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MoSCoW Method of Prioritization

A previous blog post titled Feeling Overwhelmed? How Agile Can Help briefly describes the MoSCoW method of prioritization. This post goes into more detail, explaining its origins, how best to use the MoSCoW method, and where it may not be as strong as other methods of prioritization.

Origins of the MoSCoW Method of Prioritization

Software developer Dai Clegg developed the MoSCoW method of prioritization to help his software development team at Oracle prioritize tasks and features. Since then, some software development teams have used the MoSCoW method to prioritize feature requests. Agilists occasionally use it in disciplines other than software development, including marketing. 

The Basics of the MoSCoW Method of Prioritization

The MoSCoW Method of Prioritization categorizes tasks into four buckets:

MoSCoW method of prioritization

In any prioritization session, the team moves from left to right, committing to the Must Have items (depending on their due date) before moving on to the Should Haves and Could Haves. The team doesn’t consider the Won’t Haves.

Using the MoSCoW Method of Prioritization

Before running a MoSCoW prioritization session, sit down with stakeholders and team members and discuss your strategic objectives and the primary factors for prioritizing items. For example, you might come up with a list that looks something like:

  • Any legal or regulatory requirements go in the must-have bucket. List the due date for the requirement, as that may determine when it gets done.
  • For something to be in the Should Have bucket, it must align with at least one of the organization’s strategic objectives, or it must be critical to the business objectives of a stakeholder.
  • Anything that doesn’t have a significant effect on either customer satisfaction or business impact goes in the Won’t Have bucket.

Every organization will have a different list of prioritization factors. It is essential to discuss these before prioritizing individual tasks. When the organization does this well, categorizing tasks becomes much more manageable.

Discuss how you’re going to consider the needs of customers in making prioritization decisions. For example, if you have two tasks or stories that seem roughly comparable in priority, but one is more important for the business and the other is a must have from the point of view of the customer, which will you choose?

You might also want to discuss how you’ll resolve any disagreements on prioritization. For example, what if a stakeholder claims an item has a significant business impact but doesn’t provide compelling evidence?

Finally, the team should discuss the rough percentage targets for each bucket. It is unlikely that 90% of items fall into the must-have category. In a highly regulated industry, must-haves consume as much as one-third of the allocated capacity. If an organization is not in a highly regulated industry, must-haves might be as little as 10 percent of capacity. Discuss this; don’t take the easy path of allocating 25 percent of resources to each bucket.

Benefits of the MoSCoW Method of Prioritization

Clear Framework for Prioritization

The MoSCoW Method of Prioritization provides a clear framework for making prioritization decisions. When done well, it can be very effective to group tasks and deliverables into prioritized buckets. It is much better than what many teams practice, prioritizing based on the loudest or most senior voice in the room.

Stakeholder Alignment

The MoSCoW Method of Prioritization can help the team align with stakeholders on prioritization. It provides a way to frame discussions with stakeholders about what must, should, and could be done based on customer and business needs. This is a language that most stakeholders understand, and even if they disagree with the prioritization, it doesn’t seem random.

Common Language for Decision Making

Related to stakeholder alignment above, the MoSCoW Method of Prioritization gives the team a common language for decision-making. This requires that the team get alignment on strategic objectives and the factors for prioritizing items. If the team establishes this alignment, it becomes the language everyone uses to make prioritization decisions. 

Increased Team Focus

Prioritization increases team focus. The team does the most essential work according to pre-determined criteria. There is less work that has to be done because a loud voice demands it be done, and the team can focus on the most important tasks.

Drawbacks to the MoSCoW Method of Prioritization

 

No Weighted, Consistent Method for Scoring

Unlike ICE or WSJF, two other popular methods for prioritization, the MoSCoW method of prioritization does not have a built-in method of scoring. There are no weighted factors. It is up to the team to discuss and apply “rules” for scoring. If the team does not establish these factors and agree on how to weigh them, MoSCoW can be worse than useless. It can provide the appearance of rational prioritization without the reality.

Requires Including All Relevant Stakeholders

For the MoSCoW method of prioritization to be successful, the team needs to engage with and listen to all relevant stakeholders. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen. Teams engage with the largest or loudest stakeholders but not with smaller, less vocal stakeholders. The methodology devolves into a version of the loudest or most senior voice in the room wins.

Requires Including the Customer’s Perspective

If the team isn’t closely connected to the customer or doesn’t consider the needs of the customer, the MoSCoW method may not prioritize the right things.

Team Biases Can Impact Effectiveness

Teams can apply their own biases to feedback from stakeholders. Suppose they don’t believe in a particular strategic initiative, for example, or they don’t believe in the mission of a new business unit. In that case, they may discount input from stakeholders working on that strategic initiative or business unit. Teams have to listen carefully to stakeholder feedback and be conscious of their own biases.

Conclusion

The MoSCoW Method of Prioritization provides a framework for decision-making, and when done well, it is easy to understand and practical. Marketing teams wishing to use a straightforward method of prioritization to increase their team focus should consider the MoSCoW method as well as other methods such as ICE and WSJF.