List of Features

Prioritized List of Features

Prioritization is key to getting the right work done in the right order. Prioritization would be simple if there was only one point of view involved. One person with all of their built-in biases could line work up in the order they wanted it done from the highest priority to the lowest in the blink of an eye. However, the real world is rarely that simple and even if it was, the outcome of the one perspective approach might not be great, in part due to biases. For example, Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow points out that entrepreneurs fall prey to optimism bias, which makes it easy to take risks. Three macro-categories of approaches to prioritization are: 

  1. Qualitative, based on assessing or measuring attributes that describe a piece of work.  Complexity is an example. 
  2. Quantitative, based on countable aspects.  Examples include cost and return on investment (ROI) 
  3. Others, based on organizational needs or attributes that do not reflect the qualitative or quantitative characteristics of a work item. Examples might include learning needs and product mapping.  

We will start with qualitative approaches for this theme, with a discussion of multiple stakeholder scenarios that present their own special issues.

The most common qualitative approach uses linear forced ranking.  A formal approach to force ranking a backlog follows:

  1. Identify a set of criteria for evaluating each of the items.  Arguably, the criteria that are used should be knowable (or at least estimable) at the time work is prioritized. One of the problems with this approach is using unknowable criteria — as we have seen in our re-read of Thinking Fast and Slow, System 1 thinking will kick in and people will substitute a question they can answer for the harder question.  This will create erratic results. 
  2. Based on the established criteria, rate a piece of work that is uncontroversial and will probably end up in the middle of the ranking.  This item will act as an anchor (anchor bias) for comparison and sanity checks later in the process. If this is a group effort, most teams use a consensus approach similar to planning poker.  
  3. Rate the rest, using the criteria and the anchor item as a guide.
  4. Sort the list in ranked order based on the criteria.
  5. Tune the list based on context and organizational politics and you are done! 

There are many qualitative criteria that can be useful for prioritization Including complexity, urgency, and innovation to name a few. Story points or value points are really qualitative attributes (they are unitless) masquerading as quantitative.  In all cases, using qualitative attributes in a group setting requires creating a shared understanding of what is being measured and a reference point for comparison. Without a shared understanding, group or no group, each person will establish a meaning based on their own internal biases.  

Forced ranking is an easily understood approach but it is easily messed up without an approach and a shared understanding to drive the ranking.  Just think, if you force ranked a list of cars by greenness would the list look the same way if greenness meant how good the car looked painted green compared to a ranking based on environmental impact?  Note: I actually had this scenario happen in a class I taught, I changed the exercise to avoid that problem in the future. 

Next – A Less Simple Ranking Technique

Later –  Kano Method (a not so simple qualitative approach)


Entries in this theme:

Backlog Refinement Revisited: Three Rules –
Prioritizing The Backlog: A Flow of Work –
Prioritization: Simple Qualitative Approaches – (This Entry
Prioritization: Intermediate Qualitative Approach –