The power of “why now?” as a prioritization technique

I imagine that if you made one of those pull-string dolls of a Product Manager, it would just say “Why?” over and over1. We love figuring out the real reason behind an idea or a customer problem — as we should. But I think we often miss an important follow-up question: “Why now?”

We have so many methodologies for prioritizing problems and features, but I’ve found that this one question is able to cut through all the complex reasoning and (rightfully) stop unneeded projects in their tracks. Most things we could work on in a product are important. But going through the thought process of why it’s important to work on something right away is really helpful to separate the truly worthy projects from the ones that can wait.

The problem is that “Why now?” is not always an easy question to answer. It’s too vague, too broad. But if you flip it around and ask it a different way, things start to become clear very quickly. So here’s a question I recommend you ask yourself and the team the next time you debate a project:

What is the danger of not doing this project right now?

If we don’t solve this problem or add this feature right now, what do we lose? Are sign-ups going to drop? Are we going to lose customers? Are we going to miss a major shift in the market? If so, then, yes, now is a good time to work on it. But if the room suddenly falls silent and everyone comes up short on the downside of skipping over the idea — or if the downside is something like “this one customer will stop sending us angry emails” — that’s a pretty good indication that this thing can wait for later.

I say “wait for later”, and not “forget about for forever and ever”, because it’s quite possible that a few months from now you’ll answer that question differently, and suddenly now becomes the perfect time to work on it. The point is that we should never do something now if later is a better option.

  1. Like Woody but for Product Managers? I want one!