I recently started watching Ozark, a popular Netflix series. The writing, acting, and directing are all superb, but what really caught my attention is how skilled and effective Wendy and Marty Byrde, the two main characters, are at prioritizing. Ozark is about money laundering for a drug cartel, so what does it have to do with building a company?
As one might suspect, money laundering for a drug cartel presents a constant stream of challenges. Because of said challenges, but also simply to run a sound ‘business’, the Byrde’s have to make numerous decisions very quickly and often without a complete set of information. Wendy and Marty are forced into ruthless prioritization of what is urgent in the moment and what they need to watch for. Marty, for example, frequently tells someone in the show that he can’t discuss the matter they want to talk about, when they want to talk about it, because he has more important things to attend to. Seriously, he must say, “I can’t talk about this right now” hundreds of times throughout the show.
In my book, The Founder’s Manual: A Guidebook for Becoming a Successful Entrepreneur, I write about how important ruthless prioritization is for Founders, startups, and product teams. Fact is, effective prioritization is critical for anyone juggling a constant stream of expected and unexpected challenges. You don’t have to be an entrepreneur, product builder, or money launderer to know the importance of great prioritization. Knowing what to pay attention to and work on right now versus later today, tomorrow, or next week is a skill that gets developed over time through repetition and feedback loops.
For Founders, startups, and product teams, knowing what to focus on and work on can be the ultimate difference between success and failure. Pay attention to, and work on, the wrong things at the wrong time is wasting precious time and energy that most Founders, startups, and product teams can’t afford.
Prioritization is hard though. Much harder than it seems on the surface. We’re also not wired as humans to be great, ruthless prioritizers because we like to keep our options open and therefore are frequently afraid to commit to a particular decision and path, especially when we need to act based on incomplete information. We also don’t like saying no. Someone comes to us with a problem we want to solve it and now. Saying no seems rude and unhelpful, and maybe it is in some situations, but if you are building a product and company, saying no or at least not right now, is one of the few things you have within your control.
Creating a new product is a significant test of prioritization chops. A product can bloat, even from the first version, easily and quickly to do 113 things, when in reality, it only needs to do 3. Product prioritization at any stage of a product should be based on three principles: What do we know/have validated that customers need? What do we need/want as the Product Owner? How can the product bridge the gap in the simplest most elegant way currently?
Everything included in the product should be there because it survived a gauntlet of not being included. The best way I have found to do this is, every feature should end up out and then only be in when it is clear that the product will not deliver the required value for users or the product owner if excluded.
Every product team member’s responsibility is to defend the sanctity of a product’s footprint. Yes, this is mostly the Product Manager’s responsibility, but the best product teams don’t let a Product Manager go it alone. The other members of a product team have a responsibility to contribute to prioritization. Product Managers who are left to fight for the product by themselves will not be at the company for long because being the only one that understands and executes with ruthless prioritization is exhausting. Ruthless prioritizing is a team sport for any product team.
If you are a services firm that helps clients to create new products, part of your responsibility to the client and product is to contribute to a product’s prioritization. I believe you have a professional obligation to contribute since you are more knowledgeable and aware of the importance of prioritization than most of your clients. A client that wants to add superfluous functionality to a product that you know is not in the best interest of the product and therefore also not in the best interest of the client means you have to inform the client it doesn’t make sense or least not right now and explain why. If you are a services firm that lets clients or worse yet, you intentionally bloat a product for your own selfish reasons, you are committing professional malpractice.
Everything matters when creating a product and building a company, but everything doesn’t matter equally right now. Just as the Byrde’s have to figure out what matters most right now, so do product and startup teams. Prioritize and pay attention to the wrong things at the wrong times and you will make the process much more difficult and do it often enough you will kill the product and company.
If you are creating a product and building a company, but you aren’t great at prioritization and decision making, find someone who is, that you can trust, to augment and advise you. We would be happy to have someone from our team at AWH to advise you if you don’t know someone who can help you. We also conduct a series of events, webinars, and workshops on creating products that might be helpful and will allow you to begin to get to know some members of our team.
Being effective at prioritization and figuring out what matters most at given time is a muscle that can be developed over time. It can be uncomfortable if you aren’t wired to be decisive and like to keep lots of options open, but the more you do it the more comfortable you will become and the better at it you will become. Wendy and Marty Byrde certainly get better and prioritizing and decision making as the intensity of their ‘business’ and work heat up. You can see them growing and improving as the story unfolds. You can too.