MoSCoW Prioritization Poker

October 20, 2011

Today it felt like I had one of my brighter moments. Sitting at my new client, faced with a backlog way too long to implement in the time available to us, I had an epiphany. We needed to prioritize the backlog and get a first shot at a release plan in a two-hour meeting.
“How about prioritization poker?” The words jumped out of my mouth before I had even considered what they meant.

Let’s jump ahead a couple of hours now. “My” idea about prioritization poker would most certainly be worthy of a blog post so I started writing it in my head on the subway back home. Then another thought hit me, almost as hard as the one earlier today; wait, this was too obvious, I might not be the first one coming up with this idea. And sure enough, some googling told me that this guy called Mike Cohn had already invented prioritization poker. C’mon Mike, you already have so many other things going for you, couldn’t you’ve let me have this one? Anyway, so what if my idea wasn’t unique? I think we had a little different twist on it and it proved to be quite useful and thus I’m still going to write this post.

Back up a couple of hours again.
“Prioritization poker? What is that?” My colleagues gave me weird looks.
The words kept pouring out of my mouth faster than my brain worked; “I guess it’s like planning poker but you do it with MoSCoW instead of numbers or t-shirt sizes. Do you want to try it?”
“Sure. I have a planning poker deck in my bag.” One of my colleagues replied.

So we picked out the 0, 1, 2 and 3’s from the deck.
“0 is Won’t, 1 is Could, 2 is Should and 3 is Must. Kay-O?”

Our product owner read the first story out loud and we began asking for clarifications. After a couple of minutes it was time to play our cards. We had 1 and 2 and 3. Certainly a difference of opinion. After a short discussion where the extremes put their views forward we played another round. All 3’s! On to the next story.

After one and a half hours we had gone through the entire backlog and managed to divide it into almost equal chunks of Musts, Shoulds, Coulds and Won’ts. The remaining half hour of the meeting was spent putting all Musts into the first version of a release plan.

Wow! I’m very familiar with the power of planning poker but this was a new experience for me. Using the poker format brought our assumptions out to be examined and corrected when necessary. We managed to align our views on what needs to be done and to get a common understanding of the requirements. Whenever I felt safe about understanding a requirement someone challenged my view by questioning the meaning of a certain phrase or a specific word. This kept happening until we narrowed the description down to something everyone could agree upon.

Using MoSCoW for the prioritization also proved to be a good idea. At first I thought I had made a mistake by not including the “?”-card in the game. Some of the requirements didn’t make any sense to me and I had no idea what prio to give them. Then I realized the power of the values in MoSCoW. When we got to the first story that I was clueless on, I thought about digging out a question mark from the poker deck on the table. But then my wheels started spinning again and I gave it a 0 … a big “Shazbot! We’re not doing this.”
The others who considered the requirement a Should or a Must looked at me like I was crazy again.
“No, we’re not doing this requirement until someone can sell it to me.” I said.
And they began explaining the importance of the requirement until I understood it and could agree on its’ importance.

This exercise also showed me how important it is to force people to take a stand. There’s a huge difference between prioritizing in a continuous range from 1 to four, or from low to high and if you’re using a scale that includes “Won’t”. If you give something “low” priority or a 1 on an importance scale, people are still left with some hope that the requirement might be implemented and they will with great certainty be disappointed when they realize that it’s not happening. If, on the other hand, you tell them that the requirement is a “Won’t”, you’re effectively telling them that this is not going to happen unless they manage to get it reprioritized. People are forced to come to terms with reality a lot sooner or to take responsibility for making an alternative reality happen.

This was my first experience with prioritization poker and it was a good one. It proved to be a great tool for our context today and I’m pretty sure that I will use it, or some modified version of it again.

Na-Nu Na-Nu!

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