A quick and dirty trick to kickstart prioritization

This practice comes in handy when the Product Owner cannot decide on the importance of several items with, seemingly equal importance.

Let’s assume we have ten backlog items that our Product Owner considers equally important but due to its limited capacity, the development team cannot deliver all of them. Still we need a prioritized list of items so we can decide which one to work on next.

The human brain is really strong in making comparisons. This practice does just that: it helps you to move the PO out of the “Everything is important” mindset by comparing backlog items to one another.

If you are a ScrumMaster or team facilitator, take the lead and make a decision for the PO using your gut feelings. Just move the backlog item you feel the least important to the top of the list. It should trigger a discussion right away where the PO states: “no, that  definitely does not belong to the top…”. And there you are, you now have a good starting point and you know the relative importance of at least two items compared to each other. Proceed by moving that item down by one and ask if it is more important than the one below. Keep moving the backlog item until it finds its proper place in the list. Do this for all items until no more swapping is needed. That is it, you have a prioritized list.

You can also start by moving the item you think is the most important to the bottom. It should trigger a similar discussion, where important items rise to the top just like bubbles rising to the surface.

This practice can also be useful when you as a Product Owner have to manage business stakeholders’ expectations and you want to help them to set their business priorities.