Magdalena Jackiewicz
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Magdalena Jackiewicz
Reviewed by a tech expert

Mastering Agile prioritization techniques: 4 simple yet powerful tools for Scrum excellence

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Among the various Agile methodologies, Scrum stands out as the most effective due to maximum adaptability, efficiency, and strong emphasis on collaboration it offers in comparison to Waterfall or Kanban.

Prioritization lies at the core of Scrum as the art of determining the order in which features, user stories, or tasks should be addressed during the development process. Making these decisions isn’t always easy, as prioritizing items to be addressed and subsequently released depends on a number of factors, including business priorities, market fluctuations, dependencies, risk, effort required to address them, and others.

In this guide, I’m taking a deep dive into four Agile prioritization techniques, exploring their uses and purpose, and equipping you with the knowledge necessary to confidently navigate the intricate landscape of your Scrum projects.


Here’s a quick recap on Agile prioritization techniques described in this blog post.

Weighted Shortest Job First (WSJF) is comprehensive and excellent for large-scale projects but is complex and requires specialized knowledge.

MoSCoW method is quick and straightforward but may not adapt well to changing circumstances.

Value/Effort Matrix excels in resource allocation and is highly flexible but requires accurate metrics.

Eisenhower Matrix (sometimes called the Eisenhower Box or Eisenhower Decision Matrix) offers a good balance between urgency and importance but might not handle complex dependencies well.

Scrum prioritization – why it’s crucial to master the art

In Agile, particularly in Scrum, the essence of prioritization techniques lies in understanding the importance of the product backlog and regular refinement sessions.

The backlog is essentially a catalog of items that must be addressed to achieve the product’s vision. However, not all items carry the same weight: some hold greater importance, while others are of lesser significance, determined by a number of different factors.

This is where a prioritization framework comes into play as a strategic decision-making tool and a crucial responsibility of the Product Owner. Assigning order to the backlog items based on factors such as value, risk, effort, or other relevant considerations will determine how efficiently the team can progress towards product goals.

Effective prioritization is thus a compass that guides Agile teams throughout the product development process, ensuring that they focus their efforts on the most valuable work. Let’s take a quick look at two prioritization frameworks that are particularly relevant in Scrum.

Value-based Agile prioritization techniques

Scrum actually uses value-based prioritization as one of the core principles that drives the structure and functionality of the entire Scrum framework. This concept helps projects benefit through adaptability and iterative development of the product or service. More significantly, Scrum aims at delivering a valuable product or service to the customer on an early and continuous basis.

The Product Owner must first understand customer requirements in order to arrange the prioritized product backlog items or the user stories by relative importance. Sometimes a customer may insist that all user stories are of high priority. While this might be true, even a list of high priority user stories should be ranked within the list itself. Prioritizing a backlog involves determining how critical each user story is, but also weighing potential risks that may prevent their implementation.

Risk-based Agile prioritization techniques

The Product Owner's work doesn't end on value-based prioritization. They simultaneously work with the Scrum team to understand the project risks and uncertainties, as those may have negative consequences.

The Scrum team also alerts the Product Owner of any dependencies that arise out of implementation and should be accounted for.

Mastering the art of Scrum prioritization is crucial because it directly impacts the efficiency and effectiveness of software development processes. Proper prioritization ensures that the team focuses on delivering the highest business value in the shortest amount of time, which is vital for optimizing resources and achieving quick returns on investment. 

Weighted Shortest Job First (WSJF) technique

Sometimes, the simplest approach can be the most efficient. The WSJF prioritization technique exemplifies this concept, offering an effective method for organizing backlog according to the size or effort required for each task and their urgency, which is translated into the concept of the Cost of Delay (CoD). It simply represents the costs a task will incur if delayed.

WSJF emphasizes taking an economic view when prioritizing value delivery. It  disregards factors like sunk costs and focuses on making continuous financial choices.

WSJF is a dynamic process; as the project progresses, new items may be added to the backlog or existing priorities might change, requiring a recalculation of WSJF scores.

Application of WSJF

To recap: WSJF takes two factors under consideration: the CoD and the job size. If you’re looking for an extensive read on this concept, it was described by Don Reinerstein in his book titled The Principles of Product Development Flow.

To integrate WSJF into your Scrum process, start by identifying all potential features, user stories, or tasks. This measure accounts for the impact that delaying a task would have on overall value. You can consider factors like urgency, business value, risk reduction and others.

The next step is to estimate the Job Size, usually represented in story points or days, which gives an idea of the effort required to complete the job.

Once you have this data, use the WSJF = Cost of Delay / Job Size formula to calculate the WSJF score for each backlog item. You can then prioritize based on these scores: the higher the score, the higher the priority.

For instance, if a potential feature is estimated to be worth $10,000 per month and experiences a three-month delay, the total CoD would amount to $30,000.

