Ruthless Prioritization | The Art (and Science) of Saying No

Being a ruthless prioritization guru is not something that is inherent in an entrepreneur or product gal’s DNA, it is a skill honed from extended tours of duty in the product and corporate battlefields. In this day and age of abundant tools, easy to access platforms, and SaaS/PaaS/Fill the blank-aaS galore, the ability to build a fully feature loaded product for your customers is not only tempting, it is easily doable. And many a startup team or product squad proceed to spend time, effort and money to squeeze out as many features or products as possible.

At their own peril, of course.

Over my corporate and startup career, deciding what not to do is just as important as deciding what to do. Let’s stick in the requisite Steve Jobs anecdote in here. This is a good one, I promise. When he returned to Apple in 1997, Apple had a boatload of products, a dizzying array of offerings. After a few weeks of product review sessions, the man had had enough. He drew a two by two grid: two columns (Consumer, Pro), two rows (Desktop, Portable). He told the team their job was to focus on four great products, one for each quadrant. End of story. Beginning of the iDominance.

I am on my third startup in as many years, and I have already crashed and burned on two. For one of them, the killer virus was the founding team’s inability to focus, get gangster and ruthlessly eliminate all the other distractions and not try to boil the ocean. It was a rude re-awakening for me, especially since I actually was quite a badass when it came to prioritization during a stint as a corporate product dude. So I learned my lesson. And, man, am I ruthless like Hannibal with my current company. It is such a refreshing feeling to be able to make the calls, and keep things lean, mean and clean. So at my product classes at General Assembly, I emphasize these “Chidi’s Rules of Prioritization” to make it clear how important saying no is for the sanity and clarity of the team:

  • Stay on mission: The most-est critical-est thing for the squad – always keep your eye on the top prize. Does this project/product/feature fit into our world view? Should we be doing this? What is our North Star? As long as you are on mission, ruthless prioritization is your friend.
  • Balance that bad boy: Ruthless prioritization is about balancing business, technology and user priorities. Key advice – do not prioritize user needs over business needs. Good thing is that this is usually not a binary choice, they can be one and the same. Now you know.
  • (Wo)Man up and say no: Why do we prioritize? We have limited capital, resources and time. In order to keep things rolling without crashing, saying no helps you manage within your limitations. Release the fear, son. Be gangster about your business.
  • Saying no comes with plenty of drama: There will be blood. Folks will come at you. The HPPO (highest paid person) will want your head. It’s ok. Which leads to the next point…
  • Use quant and qual tools to become a stone cold prioritizer: This is the science part. Solicit and integrate opinions plus quantitative and qualitative inputs from people to prioritize. I call this the HPPO killer. In a good way. Life is easier when you can show why you made the gutsy call to kill that feature. You better weaponize yourself before you wreck yourself.

chidi-afuleziOkay, so how do I do that? Well, I always advocate that teams (and individuals) not get married to ideas or projects. The easier it is to distance yourself from that idea, the easier it is to be hardcore about your prioritization. Also context is king when it comes to prioritization, so badass communication and transparency makes you a much more potent prioritizer.

I would recommend getting comfortable with a number of frameworks that can help you and your team rock the prioritization thing down pat. There are many, and this guide from Folding Burritos is a great resource for you to jump on. I am big fan of the Scorecard/Forced Ranking or as I like to call it – The HPPO Killer. You can download it here, and proceed to prioritize like a big shark in a tank.

Please do not take this as a clarion call for cold-blooded gutting of features or products just for the sake of it; I am advocating for an objective, steely-eyed approach to doing the important things, the things that move your product or business forward. Now go forth and get your priorities straightened out.

chidipicChidi Afulezi ( is co-founder of aKoma, a content platform and storytelling network for Africa and audiences interested in the continent. He is a prolific public speaker, product management, and operations consultant, and also teaches the part-time Product Management and Product Bootcamp courses at General Assembly Atlanta. He waxes galactic on Twitter at @cafulezi.