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How to Prioritize a Product Backlog as a First-Time Product Manager

Whether you have just come into a product management role as a result of an internal transition or you’ve landed your first product manager job, one of the first things that you can expect to be thrown at you is product backlog that will need clearing. You’ll need to learn how to prioritize to get that taken care of.

You may have heard of frameworks or methodologies such as Moscow, the Keno method or stack ranking. You may have done all the research. Maybe you’re wondering; how do I go ahead and take what I’ve learned in blogs and YouTube videos, and actually apply it into the system that we currently have right now on the backlog that I need to work on?

How to Prioritize a Product Backlog: What Not to Do

The simple answer to the question above is that you don’t. There is no one size fits all answer when it comes to learning how to prioritize your company’s particular backlog. The natural assumption for first-time product managers is that a team follows a standardized method when managing a product backlog and that everyone hits the ground running with the absolute knowledge of what you should be doing.

This just isn’t the case, and trying to dive into the middle of the team and change courses by enforcing a new system will usually only result in frustration for everybody. The way one team will manage their backlog is going to be dramatically different than any other company, even if they exist in the same city and the same industry.

How to Start Prioritizing the Backlog

Your first step in how to prioritize the backlog should always be finding who is responsible for managing this product backlog or who spends the most time with it. It could be a few different people, or it could be one person in particular. Take this person out to lunch or for coffee. Or, if you’re still working remotely, set up a zoom chat with them. Essentially, to successfully master how to prioritize the product backlog, you need to figure out how this backlog works in your company and how to work alongside it instead of changing it.

The last thing you want to do is try to force your own ideas and systems on a team that already has its own in place. It can cause a lot of confusion and a lot of chaos, creating extra work for everybody else. Instead, focus on learning and observing. Study the system and then figure out how to work with it, even if you have to ask for guidance. No one will expect you to have all the answers off the bat.

Remember that it’s more than okay to ask for help. Chances are that no one wants you to do anything fancy or crazy that will result in more mistakes, time, and frustration for everybody. Talk to the Scrum Master, or maybe even a lead Engineer. Pick their brain and let them know you’re trying to understand how everyone prioritizes the backlog here.

What if You’re Not a First-Time Product Manager?

Now, if you are an experienced Product Manager being hired for a senior position, the circumstances might be different. Coming into a place with experience under your belt and a proven track record might open you up to be able to make changes and start implementing your own ideas that have a proven track record. But as a rule of thumb, the best answer — both in practice and in an interview setting, if asked how you would prioritize — is to begin by gaining understanding before anything else.

If you’re a Product Manager in a new role, or if you’re looking for your first product management job, you might face challenges beyond learning to prioritize. If you have questions or need support on your Product Manager job hunt, let us help! We’re offering free career coaching sessions with our in-house coaches: schedule yours today. We’d love to hear from you.