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Simple forced ranking prioritization techniques are often sufficient. However, as the number of stakeholders with different perspectives grows or it becomes more difficult to differentiate between the priority stories or features a more complex approach is required. The matrix approach builds on the force ranking approach by formally adding a second dimension.  For example, a matrix could be constructed using the variables urgency and value. In the example below each of the variables is broken into three levels creating a 9-box matrix. The box at the top right has the highest implied probability and the box at the bottom left the least. 

As with any qualitative ranking approach, defining the variables being used and what each step on the scale means will reduce misunderstandings and bias. 

While the matrix approach can be used for prioritizing stories, it is most often used at the feature or portfolio levels where there is more contention for capacity.  The simple process for using the matrix (above) approach for prioritizing features follows:  

  1. Identify all of the features that potentially need to be addressed in the next fixed period of time.
  2. Review the variables and how they will be broken down with all participants. 
  3. Identify an easily understood feature (medium value and medium urgency) – this feature will represent the baseline.  Place the feature in the middle of the grid.
  4. Randomly review each feature in step one.  As a team agrees on the value/urgency combination using the baseline as reference.  A random approach helps to avoid groups from getting what they want and checking out.
  5. When done, unload the matrix items in the Killer/ASAP block are at the top of the priority list and MEH/Whenever are at the bottom.
  6. Based on the median feature throughput (how many features the team completes per 90 days) select the same number of features in priority order.  If a team(s) has no throughput data, establish an estimate before the session with the technical leads and stick to the estimate. 
  7. Horse trading and reprioritization can occur based on group consensus. This will typically occur around the cutoff line. 

Note: The matrix was and should be established and socialized before trying to use it in a group session.

The matrix approach is useful in scenarios that are more complex.  As the number of stakeholders increases from one or two coupled with an increase in the number of work items to sort through, simple forced ranking tends to be unidimensional.  The matrix approach provides granularity without a large increase in overhead.  

Entries in this theme:

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