March 31, 2023 | Product Management

Agility demands a “not-to-do list”

Agility demands a “not-to-do list”

In today’s landscape of accelerating change, product teams are under increasing pressure to ship new and innovative features. Jeff Bezos summed up the challenge as agility being the only sustainable advantage you can have over others. 

Every team seeks to understand what to build next. Their to-do lists and backlogs fill up with great ideas. But let’s be honest: Most of those ideas will sit untouched, and each item in the backlog continues to drain the mental energy of the team. The siren song of, “I wish we could finally prioritize my cool project/feature/idea” resonates in the minds of each team member. If you want agility, you must avoid these distractions and stay focused. 
“How do I let them go? These are great ideas!” But your team needs to focus on only the most impactful, viable, feasible, and desirable ideas aligned to the product vision. Every idea you explore leaves another idea languishing in that backlog. It’s important to make sure whatever you try next fits your vision, values, and accumulated knowledge. While you could weigh each and every idea against these criteria, that would be exhausting. 

What you need is a “not-to-do” list.  
 A not-to-do list eliminates as many big areas of exploration as possible—as quickly as possible. To accomplish that, be clear and declarative, document your decisions, and make sure everyone on the team understands. Here are some examples: 

  • Have a vision of a mobile app? Write down that you won’t work on a web-based version. 

  • Believe in building more humane technology? State that you won’t use gambling mechanics in your product. 

  • Have research showing that people aren’t using a specific feature? Declare that you won’t invest more in that feature (even better, that you’ll find a way to eventually remove it.) 

  • Have research showing your customers don’t want a new feature? Document the evidence, remove it from the backlog, and celebrate that you likely saved a significant amount of time and money by stopping before you really started. 

By stating your collective intentions, you keep the team’s creativity within constraints that make it easier to focus on high value areas of exploration, validation, and build. You also pre-answer pesky questions such as, “Why hasn’t the team pursued XYZ yet?” If it’s on the not-to-do list, you know it doesn’t match the team’s vision, values, goals, or understanding of the end users’ needs. As your product grows and the landscape changes, you can simply ask, “Does the reason we excluded this still feel valid?” 

If so, congratulations, you’ve continued to save your team’s energy and focus from unprofitable diversions. If not, you have new fertile ground to explore. 

Clean out your backlogs, remove that long list of postponed tasks, sunset those unused features, and write out your not-to-do list. With all that extra weight off their shoulders, your team will find a new level of agility. 

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Matthew Erickson

Matthew is a senior principal product manager in West Monroe’s product experience & engineering practice.

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