Practical Prioritisation

Dwight D Eisenhower famously said in 1954 “What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important”. It seems he did not invent the idea. He merely articulated it. And this has left a significant mark on how managers have prioritised team efforts ever since.

More recently, Stephen Covey popularised this as a time management quadrant. Covey considered tasks according to importance and urgency and drew a prioritisation quadrant.

Covey Quadrants.jpg

The trick to using the prioritisation quadrant is to put every entry in your To Do list into one of the four quadrants.

  • Quadrant 1: Necessary
    Important tasks (you must do them) that are urgent (they have deadlines you do not control). You have no choice but to get them done, but they may not get you closer to important goals. Things like completing timesheets on time, submitting a tender for a new project, filing expense reports, and taking the bins out on collection night.
  • Quadrant 2: Where the magic happens
    Important tasks that are not urgent. These are strategic tasks directed toward goals. Things like exercise, planning, strengthening relationships, relaxing, and deep thinking. You should maximise the time you spend here. You might impose deadlines on these tasks, but that is your choice.
  • Quadrant 3: Distractions
    Unimportant tasks that are urgent. They do not align with your goals. Things like attending unnecessary meetings, checking your Facebook feed several times during the day, or producing reports that no one reads. Clearly you should minimise time spent here.
  • Quadrant 4: Waste of time
    Unimportant tasks that are not urgent. Things like checking your Facebook feed every 15 minutes or blankly watching TV for hours in the evening. These are a waste of time, so you should just not do them.

Then sort your To Do list as follows:

  1. Plan to spend as much quality time as possible in Q2. For example, if you are a morning person, block off periods to work on Q2 tasks first thing in the morning.
  2. Use gaps in quality time to tick off tasks in Q1. You need to plan time in your schedule to do the important urgent stuff.
  3. Minimise distractions (Q3), and only allow yourself to do these at certain times of the day, for example immediately after lunch or afternoon tea.
  4. Avoid anything in Q4 like the plague. If a task is important and not urgent, you don’t need to do it, so remove these tasks from your To Do list. If it is important to you, promote it to Q1 or Q2.

That’s all there is to it.

Now, let’s look at the prioritisation quadrants, as interpreted for Product Managers.

How do you prioritise a feature request? For our purposes here, let’s assume you have a way to decide how important and how urgent a feature request is (that’s a topic for another time).

Here’s the advice, reduced to a modified quadrant diagram.

PM Quadrants.jpg

  • Quadrant 1: Necessary
    Escalate it and do it now. If a feature really is important and urgent, you’ll need to get it done ASAP. An example might be to close a loophole in GDPR compliance.
  • Quadrant 2: Where the magic happens
    Plan for it in your roadmap. Your product roadmap should be an ordered list of these features. Important but not urgent. In other words, these features are aligned with your strategic goals, where you determine the timing.
  • Quadrant 3: Distractions
    Try to delay or delegate things that distract the team from what really matters. An example might be where a feature request is required to sell to one important new customer, but the feature is not aligned with your strategic goals.
  • Quadrant 4: Waste of time
    Just say no. These are features that make the product more complex, more disjointed, or less aligned with your strategic goals. You don’t need them in your life.

Clearly the quadrant approach is a simplified view of prioritisation, when it comes to product feature requests. However, it is a good place to start if too many feature requests are overwhelming your planning efforts.

The key thing to focus on is optimising the time you and your team spend in Q2. At the end of the day, that’s where the magic happens!

The Recorded Music Revolution(s)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about innovation. In particular, the idea that no organisation exists in a vacuum. It seems critical to know where your organisation’s goals fit in the bigger picture before charging off on some innovation or product initiative.

An example everyone is familiar with is the music industry.

In the 30 years to the late 1990s, the primary business model for recorded music was physical distribution (vinyl, cassette, CD). A few big, powerful players – giant recording labels like EMI – dominated. Gaining a contract with one of these powerful players was the only meaningful way for aspiring artists and bands to get exposure to markets. While taken seriously by some, many artists used live music as a marketing tool; a “loss leader” to promote sales of recordings. Charts of recorded music sales dominated.

