How to do backlog prioritization effectively

Unless you and your team possess superpowers, you probably can’t get to every item on your to-do list every single day.

So, what’s the best way to make sure you’re working as smart and productively as possible? Answer: Backlog prioritization, a crucial aspect of project management and product development.

Prioritizing your backlog helps ensure that you focus on the most valuable and impactful items first. (It also helps team members to decide which tasks to pick up if they find themselves with additional capacity during an iteration.)

What is product backlog prioritization?

Product backlog prioritization is a sort of dynamic to-do list that guides the development team’s work. It’s a repository of tasks, ideas, and features derived from the product roadmap and its requirements. Think of it as the master plan that keeps everyone on track and moving in the right direction.

The magic of a product backlog lies in prioritization. You can’t make everything a top priority. The most critical items go at the top of the list.

This is like the red velvet rope at an elaborate event, signaling to the development team that this is what we need to deliver first. Achieving success depends on setting the right priorities.

But in order to do that, the development team needs to participate in the process. Your team doesn’t just plow through the backlog set by the product owner. They share ownership over the work, pulling tasks from the product backlog as their capacity allows, either through a continuous flow (kanban) or in iterative cycles (scrum).

So you want to find that sweet spot, that delicate balance between pushing and pulling. The development team isn’t bombarded with tasks, and the product owner isn’t making unfair demands. You want a harmonious exchange where the development team has the autonomy to pull in the work they can handle, and prioritization makes it easy for them to choose the most valuable tasks first.

Whether you use a kanban or scrum approach, the key is flexibility and adaptability. The product backlog evolves over time based on new insights and changing circumstances.

Prioritization is fluid, changing as the product takes shape. Through this iterative process, the product evolves, becoming something remarkable.

Why is backlog prioritization important?

Backlog prioritization is vital to the success of your project and your team. It drives focus, strategic decisions, customer satisfaction, resource efficiency, and adaptability.

A prioritized backlog keeps teams on track, working toward a common goal. It also helps you make more informed choices that align with your product strategy, and deliver features that truly delight users.

Prioritization also helps you to optimize resources and make the best use of your team’s time, energy, and expertise.

Benefits of backlog prioritization

There’s no shortage of reasons backlog prioritization is worthwhile. Here are just a few key benefits:

  1. Clear direction: Backlog prioritization provides crystal-clear direction to your development team, highlighting the most important tasks right up front. Prioritization gets everyone on the same page, knowing exactly what needs to be done and when.
  2. Maximum value: Prioritizing your backlog helps you focus on the most valuable tasks first, so you can deliver those features or improvements that will have the greatest impact on your users and customers.
  3. Efficient resource allocation: Backlog prioritization ensures that your team’s time and resources are used efficiently. If you carefully consider the effort required for each task, you can allocate resources strategically so your team doesn’t waste time on low-value or overly complex tasks.
  4. Adaptability and flexibility: As the needs of your product and users evolve, backlog prioritization enables you to adjust priorities accordingly, responding to changing circumstances and taking advantage of emerging opportunities.
  5. Continuous learning. Prioritization fuels learning and growth. By incorporating feedback loops and user insights into your prioritization process, you can make informed decisions based on real-world information, enhancing your product’s performance and user satisfaction.

Backlog prioritization gives your team clear direction, maximizes value, optimizes resource allocation, allows for adaptability, and fuels continuous learning. It’s a powerhouse tool that sets you up for success and helps you deliver value in a way that delights your customers.

Backlog prioritization techniques

There are as many backlog prioritization techniques as there are Agile teams. What matters most is finding one that suits your team, so it’s worth familiarizing yourself with the most commonly used models. Here are a few options:

Kano model:

This model helps you figure out what features will truly delight your customers. By understanding their needs and expectations, you can prioritize tasks that create a “wow factor” and truly set your product apart.

Opportunity scoring:

With this technique, you assess the potential impact and value of each task. Focus on tasks that offer the biggest opportunities, where the payoff is high and the risk is manageable.

