Help Your Product Owner Prioritize Stories

Two Winning Techniques that Help Product Owners Set Priorities

We’ve all seen it.  The business provides a list of enhancements to a Product Owner. You, as Scrum Master, call a meeting to walk through the enhancements and try to facilitate prioritization.  What happens?  The Product Owner ranks all of the enhancements as high priority or must-haves.  And of course, if every priority is Number 1, there’s actually no priority at all.

I’ve tried a lot of techniques on the various teams I’ve worked on and have found these two work the best: Quadrant Chart and Story Mapping.

Quadrant Chart

My favorite quick-and-dirty prioritization method is the Quadrant Chart.  

It looks like this:

Notice how the Priority on the vertical axis is ranked Low to High, but the Complexity/Size on the horizontal axis is ranked High to Low.

This method is most useful when you have a long list of items you want to sort quickly and efficiently. You begin by stepping through your list of whatever it is you want to prioritize. In our case, Epics, Components, or Stories.  Start with the first item and work to the last.  Assign each two ranks.  For Priority, assign 1, 2, 3, 4 with 1 representing the least important and 4 having the highest priority. After you assign the priority repeat the ranking for the item on the basis of Complexity or Size. Again, use a scale of 1-2-3-4 with 1 representing the smallest/least complex and 4 representing the largest/most complex.

Now you have a list of Stories with two rankings each that you can plot on the quadrant.

It’s very easy to see that any Story that falls in the upper-right quadrant, High Priority and Low Complexity, is your best place to start.  This enables you to bring the highest value with the least amount of effort.  Who doesn’t like that?

Story Mapping

If you to try using a technique that requires more analysis, I suggest Story Mapping. This is similar to the old waterfall method of sequencing tasks, but with the added dimension of priority.  This method was introduced by Jeff Patton in 2005 and I highly recommend that you read his discussion on his Jeff Patton and Associates website.

Write your Epics on sticky notes and place them on the top of a decision box.

Now break the Epics into Components and write the Components on sticky notes. Place them in your decision box from left to right in order of use case sequence.

Finally, break the Components into Stories and place them in your decision box from left to right in order of use case sequence.  Here comes the cool part. At the same time, arrange the Stories from top to bottom based on importance. You can use the Quadrant Chart method to rank importance if you like.

When you finish, you’ll have a map of features that you can use to plan your Sprints. You move from left to right over time for your Sprints. Because the map also provides a top to bottom order of importance, you also have a lovely map of releases that provide increasing sophistication with each delivery. This is Alistair Cockburn’s concept of the Walking Skeleton.

So there you have it. Prioritizing is really pretty simple. All you need are a couple of tools and you can organize anything. If you want to investigate some other prioritizing methods there’s a great blog written by Daniel Zacarias who’s based in Lisbon. He describes 20 Product Prioritization Techniques. It’s a great resource.

Combine this with the GSD method for project planning and you can’t lose. See Chapter 2: GSD Gold Project Planning.

Gerri Slama Grove


Gerri Slama Grove

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