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Chris Ashby
August 23, 2021

The importance & power of focus over prioritisation for driving product-led growth

Why focus, and it’s ability to empower high performing product teams, is leaving prioritisation frameworks in the dust

Photo by Romain Vignes on Unsplash

When it comes to prioritisation frameworks, there are what seems like thousands of them available, all touting different benefits over the other.

The problem is, the majority of them are just fancy coats hung over much deeper, uglier questions that we don’t want to answer (at least not without some sort of dynamic spreadsheet or Notion table like some sort of process bodyguard). Questions like:

  • How can we get more things done?
  • How can we get things done faster?
  • How do we choose what thing to do next?
  • How can we make sure the thing we choose to do has enough impact to warrant all this expensive resource?

We avoid these questions by putting frameworks in place that will answer them for us, but the reality is, we have to answer these questions, they are unavoidable. And what inevitably ends up happening if we don’t is this:

  • We only work on the lowest effort items in order to fit as much into our day as possible
  • We work in priority order, from top down, regardless of the project, work steam or theme

But why is this a problem? And what is the solution to this?

The problem with multitasking

The problem with multitasking, that is: working on different to-do list items spanning a wide number of themes or projects, is that our brains are just not wired for it.

Studies have proven that when multitasking, we are incredibly inefficient.

This creates an inherent problem with prioritisation frameworks.

They usually don’t take into account wider projects, or multiple pieces of work that sit within the same area of thinking, or within the same problem space.

They assume that we are work machines, robots who are able to capably complete any number of requests at exactly the same cadence based on an assumption of time that we think it will take to complete.

Unfortunately though for us (and often for the teams and organisations in which we operate), this couldn’t be farther from the truth. And what we end up with is ineffective teams, multi-tasking across a wide range of projects or workstreams. Delivering poorly against our targets and underperforming against our goals and objectives.

Answering the 3 questions for focus

The key to resolving this issue is moving away from the prioritisation of a backlog, to the focus of themes by impact.

What this means is that for each idea or feature, we need to understand what theme that fits into. And themes can be defined by the problem being solved, not the area of the solution.

This means our themes would be something like ‘reducing friction for organic leads’, instead of ‘blog posts’.

Once you have clarity on your themes, and which ideas fit into which themes, you can then answer the 3 questions to clarify the focus on your team.

Ask yourself: are we:

  1. Designing & building the highest impact idea or feature for our product, including any other impactful tasks, ideas or features in the same theme
  2. Testing and validating the next highest impact idea or feature
  3. Improving the confidence on any tasks, ideas or features that align with the theme of the idea or feature in point 2

The key to focus through answering these questions is to focus on the grouping of ideas and tasks by the problem being solved, thus allowing your product team to operate in the same problem space in order to deliver multiple impactful solutions using the same insight — without losing time switching contexts.

Knowing when to switch focus

I’m sure you have already identified an inherent problem with this.

If we delivered everything under one theme, it would take us forever.

Granted, it can be easy to get carried away with focusing on just one theme, but the key here is not to deliver everything under one theme, but to only deliver what you are confident will have impact.

If you aren’t confident in the impact, then you still need to validate and test that idea more, as per questions 2 and 3, and you shouldn’t build.

The trick here, comes in the form of limiting what you are delivering, rather than knowing when to stop.

The power of focus to encourage flow

The benefits of operating within a flow state are well documented, but simply put, working from focus instead of priority can have a huge improvement in the amount of time your team spends fully engaged, working from that flow state.

Kendra Cherry writes:

If you have ever felt completely absorbed in something, you might have been experiencing a mental state that psychologists refer to as flow. Achieving this state can help people feel greater enjoyment, energy, and involvement.

Focus is simply a way to help your team get there. The less problems they are trying to understand, and the less they are working on, the more chance they have of entering flow.

Switching from priority to focus

Similar to curating and sharing insight effectively, switching from priority to focus can be implemented in many different ways depending on your organisation, startup stage, product strategy and team.

It may be as simple as giving each cross-functional product team a theme for them to focus on.

Or you could assign a theme to your sprint cycles, as long as that theme aligns with the ideas or features you are working on (just make sure you don’t sneak any other themes in, I see you there!)

Or you could implement focus as a process for your design team, in order to get them exploring and solving one problem at a time, rather than trying to understand multiple and delivering on none.

Whatever method you decide works best for you, I would highly encourage the switch from priority to focus. It will help you and your teams:

  • Deliver higher quality solutions faster
  • Deliver multiple impactful solutions that solve the same problem at once
  • Justify spending time exploring higher effort ideas that might have just sat on the backlog in a prioritisation framework
  • Improve the morale and engagement of your team members by increasing their ability to problem solve and enter a flow state

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