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The Best Way to Prioritize a Backlog is “Picking”

Pick. Don’t prioritize. If you think you need to prioritize your backlog, you most probably don’t. But if you can’t avoid it try this effective approach and save you and your team time and energy along the way.

Common sense vs. common practice

Common sense might sound something like “We prioritize to figure out what is the best thing to deliver now.” This sounds very reasonable. It implies that the team can deliver now — meaning it has the capacity to deliver. Common practice more often than not seems to be that prioritization is simply a ritual. Backlogs are prioritized over and over again with an awful lot of effort to figure out the right order of the (often many)‌ backlog items without having the capacity to start new work. With that practice, teams come up with an order of work that oftentimes will never be started. Instead of asking the question: “What might be the right thing to do now?”, unnoticed teams slip into answering a different question:‌ “When will it be started?”. I know that this might be a pressing question in many organizations but it nevertheless is an irrelevant question when it comes to prioritization (find here why).

“Prioritization should be done only at the time of commitment.” Steve Tendon *

So before thinking about doing prioritization right consider if prioritization is the right thing to do at all. Odds are good, you don’t have to worry about prioritization.

It’s not to prioritize, it’s to pick

Photo by 🇨🇭 Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum on Unsplash
  1. Expected impact of the work done. This impact often is expressed monetarily (like ROI, Cost of Delay, revenue per user, …).
  2. The effort some kind of work is going to consume. This is generally expressed in terms of capacity or cost (person-days, hours, …).
  3. The duration from start to finish. This tries to anticipate when the impact will materialize. This is generally expressed in days or weeks (lead time, cycle time, flow time, …).

But what to do instead?

“Fine”, you might think, “if all that is true, then what am I supposed to do as a product owner?‌ Somehow I have to decide on what to start next.” The answer is (…drum roll…): Do the tiniest thing of value first (tada!).

  1. Since this is (right after random selection) the easiest way to prioritize (meaning to pick the next work item) it makes teams self-effective. No lengthy discussions on arbitrary value expectations anymore. No manipulating spreadsheets to get the ‘right’‌ order. This prioritization approach is straight forward, easy to understand and quick to execute. This frees mental capacity and eliminates large quantities of busy-work.
  2. It is by far more easy to anticipate the impact, effort, and duration of work items if those items are small. And although you don’t need those ‘values’ for the actual prioritization anymore they help to establish trust in the delivery capabilities of a team. And that is of tremendous value.
  3. Over time everyone around that team will have learned that small is beautiful. This creates a working environment where people start breaking down big chunks of work into smaller pieces. And this is always a very good practice when it comes to risk mitigation and flow. This does not mean that you only do worthless micro-work. I have experienced that people are very well capable of breaking work down in small pieces while still keeping the overarching goal in sight.
  4. Small work items deliver (business) value sooner. This accelerates learning and thus strengthens the capability of a team to (intuitively)‌ know in which direction to head over a longer course of time. Over time this effect gets linked closely with the first effect since the team can decide ever faster what to deliver next.
  5. The urge to pick exactly the right work item next is reduced drastically if you pick tiny items. The team will make the wrong choice eventually. The selected work item will not generate the anticipated value. That is the same with big bets. But with tiny work items, the team learns fast and is certainly going to make a better decision next time.
Borrowed from John Cuttler


Long story short, the best way to prioritize is to avoid it. Only prioritize when you can deliver the started work item in one fell swoop from start to end. This includes taking all the dependencies into account. Done means done!‌ If you don’t have the capacity to start new work, don’t waste what you don’t have on prioritization. As soon as you can start work pick, don’t prioritize! Pick the tiniest work item of value from the backlog and deliver it. Only after you are done, pick the next work item that is by the time of the decision the tiniest thing of value in your backlog.

Underlying Assumptions

  • I consider this approach perfectly suited for product development work in an environment that is complex and thus very uncertain. In that environment predictions of the future by definition cannot be made accurately.
  • This approach is suited for small cross-functional teams with little dependencies to deliver work of value (for the user and the business).
  • This works well in a work environment where teams know what is expected of them and what their overarching goal or their purpose of existence is. This may be supported by a goal system (like OKRs) or by very close contact with the real users.

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BetaCodex Consultant, Former Scrum, Kanban and Management Consultant | Agile Coach | TOC Enthusiast | I believe that a humane global economy is possible.

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Stefan Willuda

BetaCodex Consultant, Former Scrum, Kanban and Management Consultant | Agile Coach | TOC Enthusiast | I believe that a humane global economy is possible.