The Product Management Thunderdome: Insight on Prioritization and Resource Allocation from Industry Experts

Jeremy Sherwood

One of the most challenging parts of product management is determining the order or priority of features and projects.  Like anyone else, we have a fixed amount of resources that we must use wisely to get things done.  In a recent internal discussion, the Product Management team was asked, “How do projects get prioritized and resourced?” I am a big fan of MMA, so I joked that these decisions were made in “The Octagon.” And if this were true, it would make my life much simpler as I have a few pounds and inches over most of the other PMs. 

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My colleague John, on the other hand, had an even better response. PM Thunderdome: Two projects enter, one project leaves! PM Thunderdome John and I are both big movie buffs, so I immediately knew the movie reference and fell in love with this idea. It is the perfect analogy for our process. For those readers who aren’t familiar with this reference, let me explain. In the 1985 movie classic Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, there is a legendary fight scene which occurs inside a giant metal cage call the Thunderdome.  The Thunderdome is used to keep order in Bartertown by bringing disagreements to fast and definite end.

The rules, well there are no rules, except that it is a fight to the death in which two combatants enter the arena, but only one leaves. The scene pits the hero, Mad Max, against a larger stronger opponent, Blaster. The scene also features Tina Turner in her role as Aunty Entity, as she orchestrates the battle to regain control of “her” town. Now, this is not to say that prioritizing the backlog is comparable to a barbaric death match between PMs in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. It is more an illustration that we cannot work on everything at once so we must make choices, which are sometimes difficult, as to which projects get resources and which projects don’t.

The combatants in this scene also nicely represent the different types of projects which must ultimately be pitted against one other. And at times, these differences give the perception it may not always seem like a fair fight. For example, we must decide how many resources we allocate for bugs or technical debt, and how much must be allocated the net new features and functionality.  And, don’t forget about Aunty, or what we all know to be business drivers and executive buy in. Needless to say, it is not an easy task and the outcomes are not always what is expected going in.  Our goal, of course, is to crush the other guy and win. No, not really!

Well, maybe. Our goal is to use our available resources wisely and find the right balance between delivering new capabilities and enhancing existing features. Ultimately doing what we believe is the best outcome for the business at that moment in time.  The beautiful part of this process is no two battles are the same, and at any moment Aunty or the market we are going after might change the combatants, add new weapons or tools to enhance, or completely change the battle and outcome.

Let the battle begin!

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