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Backlog Prioritization: OSR, MoSCoW, WSJF and So Much More

With the recent focus on market trends and making sure we get the most bang for our buck, the topic of priority comes up quite often. Now there have been many times we have dedicated previous blog posts, conference break-out sessions, podcast episodes and lots of other mediums to discuss this ever so important topic. With some renewed urgency, let’s cover how to get the best out of your prioritization technique as a company.

Pick a Method for Prioritization

When looking at the different methods to use within a company to help identify priority and thereby shine a light on what should be worked on in what order, there are many differing opinions. The most common prioritization techniques organize work by at least the following three categories:

  • Business / Company Value or Urgency

  • Customer Desires / Requests

  • Complexity / Size of the Work

backlog priority

With each of these factors it is common to see the first factor used very disproportionally to justify top priority as being synonymous with URGENT. As mentioned by Lee Henson in a recent podcast episode entitled “Backlog Prioritization – OSR”, it is important to not let this tyranny of the urgent become what dictates priority for your product or company. Some balance of the factors above is usually best to utilize as it gives a more complete look at priority through the lens of company value, customer desire and technological feasibility and lift. It is for this exact reason that an “Objective Stack Ranked” method gets used by so many different companies professing an Agile approach to their backlog management. Even when looking at scaling frameworks such as SAFe, a similar approach referred to as Weighted Shortest Job First (WSJF) considers these factors where cost of delay is divided by job size to get an accurate idea of what may generate the greatest value for the effort expended. The greatest advice to give would be to choose a method that balances these factors and use it to help make decisions on what your products and solutions will develop first, next and not at all.

Trust Your Method – Don’t Listen to the HiPPO


Despite our best work to prioritize and determine what to work on, there will always be detracting opinions. Prioritization methods work best when they are seen through to completion of the user story or feature created and we gather real customer feedback from what we are delivering. This is a key reason why one of the 12 Agile principles states that the primary measure of our success is working software or solutions. The working solution will tell us more about whether we have been prioritizing user stories and features correctly or not. The sooner we can get to real working solutions, the sooner we prove or disprove our hypothesis on what is really important to the customer. However, despite this we always have well intentioned executives that want us to trust their gut on a given decision. They oftentimes speak much more than they listen from their managerial or leadership role which has led more than a few companies down the path to irrelevance. Please don’t give into this gut-wrenching approach to prioritize but trust the method you are using until you have proven you need to consider other factors in your Objective Stack Ranking of the backlog. Instead make sure you do as was mentioned in “Are We Agile in Name Only?” by empowering teams and product owners to make decisions instead of being overruled by the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion (HiPPO). This ultimately helps you come up with a strategy for what your prioritized backlog will be delivering after using value stream mapping or user story mapping sessions to identify a list of ideas that can be implemented in short order by using some of “The 5 Steps to a Perfectly Prioritized Product Backlog”.

Keep it Simple – Trust the Feedback and Make Changes

As with any method or process being used on your team or within your company, empirical data should be the key to improvement. When you learn that the customer could really use a different feature next that you had planned for a quarter or two from now, you may want to see where you can pivot to accomplish that competitive advantage that may accomplish what is needed for your product and customer. It isn’t always possible, but we should ask ourselves what can be done to maximize the generation of value by having satisfied customers. Learning from your prioritization method and seeing what balance can be achieved through your delivery mechanisms will set you up for short-term wins and long-term success. Learning what else we need to include without making our prioritization methods overly cumbersome helps to accomplish true agility with our products and solutions and not just a scrumification of our backlog. Focus on the outcome, learn from it and the results will naturally come.


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