Before jumping in to answer questions, I am excited to announce that Cache and I are conducting an extended, full-day workshop titled "Get Hands-On With Lean and Learn How to Drive Your Startup or Product" on March 6th, 2015!
We will be focusing on hands-on, thought-provoking activities, and we plan on having a special guest that will be announced soon! Register before 2/18 and get an earlybird discount - bring your team and learn how to achieve your goals together.
Prioritization: StartSLC Lean Workshop Q&A Series Part II:
How do I prioritize effectively so that I am not wasting money and time while validating or building my product?
Prioritizing well is an art form. Many of us defer to what seems most “urgent”, and we confuse those things with what is most “important”.
The answer to this question is multi-dimensional, and it depends on the phase you are in with your product and business. The following framework should help based on whether you are in the validating or building phase.
a. Validating Phase:
In this phase, your priorities are going to revolve around getting enough of a signal that you are solving a real problem (we talked a little bit about the definition of problem), and that there is demand for your solution.
Your priorities will emerge based on following these steps:
Step 1: Identify the Riskiest Part of Your Plan
Thoughtfully creating your lean canvas (modified from Business Model Canvas by Ash Maurya of Running Lean) or business model canvas can help you uncover the areas and parts of your plan that constitute the biggest risk for your business.
What is your biggest risk? Is it your assumed target customer – e.g. you THINK that working moms who commute > 45 minutes a day have the pain or problem you are trying to solve, but what if they don’t?
Is your biggest risk the problem you assume is enough of a pain that people need your solution? Is their existing alternative sufficient?
Sometimes we jump into the building phase before we take a good, honest look at our plan and acknowledge that there are risks involved.
Question everything, and realize that tackling the riskiest aspect of your plan first can (and will) pay off for you in the long run.
Step 2: Talk to People
Once you’ve identified the riskiest part of your plan, you will want to determine if there’s strong enough of a signal for you to even pursue some kind of experiment or test. There are a number of ways you can gather information here, from customer interviews, to directed surveys, to usability testing (with an existing product).
Draw a line in the sand: I.e., know what you are looking for here, and define it up front for yourself and your team so there is no ambiguity.
For example, establish a threshold like “If 33% of people we interview state that they struggle with completing task X because of Y, then that is a strong enough signal for us to move forward.”
(The importance of drawing a line in the sand may warrant its own blog post, but we will keep it here for this post).
Step 3: Design an Experiment
Once you’ve gotten a signal that is strong enough for you (based on the thresholds and targets you defined), it is time to design your Minimum Viable Experiment (term borrowed from a great blog post by Validately).
Similar to what we started doing in the workshop, and what we will do more of in the extended workshop – challenge yourself here.
Is the experiment you are designing to validate your idea or an aspect of your plan really the minimum it can be?
Is there a way you can make your experiment require even less investment but still validate (or invalidate) your assumptions?
Some tools we discussed in class that are useful when designing a Minimum Viable Experiment are:
- Drawing a line in the sand: See Step 2 above
- Landing page: Can you create an effective, communicative landing page that shows you are solving enough of a need to get people to sign up, or come back to your site?
- Validately: I have used this tool myself, and it is great. The creators of Validately truly believe in and live this philosophy themselves: Validate as much as possible before writing one line of code.
(I believe there are other demand validation products out there, but I haven’t used them myself so I can’t really give a recommendation. Note that this is different than an optimization or A/B testing tool, which are focused on optimizing the results you’re getting once you are already on a specific track.)
Step 4: Build? Or Repeat?
Have the results of Steps 1 – 3 met your targets for moving forward with building your product? If not, it might be time to repeat Steps 1 – 3 until you do.
If you are getting the results you were looking for, then you might decide to move on to building your product or solution.
b. Building Phase:
In this phase, you will be constantly fighting the opposing forces of staying focused on your customers’ needs vs. adding more features, more functionality, and more fancy design.
The following should help you stay focused on what matters, when it matters most. (Note: There is a time for focusing on fancy-design, just make sure you aren’t doing so when there are higher priority items for you to focus on).
Step 1: Know Your Business (and make sure everyone on your team knows it, too)
When building product, it is easy and common to have opposing ideas of what matters most, and what should be prioritized first.
Your sales team might be getting requests from customers and want those requests to bubble up to the top of your priority list. Your product management team might have gotten results of an A/B test that and want to implement changes to your site right away, because they can see an opportunity for optimization.
At this phase, everyone needs to know how prioritization happens.
It starts with knowing your business: Is revenue the most important thing for the company right now, and should all prioritization take revenue into account first? Is usability the most important thing you need to nail in order to avoid losing customers to alternative solutions? Is customer service something the company really needs to focus on, and therefore bug fixes and enhancements trump new feature development?
Figure this out, communicate it, and use it as your decision-making and prioritization guide.
Step 2: Create Continuous Feedback Loops
To make sure you are staying on the right track, you need to have a system that has built-in continuous feedback loops – a.k.a Build-Measure-Learn, or Inspect-and-Adapt.
Tweet this: "Now that you’re building, don’t stop validating."
Continue to get feedback from your customer or a representative that really understands your customer’s behavioral patterns, needs, challenges, and preferences. Continue to find opportunities to improve or optimize.
Note: I address these continuous feedback loops in my agile and lean trainings, and love to work with teams afterwards to find creative ways of implementing feedback loops that work best for them.
Step 3: Track the Right Data
Companies and startups generally have 2 problems when it comes to metrics tracking and data analytics:
a. They don’t track enough: Many companies (even big ones that you would be surprised to learn this about) don’t really track any metrics. And if they do, they have some tool in place that they don’t really look at or take the time to understand.
Don’t do this.
b. They track too much: See this post about data puke by Avinash Kaushik, which is just what it sounds like – a lot of data that doesn’t really answer a real business question, or drive a change in behavior.
Data puke, or not focusing on a set of key metrics and the analytics that are driven for those metrics is dangerous. It muddies up the waters and makes it impossible to focus on the key metrics that are really important for your current phase and business model.
Tracking the right data at the right time is something I teach as part of the Lean workshop, and I love utilizing the Lean Analytics framework for this.
Step 4: Create an Accountability System:
Create an accountability system that ensures you are sticking with the frameworks and feedback loops that keep you focused on the right things, at the right time.
This can be done through retrospectives, periodic goal review sessions, or whatever system keeps you accountable in an effective way that works with your team's culture.
I'm partial to retrospectives, because I have seen them be very effective in driving improvements, but I also understand and respect that different teams have different personalities and different needs.
Step 5: Repeat Steps 1 through 4: I'm serious. Many times, we take well-intentioned steps to ensure we set out on the right foot, but then we lack consistency and/ or drop the ball after our initial efforts.
If you've made it through to the end of this post, congratulations! It was a long read, but there is so much to say about prioritizing effectively and staying focused on the right things at the right time.
If you have suggestions, comments, or questions, please leave some feedback below. I'd love to hear from you.
Stay tuned for Part III of the Lean Workshop Q&A Series, but in the meanwhile make sure to register for the Get Hands-On With Lean and Learn How to Drive Your Startup or Product workshop - hurry, earlybird registration ends on 2/18!