The art and science of backlog prioritization

A key responsibility of Product Owners is ensuring that the order of work items in a backlog best achieves the goals and vision for the product. Unlike project portfolios where selection or prioritization decisions are often made by a governance committee, with a product backlog the responsibility for the business success or failure of the product rests on the Product Owner’s shoulders.

This activity is both science and art.

Multiple competing factors need to be considered and balanced including:

  • Business value
  • Alignment with the original vision
  • Dependencies
  • Constraints
  • Risk reduction

Evaluating cost of delay or Weighted Shortest Job First can inject consistency and objectivity into activity but also takes learning and effort. If used, such scoring approaches should be used to guide decision making rather than replace it.

The Product Owner needs to collaborate well with key stakeholders to ensure that releases won’t just satisfy his or her needs. This collaboration requires willingness on the part of the Product Owner to push back the release of certain “hot” features if that will result in a better product overall.

When working with a new team, the Product Owner needs to actively listen during backlog refinement discussions with team members as some of them might lack the courage to openly challenge a short-sighted decision. One way to help overcome such growing pains is to actively ask the team as work items are being ranked whether they see any flaws with the order or whether they are aware of any work item which might need to be tackled sooner. Prioritization might be a good item to consider during retrospectives to ensure that the process is regularly inspected and adapted.

The Product Owner will naturally want to maximize business value realization while solution owners will want to tackle solution uncertainties or address scalability or flexibility early on. Healthy prioritization should feel like a tug-of-war between the representatives for each influencing factor.

A good Product Owner should be ego-less about the prioritization activity as their goal is not to demonstrate omniscience about the sequencing of the product’s development but rather to release the best product possible.

 

 

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