The above figure visually demonstrates the impact of applying Reinertsen's WSJF model to prioritize jobs. The shaded areas represent the total CoD in each case, with the jobs assigned the highest WSJF providing the most favorable economic outcomes. As depicted in the figure, the act of “picking the next best job to do” can yield significant financial consequences.

When to use WSJF technique

  • In scenarios where multiple stakeholders are involved and each has different priorities, WSJF can provide an objective means of prioritization.
  • In fast-moving markets or technology spaces, where time is of the essence, WSJF can help teams to quickly identify and execute on the most urgent tasks.
  • When your product backlog contains a mix of high-value and low-value tasks, as well as large and small items, WSJF can offer a balanced way to prioritize this diverse set of tasks.
  • In data-driven environments with access to accurate data on Cost of Delay, effort estimates, and other factors related to individual backlog items.

When not to use the WSJF technique

  • In smaller and simple projects, as the effort required to calculate WSJF might not be justified.
  • When you’re missing critical data, as the model’s outputs may be misleading.
  • When requirements change so frequently that the Cost of Delay and Job Size are constantly in flux, as the WSJF calculations may become outdated quickly.

MoSCoW method: must-have, should-have, could-have, won’t-have

The MoSCoW technique blends value-based prioritization and risk-based prioritization principles to help teams decide what features or tasks are most important to work on in an upcoming sprint. This method is well-suited for environments like Scrum, where requirements can change frequently and reprioritization must be carried out often.

The acronym MoSCoW stands for four categories: Must-have, Should-have, Could-have, and Won't-have. These categories help you sort tasks based on their importance and urgency, making it effective in time-sensitive scenarios. It doesn’t, however, offer direct insights into how to allocate resources most efficiently.

Using the MoSCoW method in your Scrum process is immensely helpful at establishing a shared understanding among team members and stakeholders about what is critical, what is important, and what can be delayed. This ensures that your team focuses on what truly matters, making your Scrum process more efficient and aligned with business objectives.

Application of the MoSCoW method

In a Scrum environment, you would typically use this prioritization technique during your sprint planning meetings to organize the items in your product backlog. Start by categorizing each item into one of these four labels with your team and stakeholders. Let’s take a look at how to put this into practice.

Firstly, put all the non-negotiable items and those that need to be completed in the current sprint into the Must-have category. These are often critical for the project and cannot be postponed without affecting the project’s success.

Secondly, Should-have items should include those that are important but not vital. They are not as time-sensitive as the Must-haves, meaning that if you don't get to them in the current sprint, it won't be a disaster; however, they should be completed as soon as possible.

Thirdly, list all the Could-have items – those that would be nice to have but don’t necessarily have to be implemented immediately. These would be all the  low-impact tasks that you can work on if there is spare time, but can also be postponed without much consequence.

Finally, features that have been recognized but are not planned for the current sprint or even the near future can go into the Won’t-have category. They are the lowest priority.

The goal is to ensure that everyone understands what needs to be done now, what should be done soon, and what can wait a bit and what can be forgotten for the time being.

When to use the MoSCoW method

  • When you have a fixed timeline or budget, MoSCoW can help you prioritize effectively to ensure that the most important features are developed first.
  • If the project goals and business objectives are clearly defined, MoSCoW is effective in aligning the team's focus with those goals.
  • When you want to reach team consensus quickly. It's an excellent tool for democratic decision-making where multiple stakeholders are involved.
  • In projects that aim to launch an MVP, the MoSCoW method is ideal for deciding which features are essential for the minimum viable product and which can come later.

When not to use the MoSCoW method

  • In projects with complicated dependencies between tasks, as MoSCoW may oversimplify the situation (tasks categorized as Could-have might actually be prerequisites for Must-have tasks).
  • When stakeholders have significantly diverse opinions and priorities, as reaching a consensus using MoSCoW could be challenging (WSJF may be a lot more effective at this).
  • When you don’t have clearly defined business objectives or project goals, as categorizing tasks into Must-haves or Should-haves can become arbitrary.
  • In projects that stretch over a long period and have phased deliverables – MoSCoW might not be effective at capturing the evolving priorities adequately.

Value vs. Effort (V/E) Matrix

The V/E Matrix is another value-based prioritization technique in Agile that helps you decide which tasks or features to focus on in a project.

This method requires you to plot items on a two-dimensional graph: one axis represents the value that an item brings, and the other represents the effort required to complete it. By doing this, you can easily identify the items that will bring the biggest ‘return on your resource investment’.

The primary focus of this prioritization technique is on maximizing value and impact while minimizing effort, making it particularly useful when you have limited resources. The V/E Matrix can thus help not just in prioritizing tasks but also in allocating resources more efficiently, as you know the effort involved in each task.

Application of the V/E Matrix

You can use this Scrum prioritization technique during your sprint planning meeting to decide what goes into your sprint backlog. Start by taking all the tasks or user stories you're considering for the upcoming sprint and estimate two things for each: its value and its required effort.