In the late 1990s executives at major recording labels were counting their money. They had no idea of the dark clouds forming.

The deadly storm hit in the late 1990s. Illegal file sharing services made it possible to download any music for free. Revenues for recorded music plummeted overnight. With their time freed up from counting money, the recording labels reacted with legal challenges, but as soon as they shut down one service, another 10 came to life. The genie was out of the bottle.

It took a few years for experimentation to begin in earnest. And the innovation did not come from the recording labels. Last.fm launched in 2002, with a music recommender that built a profile of each user’s music taste based on their listening history and allowed users to share and recommend tracks to others.

Apple introduced iTunes in 2003, the first large legal service to sell music tracks for download. Whilst iTunes seemed revolutionary at the time, it left the business model largely unchanged. Customers were still buying ownership of music (admittedly, downloaded tracks as opposed to physical objects) and major labels were still the intermediaries with all the bargaining power.

In the late noughties, more experimentation took place. Pandora (2005), Soundcloud (2007), Bandcamp (2008) all launched and experimented with combining streaming and social features. They also pioneered a new business model, based not on ownership, but on a service with ongoing subscription fees.

More recently we have seen the proliferation of music streaming services: Apple Music, Tidal, Amazon Prime Music, Google Play, YouTube Music, Spotify, amongst others.

Spotify is the largest of the music streaming services. It began in Europe in 2008 and after negotiating rights deals it expanded to the USA in 2011. It is now the largest dedicated streaming service, with a total of 200 million users, 87 million being paying customers. Spotify pays around 70% of total revenue to rights holders and whilst they are yet to make a profit, the continuing rise of revenue means streaming is here to stay.

In fact, music streaming is rapidly eating the recorded music world. In the first half of 2018, streaming made up 75% of all revenue from recorded music in the USA, the world’s largest music market, up from 21% just 5 years before.

Music Streaming Percentage.jpg

As we sit here early in 2019, it is clear that the industry transformation from ownership to subscription is well advanced and unstoppable. As subscription services become commodities and compete on price, the next wave of innovation is likely to be around who can make the most of the vast data collected on customer behaviour and listening habits, and the interconnections with social networks.

Here’s a chart that illustrates the overall transformation of the recorded music industry. Numbers are in US dollars and approximately adjusted to 2018 values. Full 2018 figures are not available yet, so the chart extrapolates from the first half of that year.

US Recorded Music Revenues.jpg

Revenues peaked in 1999 before crashing to their lowest levels in about 2015. They have only started growing again in the last couple of years, and streaming is starting to dominate.

On a side note, live music has boomed since the internet changed everything in the recorded music world. The largest music companies in the world in 1999 were the major recording labels. The largest music company in the world in 2019 is LiveNation, an American global entertainment company that owns, leases, operates, has booking rights for and equity interests in many US entertainment venues. They have also established presences in more than 40 countries via acquisitions and partnerships. In 2018 they ran 30,000 shows, more than 100 festivals, and sold more than 500 million tickets. That’s an astonishing shift in power from recorded music giants to live music giants in just 2 decades!

To wrap up, we all know that technology is changing the world, and the rate of change is accelerating. Tracing the revolutions in the recorded music industry over the last 2 decades highlight that to succeed with innovation and product development, you must understand the bigger picture.

Attempting some cool sounding but “random” innovation with your product is unlikely to fit with the trends transforming your industry by sheer accident. Executives of the major record labels in the late 1990s didn’t see the revolution coming, so they were caught off guard and saw their positions of power quickly disappear.

You’re probably not innovating in the music industry. But think about it: What is really going on in your domain? How are technologies transforming your industry, in the grand scheme of things? Unless you understand this, you are probably doomed to fail.