Stack ranking:

Imagine creating a stack of cards, with each task representing a card. You then arrange them in order of priority, from top to bottom. This approach helps you visualize and communicate the relative importance of each task.

Priority poker:

This model involves team collaboration and decision-making. You run it like a friendly game of poker, but the goal is that everyone’s opinion is heard. Each task is assigned a priority, and team members discuss and negotiate until consensus is reached. In priority poker, you leverage the collective wisdom and expertise of your team.

MoSCoW model:

This model categorizes tasks into four groups: must have, should have, could have, and won’t have. By focusing on the must-haves and should-haves, you ensure that the essentials are taken care of before you even consider the nice-to-haves

Cost of delay:

This model takes into account the potential cost of delaying a task. By prioritizing tasks based on their urgency and impact, you can minimize costs and seize opportunities.

100 dollar test:

Imagine you have a limited budget of $100 and need to allocate it among tasks. By assigning a monetary value to each task, you can determine where to invest your “dollars” for the greatest impact.

These backlog prioritization models can empower you to make informed decisions, delight customers, and allocate resources wisely. Choose the model that works best for your team and let the power of prioritization unfold.

Whichever technique you choose, a prioritized backlog requires a balance between short-term goals and long-term vision. Stay flexible throughout the process to make sure your backlog reflects the most valuable and achievable items at any given time.

Tips for backlog prioritization

Here are some steps to help you prioritize your backlog effectively:

  1. Define clear goals and objectives. Start by understanding the overall goals and objectives of your project or product. This will provide a framework for prioritization and help you align backlog items with the desired outcomes.
  2. Gather and document backlog items. Collect all potential backlog items, like user stories, feature requests, bug reports, etc. Make sure to document them in a consistent, easily accessible format.
  3. Evaluate and estimate the value. Assess the value and impact of each backlog item. Consider factors like customer needs, market demand, strategic alignment, revenue potential, and user experience. Employ user research, customer feedback, market analysis, and stakeholder input to help determine the value.
  4. Assess effort and feasibility. Evaluate the effort required to implement each backlog item. Consider the complexity, technical feasibility, dependencies, and available resources. Break down larger items into smaller, more manageable tasks for a better understanding of effort estimation.
  5. Prioritize based on value and effort. Once you’ve assessed the value and effort for each item, you can prioritize them using various techniques. Here’s how.
    • MoSCoW method: Categorize items into Must-haves, Should-haves, Could-haves, and Won’t-haves. (Focus on addressing the Must-haves first!)
    • Value vs. effort matrix: Plot items on a matrix based on their value and effort, and prioritize those with high value and low effort (quick wins) or high value and high effort (strategic initiatives).
    • Kano model: Classify items into basic, performance, and delightful features. Prioritize those that deliver the most customer satisfaction and differentiate your product.
    • Cost of delay: Consider the impact of delaying each item, then prioritize based on the potential cost or loss associated with postponement.
  6. Collaborate and gain consensus. Involve relevant stakeholders — including product owners, developers, designers, and key users — in the prioritization process. Seek their input and opinions to foster a collaborative approach and gain consensus on the prioritization decisions.
  7. Adapt and review. Prioritization is not a one-time activity. Regularly review and update your backlog as new information becomes available or priorities shift. Continuously refine your backlog based on feedback, market changes, and evolving business needs.

Prioritize based on value and effort. Once you’ve assessed the value and effort for each item, you can prioritize them using various techniques. Here’s how.

Making backlog prioritization easier with a little help from Appfire

If you’re using Agile for project management, you appreciate the importance of adaptability and iteration. Backlog prioritization goes hand in hand with Agile.

Agile teams work better when priorities are well defined and transparent, so they can focus on the work that matters.

Appfire makes this easier with apps that support backlog prioritization and refinement (like Agile Poker and Foxly) or translate strategy into priorities (like Swanly and OKR for Jira).

If you want to improve backlog prioritization at your organization, explore our Agile enterprise solution apps.

Last updated: 2023-07-31

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