Value can be determined based on various factors, such as financial return, customer satisfaction, strategic importance, or others. Effort is usually estimated in terms of time, complexity, or the resources required. You don't have to be overly precise; ballpark figures are enough for this method that emphasizes simplicity.

Once you have these estimates, plot each item on the matrix.

  • Items that end up in the high-value, low-effort quadrant are typically your quick wins that should be assigned utmost priority.
  • Tasks that show as high-value but also high-effort are essential, but need more planning and resources.
  • Low-value, low-effort tasks can be handled when time allows for it.ow-value, high-effort tasks could be skipped, if possible.

This Agile prioritization technique helps your team to focus their energy on tasks that offer the highest value for the least amount of effort, ensuring an efficient use of resources. You should revisit this matrix regularly, ideally at the start of each sprint, to reevaluate the priorities based on what you've learned from the PO or other stakeholders.

When to use the V/E Matrix

  • When your team is working with limited resources or under tight deadlines, the V/E Matrix can help prioritize tasks that provide the most value for the least amount of effort.
  • When you have clear metrics for measuring both value and effort, as this allows for more accurate plotting on the matrix.
  • When you need to make decisions quickly, as the V/E Matrix provides a fast way to visually assess and prioritize tasks.
  • When multiple stakeholders are involved, this Scrum prioritization technique offers a transparent method to make collective decisions based on quantifiable data.
  • For MVP development, as the matrix can help identify the most crucial features that can be developed quickly.

When not to use the V/E Matrix

  • When tasks have complex dependencies, as the simplicity factor might not capture the full picture.
  • When you’re dealing with subjective value metrics, or such that aren’t clearly understood by all team members, as the V/E Matrix can produce misleading results.
  • With very long-term projects where value and effort may significantly change over time, as this prioritization technique may require constant adjustments, which may prove especially challenging in distributed workplaces.
  • In projects where there's a high degree of uncertainty, as the fluctuating effort and value could require frequent reevaluation of the matrix.

Eisenhower Matrix

The Eisenhower Matrix, also known as the Urgent-Important Matrix, helps you prioritize tasks based on their urgency and importance. You can integrate this technique into your Scrum practices to help your team focus on what truly matters, ensuring more effective sprints and better alignment with broader business objectives.

In a Scrum context, this prioritization technique can be a helpful tool for sprint planning or backlog refinement. During your planning meeting, take each backlog item and assess its urgency and importance. Urgency may relate to deadlines, customer demands, or other time-sensitive factors. Importance could relate to long-term goals, ROI, or strategic value.

The beauty of the Eisenhower Matrix is that it not only helps prioritize tasks for the next sprint but also offers team members a shared communication tool that helps them to discuss the value and immediacy of different work items, in accordance with the Scrum’s Transparency pillar.

Application of Eisenhower Matrix

The Eisenhower Matrix is a simple square divided into four smaller squares or quadrants by two axes. The vertical axis represents “importance”, and the horizontal axis represents “urgency”. Tasks are then plotted into one of the four quadrants: urgent and important, important but not urgent, urgent but not important, and neither urgent nor important.

Tasks that are both urgent and important might include critical bug fixes or features that a key stakeholder needs immediately. These go into the first quadrant and should be tackled first.

Tasks that are important but not urgent might be long-term initiatives that align with company strategy but don't need to be done right away. These go into the second quadrant and can be scheduled for future sprints.

Tasks that are urgent but not particularly important could include routine matters that need quick resolution but don't significantly move the needle; these go into the third quadrant.

Finally, tasks that are neither urgent nor important often represent busywork that should either be delegated or eliminated altogether.

With this particular Agile prioritization technique, it’s critical to remember about the potential risk of only focusing on 'urgent and important' tasks and neglecting important but not urgent tasks, which can be detrimental in the long run.

When to use the Eisenhower Matrix

  • In projects with a mix of short-term deadlines and long-term goals, the Eisenhower Matrix can help balance the urgency and importance of tasks effectively.
  • When your team has varying opinions on what to prioritize, the Matrix can serve as a neutral tool to help arrive at a consensus.
  • When priorities can shift rapidly, as this method allows for quick reprioritization of tasks based on their changing urgency and importance.
  • When your backlog contains a wide variety of tasks, from bug fixes to feature development and technical debt, the Eisenhower Matrix can help make sense of what should be tackled first.

When not to use the Eisenhower Matrix

  • For highly complex projects involving multiple dependencies between tasks, as the binary nature of the Eisenhower Matrix (urgent/not urgent, important/not important) may be too simplistic.
  • When most of your tasks are equally urgent or important, the matrix may offer little value in differentiation.
  • When your team lacks clear criteria for defining what constitutes “urgent” or “important”,' this Agile prioritization technique may be irrelevant.

Agile prioritization techniques applied at RST

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