Prioritisation: The two data points that matter most

Every day we make decisions which prioritise the actions we take. Should I walk the dog or make lunch for the day? Should I get an early night or watch one more episode? Should I respond to those emails or make a start on that presentation?

In digital projects, just like our day, time is finite. Individuals and teams are required to prioritise activities in order to make decisions and move forward. Just like the decisions in life, sometimes we have large amounts of accurate information available to us and sometimes we don’t. So what does that mean for prioritisation? And how can businesses without scores of data leverage prioritisation frameworks to make informed decisions about their priorities?

In our previous piece we discussed what Product Strategy is and some of the most common questions in digital where Product Strategy can have a positive impact.

Where do we start? What should we do next? And how do we know we are on the right track?

Each question can be asked in isolation, but fundamentally the ask across each is the same (ignoring validation for now). What should our priority be? It’s a difficult question and one that requires a lot of context to answer but let’s do our best to explore it a little further.

Defining prioritisation

Prioritisation is assigning a level of importance (through value, urgency or otherwise) to individual tasks in order to rank them relative to other tasks.

Generally, the desired outcome of prioritisation is to focus attention or resources on manageable amounts of activity to create the most impact in the shortest amount of time or effort.

This definition might seem obvious, but it is important to remember when approaching prioritisation because it outlines why activities prior to prioritisation are critical to its success.

Prioritisation techniques

There is no shortage of techniques available to conduct prioritisation activities, in fact the most challenging part can be deciding which one to use. To simplify the discussion though, most (if not all) techniques are variations on the application of the same key inputs: effort, value and in some cases, the degree of certainty relating to both.

It is the third part of the equation which may most accurately determine the appropriate prioritisation technique.

Prioritisation inputs

Degree of certainty in decision making and handling ambiguity

Businesses are frequently told to be more data-driven in their decisions, but the how and why of this idea is often not well explained. Data-driven decision making, in current mainstream digital philosophy, is about increasing the certainty of inputs to reduce the risk in the above equation.

However, data for decision making is a spectrum and a business's data maturity can ultimately be measured by where they sit on a scale of data availability and integrity (the emphasis for assessing maturity should be less on the number of data systems and more on the ability to produce outputs).

For businesses with low-volumes of information to input into decision making (or low-quality information), the ability to confidently act on tasks to deliver “value” will likely be lower than those with access to high amounts of information.

In businesses with high-volumes of information, the ability to confidently predict the outcome is improved. (It’s worth noting that by no means does this guarantee success!)

Fortunately prioritisation is relative. Therefore whilst businesses with high-volumes of data can benefit from detailed prioritisation techniques, low-data businesses can use simple techniques such as a basic value/effort matrix to assign relative priorities to their tasks.

If data inputs increase the degree of certainty (hopefully objectively), the remainder of the equation - value and effort - must also be clear in order to complete prioritisation.

Measuring effort

Beginning with the more simple input; effort can generally be defined by a series of variables. Cost, time, resources, complexity, operational disruption and more can all impact the effort assigned with completing a task. This shows how quickly a simple matrix can expand to become a complex prioritisation spreadsheet.

Considering a wide range of variables and aligning on the most relevant aspects of effort will help to deliver the best outcomes when assigning effort.

Defining Value

Value is the most personalised input when it comes to prioritising and the most likely to impact ‘success’.

When setting out to create the most impact in the shortest amount of time, it helps to know what ‘impact’ we want this work to have.

In any case, value should be tied to goals or objectives. Business strategy informs Product Strategy, as the latter is a means to achieve the former. Contribution to goals can be direct or indirect but ultimately the motivation is the same - achieve the objective.

Businesses should take the time to formulate clear goals at the beginning of the process and perhaps even more importantly, share them so that all participants are aligned.

Reasons businesses struggle to prioritise

Goals are not well defined

If goals are critical to interpreting and identifying the value of a task, it is clear that a lack of specific goals will make agreeing on value difficult.

Misalignment can paralyse decision making and undermine the objective progress of projects towards outcomes. Having specific, measurable goals will help everyone to identify where you are heading, even if opinions differ on how to get there.

Tasks lack information

Assigning effort or understanding how a task drives value can be difficult if that task is left open to the readers’ interpretation.

Tasks should be clear on the desired outcome first in order to inform the intended execution. Having visibility of these steps will improve the ability of contributors to accurately assess the task.

Businesses don’t devote time to doing it

Businesses operate in the real-world with competing demands, persistent challenges and changing landscapes. All of that ‘noise’ can make it difficult to dedicate time to review information that has already been ‘captured’.

However businesses caught up in the noise can find themselves in a reactive cycle, constantly responding to external demands. Taking stock of goals, current data inputs and applying that lens to tasks, can help businesses be proactive in shaping the external environment to facilitate their goals and objectives.


  1. Articulate clear goals and align on value
  2. Ensure ideas have the appropriate level of information for people to understand them and align on what constitutes effort (and its magnitude).
  3. Allocate time to the process of assigning goals and prioritising tasks towards them
Enjoyed reading this article?

Maybe others will find it useful too. We'd love it if you let them know via your social networks

About the author
Nick Sutcliffe
Digital Product Strategist
Nick Sutcliffe | Digital Product Strategist