How do I get my ideas prioritized?

November 27, 2019

A while ago I was struggling with the question of "how do I get a project prioritized." I had an idea that everyone agreed was good, but it was languishing and other work was getting prioritzed. I talked to a mentor and he gave me a three-step process that I've since found very useful. The process goes something like this

Step 1: Identify the decision maker

Who is the person who can grant you the authority to do the thing you want to do? Chances are this is a product manager, or someone above you in the management chain. If you can't get a clear answer here that's part of the problem, and you should work with possible decision makers to get one (or a group) appointed. If you can't reach a consensus on a decision maker, escalate and get someone to appoint a decison maker.

Step 2: Figure out what the decision maker cares about

You may think you have the most whizz-bang idea under the sun, but if your decision maker doesn't see why it matters to them you won't get very far. Spend time to figure out what matters to your decision maker. You can get a first-pass idea of this by looking at what metrics they track (probably in the form of OKRs), and then you can sit down to talk with voices for a more qualitative understanding.

Step 3: Figure out what will not happen if your decision gets made

Time isn't infinite, so if a team starts to do your thing, they won't be doing something else. Figure out roughly how large your idea is, and what would get cut if your team undertakes it. This is a great time to brainstorm ways to figure out to trim your idea down to its simplest form, or figure out how you can align what you want to accomplish with an existing endeavor. Both of these minimize how much work needs to be cut, and will likely make your pitch easier

After you do this, evaluate whether or not your idea will help the decision maker in the axes that they care about. If not, you should probably reconsider your idea, or try to reshape what matters to your decision maker (probably by changing the larger group's metrics)

Step 4: Make your case in the language of your decision maker

Present your idea to your decision maker, along with what will be cut, in a succinct format. The format will depend on your context, but the core structure of your message, but it will probably look something like: We are currently doing X. If we start doing Y, then it will help us achieve goals 1 and 2 faster/better/more reliably; this will mean we will need to change Z, but we can safely do that by undertaking these mitigations. I propose we start doing this by taking a step move this forward. Should we take that step?

This probably won't get you an immediate "yes", but you should leave this presentation with a clear action item of how to move forward on your idea, even if that answer is "not now, let's evaluate after 2 months."

An Example: Building Container Infrastructure

A while ago I thought that we should start to invest in building our container infrastructure for our web platform. This would require us to get staffing from our infrastructure team to build something that was reusable across all of our systems. I identified the decision makers as the team lead for our infrastructure team and the manager for our web team.

Next, I figured out what each of them cared about. Our web manager had an OKR around launching our batch API and decreasing the time to create new integrations, and the infrastructure team lead had an OKR around enabling developers to fast feedback on infrastructure changes.

I looked at what we were doing currently. As part of our current integration, we were spending some time doing manual infrastructure configuration. I knew that with Docker we could turn these into ephemeral environments. That would be some upfront costs, but it would make future client integrations faster. It would also mean we could test our infrastructure changes locally by building containers. This aligned with both the web team's KRs, and the infra team's KRs.

Now we had our first three things: we had identified decision makers (web manager + infra team lead), figured out what mattered to them, and figured out the tradeoffs involved in building our idea (slower delivery of current feature, and later delivery of some other features), but still felt that the trade-offs were worth it given our KRs. There was a risk that our containers work would take longer than anticipated, but we'd built a prototype to mitigate some of that, and we always had our quick and dirty original approach if we needed it. Lastly, we had to make the decision.

To do this, I had a meeting with all the stakeholders and wrote a 2-pager detailing the above, and asking for a clear decision: "should we spend 1 month of 2 engineers' time to build this feature using containers?" There was a little bit of back and forth, but eventually we decided "yes, this is what we should do" and we built the thing.

All of the above sounds easy, but it took around 6 weeks of discussions, drafting, prototyping, and refining before we ultimately took a call. Fortunately, by having a clear process, it never felt directionless. This has since been my go-to process for managing new ideas, and I'd recommend it if you're struggling to get your own ideas prioritized.

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