A product management role in a startup can sometimes feel like you’re at the center of a massive game of tug-of-war, everyone in the company is pulling you in a different direction, and good product managers have to say no to their colleagues A LOT.

Each team has a different set of priorities that align with their incentives and team goals.  At the end of the day, however, we’re all on the same team.  We need to create a customer experience and product that makes our clients the best content marketers in the world – no one will disagree with this.

Transparency in the decision process can alleviate the tug-of-war and align the entire company around a set of short-term goals for the product and engineering teams.  To increase this transparency, we introduced an auction process similar to the one Pandora used to build their product.  We learned a lot from our first attempt at this process at the beginning of the summer, and we’ve made several improvements to get the most out of the process going forward.

1.  We should vote on customer challenges, not prescriptive solutions

When we presented the list of features we could prioritize in the Summer Release, we spent a significant amount of time coming up with solutions to our customers’ challenges.  This time was wasted and the results were too prescriptive.  We wasted time because we wouldn’t know if our solutions would actually solve the customers’ challenges until we started delivering software.  The prescriptive solutions also inhibited the creative process of building awesome technology.  We couldn’t react quickly enough to client feedback because we were pushing forward to hit the prescriptive solution defined at the beginning of the release.

Now, we pose a challenge that our customers have, and we iterate through solutions as a product and technology team.  We set our own goals and measure ourselves based on whether or not our eventual solution helps us reach our goal.

2.  The entire company should participate in the prioritization process

During round one of the auction process, we asked specific members of the management team to vote on a set of solutions to customer problems.  One team, our client services team, decided to hold their own internal auction.  This decision brought the best ideas to the forefront of the voters’ minds.  For the most recent auction, R&D provided the candidate customer challenges to the entire company 1 week ahead of time, so each manager could hold her own auction.  This increased transparency and participation amongst the entire company.  Now, we had feedback from 200 people instead of 12.  Not only that, but we believe that we came to an even better set of customer challenges because we enabled the Wisdom of the NewsCred Crowd.  Wisdom of the Crowds asserts that the decisions of the many will outperform the decisions of the few.

3.  The auction does not result in a commitment, it provides guidance on the business needs to R&D

The auction is one of the most significant signals in providing feedback to the R&D team, but it does not dictate a commitment of delivery.  As a customer centric technology company, we focus on solving the challenges of our customers.  It’s very difficult to predict, in advance, how many iterations it will take before we’ve accomplished our goals and delivered an amazing customer experience.  In the first auction, we spent a whole week sizing the work and trying to determine the difficulty of each solution candidate.  This time was wasted.  We could have spent that week solving the current challenges of our customers rather than trying to predict the difficulty of solving a future challenge.  During the first sprint of the Fall Release, we’re not only solving customer challenges (we released our new calendar this week), but we’re also taking the feedback from the auction to help us (as a team) set goals and priorities for the next 6 weeks.  This is not an activity where our product managers sit in a room and brainstorm.  Everyone is involved and it’s part of the engineers and designers job to speak with customers about their challenges and collect feedback.  We’re a customer centric team, and it is everyone’s job on the scrum team to speak with our customers to understand the challenges that were prioritized.

We are agile, and there’s certainly some things that we’ve learned during this process that we’ll fix for the Winter Release, but every time we repeat the preparation for another great release, we improve as a team.  We’ll always take on new projects based on client feedback and continue to iterate on what we’ve delivered, but this auction process helps R&D communicate its objectives, collect feedback from our customer teams, and makes us better at prioritization as a company.

This post originally appeared here.

If you’re interested in learning more about product management, please check out my Udemy Course on building products at startups.