s so much to do:

Get Context Quickly

It’s hard to jump into discussions and unblock work when you can’t access relevant information. Shortcut makes it easy to provide context and meet people where they want to consume information. Have confidence that what you’re working on is the latest. Any changes you make automatically get synced to the core documentation that others are reading.

No More Tool Hopping

t’s mentally exhausting to always be switching between tools. Shortcut offers a streamlined, seamless user experience across Docs and work (via one unified UI and consistent information architecture). Docs allows you to put your mental energy towards creativity, not context switching between tools.

Product Collaboration

Shortcut provides a single source of truth for product development. Shortcut makes it easy to collaborate by unifying and aligning teams across the development and GTM organization.

Merge Processes 

Docs supports the rituals and processes you’re already using within the app. The product development lifecycle is enhanced by keeping everything synced within the Shortcut app.

Docs can work for you in all kinds of ways. Thus, we’ve conveniently broken down the most common Docs use cases. We’ve divided these into product & engineering categories, with templates, and you can find these here: 10 Ways to Use Shortcut Docs. Docs are great to help with OKRs, product decisions, product ideas, onboarding, product vision, product backlog, customer needs, product feature prioritization, product roadmaps, reporting metrics, organizing customer feedback and more.

Try Shortcut for free

At Shortcut, a team's entire product development flow can be stitched together in one tool. We allow agile teams to directly connect the planning side of their work to the building side. And it's all done seamlessly in one unified user experience.

We’re project management without all the management. Start your free trial!

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