Do any of the following describe your agile organization?

  • We build lots of stuff and we build it right, but wonder if we are building the right stuff?
  • Our priorities are described with language such as “1a, 1b, and 1c”.
  • A backlog is considered a place where ideas go to die.
  • Our various ceremonies blend together into repetitions of the same ceremony.
  • Task-level breakdown sneaks into backlog grooming.
  • Priorities are discussed during a workshop.
  • Shiny new work consistently usurps older planned work.
  • New feature requests masquerade as “production issues”.

Believe it or not, all of the above symptoms are related to a single cog in your agile machinery, and all the stickies in the world won’t fix them. Your prioritization, or lack of it, is to blame. In this multi-part series, I will describe how everything is affected by prioritization and techniques for doing it well.

What is prioritization?

Prioritization is the process of organizing work by the level of value, relative to the level of effort. Conceptually, the things that are of the highest value are at the top of the list, and the things with the lowest value are at the bottom of the list. The concept seems straightforward and simple, but in practice is exceptionally challenging, and the ramifications for doing it poorly ripple through every aspect of work management. The challenges emerge when we begin asking the next logical questions:

  • How do we describe value?
  • What makes something more valuable than another?
  • What about level of effort?
  • How long should this list of sorted things be?
  • Who does the prioritization?

Let’s take each one of these questions individually.

How do we describe value?

This is one of the most difficult aspects of prioritization. The reason it is difficult is because it really depends on several factors, and the factors are different from organization to organization. The things that are important to a for-profit organization may not necessarily be the same as those for a non-profit organization. Organizations that are under regulatory compliance obligations will have to factor those in. Organizational strategy will play a huge part in further differentiating what is important across organizations. Consider organizations such as Nordstrom, Walmart, TD Ameritrade and the Department of Homeland Security.

Nordstrom is known for their customer service, so that will likely be reflected in what they consider important. Walmart’s strategy centers around everyday low prices so cost is likely to be a significant factor in determining value. TD Ameritrade’s strategy is all about making money for their customers, so they are likely to value things that increase revenue/profit. The Department of Homeland Security is responsible for protecting the United States, so items related to security will be the most valuable.

No single factor can be used to determine value, and even the sets of factors will vary by organization.

What makes something more valuable than another?

If everything could be measured by something like cost or revenue (assuming cost and revenue were important to your organization) it would be easy to determine if something was more valuable than another. But not everything can be described in terms of cost and/or revenue, nor do those factors apply consistently across the board. Other factors such as risk mitigation, regulatory compliance, and operational efficiencies are also usually at play, and typically cannot be easily described in financial terms. Regulatory compliance issues might have financial components associated with them, but more importantly they have time sensitivities that need to be accounted for. Security vulnerabilities also have urgency concerns that further mix the pool of possible factors to consider.

When two things are not alike, such as a story about a new feature and a story about technical debt, there needs to exist something that can describe both of those stories in a way that they can be compared on equal footing. We can’t effectively describe both stories in terms of cost/revenue, for example, nor can we describe both stories in terms of operational efficiency. A zero-day vulnerability needs to be considered for its time sensitivity and risk mitigation.

The finite set of these factors becomes the basis for a new way to make unlike things more alike. We need to describe things in terms of their relative value, such that all the factors are represented, and that all items can be sorted by this value relative to each other.

Something is more valuable than another when its relative value is higher than the other.

What about level of effort?

Things that are determined to be of high relative value should naturally float to the top of a prioritized list of work. But relative value is just one side of the equation. Relative level of effort is equally important. Consider two things with similar relative values, but vastly different levels of effort. If both things would provide equal relative values, but one could be delivered in a much shorter period of time than the other, shouldn’t the latter be prioritized over the former?

Consider a fantastic new feature that will amaze and delight your customers, but will take a significant level of effort to produce. Then, consider a simple fix to a well-known problem that annoys a small subset of your users, but would require a relatively small level of effort. It would not be unreasonable to prioritize the simple bug fix ahead of the new feature simply because of the ratio of effort-to-value.

Higher ROE (return on effort) items should be near the top of the list.

How long should this list of sorted things be?

The size of a prioritized list will be dictated by how manageable it is. Constant changes to all the relevant factors that drive priorities are a reality, making prioritization something that is always in flux. The most valuable thing today may not be the most valuable thing tomorrow. Something that was an unknown last week can quickly become the most valuable thing today. Something that was in line to be worked on in a couple of months may suddenly become irrelevant tomorrow.

Considering the complexity of determining the value and effort of something, and having to do it continually, it makes sense to do it on an as-needed basis, and only to the degree that it assists in keeping the most valuable things at the top, and the less valuable things at the bottom.

Prioritization is an ongoing process that is always subject to change, and therefore should involve a manageable list of items. If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.

Up Next: Who Does the Prioritization?