How the 9-Block Tool Can Help You Prioritize Your Way to Success  

One of the most essential skills in any line of work is the ability to prioritize. Whether you work in an emergency room or a tech startup, you have to be able to determine which situations are most critical and need to be attended to first.

Back in the early 1800s, a chief surgeon in Napoleon’s Imperial Guard named Baron Dominique-Jean Larrey recognized this on the battlefield and is credited with developing the process of “triage.” The word has since bled over into business context, where it doesn’t feel entirely out of place, especially on the days when everything seems like an emergency.

If you’re a busy product manager, with software bugs, product engagement concerns, and so many other issues clamoring for your attention, how do you make the call on which ones need to be addressed right away? How do you decide where to focus your energies first? Answering these questions is critical to success, and essential to building out a product roadmap that inspires confidence that everyone is working on the projects that will be most beneficial to your organization.  

At FullStory, we developed a successful process for mapping out our product efforts called the 9-blocker. It’s helped us decide how to prioritize medium and large arcs of work, and we think it will help you, too.

Here’s how the 9-blocker works.

Knowing Where to Start is Half the Battle

At the beginning of each quarter, the 9-blocker helps us identify and triage our top priorities. The process starts with our product management team. We compile a list of all the product improvements, potential new features, and critical bug fixes that need to be made. This list pulls from customer feedback received from sales, success, and support teams—and it also leverages our own data and analyses.

That’s the easy part. The next step that’s key. Our product team evaluates the value and cost of solving each issue.

Value

Is the value of the expected output high, medium, or low? We assess the value by asking related questions:

  • How many customers or potential customers does the issue affect?
  • Will solving the issue help drive engagement or conversions, and by how much?
  • How will the effort impact revenue? And by how much?
  • What about churn?

Cost

Is the cost of doing the work high, medium, or low? Consider also how

  • How many engineering and design resources will be needed to complete the work, and
  • How long will it take?
  • How will we take the output to market?
  • Who needs to be trained on it? (E.g. sales, marketing, and hugging teams)

We document the answers to all of these questions using a sophisticated proprietary system—a.k.a. tables on Google slides. In other words, documentation is important for creating artifacts you can reference easily to rank projects in relation to each other. As consensus is reached for each arc of work, the name of the project is placed in one of 9 blocks on a table that looks like this:

You could have only a handful of projects on the 9-blocker, or however many projects are on your roadmap. The distribution of projects across the 9-blocker will depend on the subjective analysis about value and cost. That is, there could be many projects that are high-cost and high-value and no projects that are low-cost high-value. Or there could be many projects that are dead-center.

As you can see, the vertical axis represents value, and the horizontal axis represents cost.

When determining how work maps to the 9 blocks, don't get stuck searching for absolute measures of cost and value. Value and cost are assessed relative to other projects being considered. For example, one arc of work may have a high value when it comes to revenue opportunities while another might have a high value strategically. The ultimate placement on the 9-block is subjective.

Here’s how this tool can help your team prioritize work. The fixes that will add the most value to your company go in the top row, while their estimated costs determine which column you place them in.

No. 1 Priority: High-value, low-cost items go in the top left block. This is your sweet spot, and these are the issues that your team will want to prioritize as most important.

No. 2 Priority: High-value, medium-cost items go in the top middle block. Most likely you’ll want to prioritize these issues right behind the high-value, low-cost ones.

No. 3 Priority: High-value, high-cost items go in the top right block. Perhaps these issues are worth the investment, or maybe you’d be better served by turning your attention to those that are medium-value and low-cost.  

Continue to fill out the 9 blocks, with medium-value projects going in the middle row and low-value projects going in the bottom row (again, using the estimated costs to determine which column you place them in). When it's all done, you get a ranked list of projects:

Your low-value, high-cost issues will land in the bottom right block—a.k.a the ones you can safely worry about last. (Which is not to say they aren’t important. More on this in a moment.)

Company-Wide Alignment is the Other Half

After our PM team finishes filling out the 9-blocker, we run it by our design and engineering teams to get their input. Then we present it to our hugging and marketing teams, and once they’re on board, we share it with the entire company. Our goal is for everyone to have a chance for their voice to be heard and for no one to be unsure of the company goals—or their team’s responsibilities regarding those goals—for that cycle.

What's useful about the 9-blocker approach is that the documentation and work put in to assess cost and value makes it easy to communicate priorities to different stakeholders. This reduces the chances of unexpected questions or concerns, which also builds confidence across the organization that the priorities make sense.

Prioritize Like a Pro: Triage With the 9-Blocker

If you need help figuring out your product team's top priorities, try the 9-blocker on for size. It’s a great exercise that leaves you with the clarity and confidence you need to prioritize work and build incredible digital products.