Working as a team to improve prioritization

Jean Hsu

Engineering leadership consultant at Medium



"When I worked at Medium, leading engineering on their Publication's team, we received endless streams of requests, both externally and internally, and on top of this, our engineers also had a lot of product ideas. However, we also needed time to work on our technical debt. While your company should invest in what your partners want, it is also important to ensure you are working on the things that your teams really believe in. Our team didn't feel cohesive, and because we were working on a lot of different things at once, it was difficult to decide on what to prioritize. Instead, we would often end up just prioritizing the things that our partners were the most upset about."

Actions taken

"Our product manager and I decided to improve how we prioritized our workload. We did this by using a multi-stage process. First, everyone who worked in some way with the publication team (e.g. in business, marketing, product design etc.) brainstormed together about the projects they were working on, and worked to answer the question 'What is the one thing we would be stupid not to do?'. From this process, we came up with 30-40 items. We then chose the 20 most important items, and split into pairs, which were comprised of one engineer and one non-engineer. The week after, after being allocated two projects from the post-it notes to work on, each pair spent about an hour clarifying what the projects meant and how complex they were, and working out a time estimation for the projects. They then entered this information into a slide format. Following this, we printed out all of the slides and split up into four teams of about five people each. Each team was given 40 imaginary points to spend on the different projects. However, it would cost 120 points to complete all of the projects, so the teams were forced to make trade-offs. Once the votes were counted, we realized there was a lot of alignment in terms of what things people thought were important to work on. After this exercise, people became more trusting of leadership in terms of what the priorities were. It was also a useful exercise to show the rest of the company how we came to decide on what we would be working on for the rest of the quarter. Our team felt much more cohesive after this exercise, and it gave people more of an understanding of what product management means."

Lessons learned

"This process allowed our company to effectively prioritize our projects. And while effectively prioritizing is primarily useful for ensuring important projects items get done first, it is also a useful way of ensuring cohesiveness in large teams. Giving staff context and alignment is also really important, as it gives larger team cohesiveness. It is also useful for engineers, as when they know why they are working on a given project, they are more likely to be supportive of it."

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Jean Hsu

Engineering leadership consultant at Medium

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