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Agile prioritization mastery: learn the top 4 techniques!

Prioritization is a crucial skill for anyone on an Agile team, not just for Product Owners and Agile leaders. We often discuss its importance, but truly understanding and effectively applying prioritization techniques is a different matter. In this piece, I’ll introduce four tried-and-true methods Agile teams regularly use to hone their prioritization skills, each with its unique approach but all fundamentally aimed at delivering customer value.
Crafting user stories that clearly and objectively define value is key to successful prioritization. Although it's not always feasible to quantify value with absolute precision, striving for maximum clarity within the constraints of your specific circumstances is imperative. So, let’s dive into these four prioritization techniques to sharpen your Agile team's focus and effectiveness!

1.Value / Effort Matrix: A Simple Yet Effective Tool

The Value / Effort Matrix is straightforward but powerful. To utilize it, start by estimating the effort each story requires. No need for pinpoint accuracy here; simple "low" or "high" designations work, although I recommend using story points estimation for more depth (read more about it in another one of my posts Story Points 101: Your Guide to Getting Started).
Begin by sketching two axes: 'Value' (y) and 'Effort' (x), then plot your stories on the graph. Next, divide this graph into four quadrants, each guiding how you handle the stories falling within:
  • Top Left (High Value, Low Effort): These stories are your low-hanging fruits and should take precedence in your backlog. They promise significant value with minimal effort, making them prime candidates for immediate action.
  • Top Right (High Value, High Effort): These items need further scrutiny due to their demand for substantial investment. Given the high effort, it’s prudent to evaluate these stories meticulously, possibly employing other prioritization techniques I'll discuss later to assess their true worth.
  • Bottom Left (Low Value, Low Effort): This quadrant contains your filler tasks. While they aren't urgent, having a few of these tasks in your backlog provides options for productive work during downtime.
  • Bottom Right (Low Value, High Effort): Seriously consider eliminating these tasks from your backlog. Unless absolutely necessary (for compliance or legal reasons, perhaps), these tasks aren’t worth the effort due to their low value return.
Through this lens, you can more objectively assess and prioritize your tasks to align with both value delivery and effort expenditure.

2. Viability / Desirability / Feasibility: Expanding The Meaning Of Value

Expanding on the simple yet effective Value / Effort Matrix, let me introduce a more nuanced method: the Desirability/Viability/Feasibility framework. This approach not only probes deeper into what ‘value’ truly means but also guides us in balancing customer desires and business needs seamlessly.
Think of it this way: Handing out $100 bills will undoubtedly delight your customers (high desirability), but it’s certainly not viable for the business. Conversely, while sneaky payment plans with hidden fees might temporarily boost your revenue (high viability), they’re bound to leave your customers unhappy. We’re on the hunt for those golden opportunities that meet both criteria without requiring Herculean effort.
Here’s a practical way to use this framework: On your graph, let 'Viability' take the y-axis and 'Desirabilty' claim the x-axis. Then, map your stories, paying attention to their feasibility scores (you could use story points, or a straightforward S/M/L/XL estimation system). Focus on those items in the top right corner—where desirability and viability intersect— but with a low feasibility score. These are your stars, the tasks that should be tackled first. As for the remaining stories? They’ll patiently wait their turn while you harvest the low-hanging fruit!

3. Weighted Scoring: Fine-Tuning Your Prioritization

Struggling with defining value? You’re not alone; it’s a common dilemma. Here’s another framework to ease your struggle: Weighted Scoring.
Start by identifying what is crucial for your product at this stage. What matters most right now? Revenue growth? Customer experience? Performance? Security? While all are important, they may not be equally so. List 3-5 criteria that are pivotal, assigning each a weight between 1 and 5 based on their importance. For example, if security is a 5 (top priority), customer experience is a 3, and performance is a 2, you have a clear hierarchy of importance.
Then, proceed to evaluate each story, feature, or idea against these criteria. Using a consistent scale (1-5 is recommended for simplicity), assign scores to each story for every criterion. For instance, if Story 1 scores a 3 for security (which is then multiplied by the weight, giving us 15), a 2 for customer experience (yielding 6), and a 2 for performance (producing 4), its total score is 25.
Compare this with Story 2, which might score a 1 in security (5), a 3 in customer experience (9), and a 3 in performance (6), summing up to 20. In this comparison, Story 1 takes precedence, as it aligns more closely with your prioritized criteria, particularly the top-priority one: security.

4. Kano Method: Customer-Driven Priorities

For those with the option to directly engage customers about feature preferences, the Kano Method is your go-to. Crafted by Dr. Kano Noriaki, this technique classifies product features into five categories:
  • Must-haves: Essentials for customers without which the product would be dismissed. Think of coffee in a café - a non-negotiable.
  • One-dimensional: More of these enhance customer satisfaction; consider the variety of pastries available at the café.
  • Attractive: Unexpected elements that thrill customers. For instance, a surprise live music performance at the café can delight patrons.
  • Indifferent: Features that don’t sway customer opinions significantly. Whether beans are ground by hand or machine might be irrelevant to many.
  • Reverse: Features that might actually deter if overdone; like displaying out-of-stock items that can frustrate customers.
To allocate features to these categories, ask customers two questions per feature: “How would you feel if this feature is present (Functional)?” and “How would you feel if absent (Dysfunctional)?” Responses range from liking to disliking, expecting, tolerating, or feeling neutral.
Imagine inquiring about beds in a hotel room. The functional question may yield 'expected', while the dysfunctional garners 'disliked'. But, questioning about complimentary champagne? 'Liked' for functional, 'neutral' for dysfunctional.
Refer to the following mapping:
  • Functional: ‘I expect it’ + Dysfunctional: ‘I dislike it’ = Must-be
  • Functional: ‘I like it’ + Dysfunctional: ‘I dislike it’ = One-dimensional
  • Functional: ‘I like it’ + Dysfunctional: ‘I am neutral’ = Attractive
  • Functional: ‘I am neutral’ + Dysfunctional: ‘I am neutral’ = Indifferent
  • Functional: ‘I dislike it’ + Dysfunctional: ‘I expect it’ = Reverse
So, a hotel room bed is a must-have, while the champagne is an attractive feature. Prioritization then involves securing all must-haves, maximizing one-dimensional, and sprinkling in attractive features. But stay alert; yesterday’s delighter can morph into today’s must-have as customer expectations evolve!
Regardless of your chosen prioritization technique, the focal point should always be on delivering customer value. Remember, prioritization isn't a one-and-done task but a continuous effort that unfolds as your product develops and evolves.
Practice makes perfect: the more you engage in prioritization, the smoother and more intuitive the process becomes. Although your approach might become less formalized over time, maintaining a lens of objectivity is crucial. This balance ensures that your decisions are grounded, clear, and value-driven.
But here’s a final piece of advice: don’t get caught in the trap of trying to prioritize everything from the get-go. Focus on identifying and tackling your top-priority items first. As you work through these, new and perhaps even more exciting opportunities will inevitably surface. When they do, you'll be ready to assess, prioritize, and dive back in with a clear understanding of what value truly means for your customers and your product. Happy prioritizing!
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