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The Beauty of MoSCoW

"I want it all, I want it all, I want it all, and I want it now!"

from "I Want It All", by Queen

Would you rather have everything in a year's time (and nothing before then), or some things in 3 months, some more in 6 months, even more in 9 months and then whatever's left in 12 months time?

Most people say they'd rather have something sooner than later, but that's often not what actually happens in 'the real world'.

Prioritising our needs and wants is difficult. Choosing one thing always means giving up another - and often, that other is time (and particularly, time to market!).

A useful technique that I have used with clients for many years is the MoSCoW method of prioritisation.

MoSCoW is an acronym:

  • Must Have
  • Should Have
  • Could Have
  • Won't Have (in this phase/release/etc)

The technique simply involves the following five steps:

  1. Write each of the high-level requirements for your initiative on an index card (one requirement per card)
  2. Create four columns on a wall or white board, one for each of the MoSCoW options
  3. Invite your stakeholders to a MoSCoW prioritisation workshop
  4. Starting with the top card from your list of requirements, read out the requirement and discuss with your stakeholders which column this particular requirement should fall under
  5. Repeat Step 4 until all the cards have been allocated

It sounds simple enough, but it takes some practice to get an outcome that has real value.

You may have heard the expression "if you prioritise everything, you prioritise nothing". This certainly can happen in a MoSCoW prioritisation session when (almost) everything ends up in the Must Have column.

There are many ways to help the group spread the requirements more evenly, but one of the most effective in my experience is reminding everyone that the more there is to be done, the longer it will take before we are done.

Breaking initiatives down into smaller chunks or releases (e.g. every three months), helps us to both get things to market earlier, and mitigate the fear that "if we don't get it in now, we'll never get it".

By helping people focus only on the Must Haves for this release, we can then create a backlog of Should and Could Haves for following releases.

Effective use of the MoSCoW approach ensures we have a much more realistic view of our product roadmap, whilst also giving stakeholders better visibility into the tradeoffs and more confidence in the outcome.

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