Prioritization and communication If everything is important then nothing is

The quote given is one I heard Patrick Lencioni use, although it probably can be traced to others as well. He describes well why a lot of companies fail to prioritize and instead have these really long lists of “top priorities”. They are afraid that if they focus on just a few important goals others will fall by the wayside. I believe this is absolutely true – and I even can see that in my personal life sometimes. However – once you realize this (probably some consultant or someone like that tells you this), you should do something about it. This is hard to do it seems – a lot of companies struggle with prioritization.

In Scrum or Kanban prioritization is often one of the most important parts of the implementation. There are a couple of ways prioritization might be screwed up. First of all – the product owner says that everything is important. This is classic and often gives the team trouble down the line because they aren’t working on the “right stuff”. The problem is of course – what is the right stuff? That is a business decision and shouldn’t be placed on the team. It is unfair to make the team make these business decisions for the organization.

Another way prioritization might be screwed up is by having multiple product owners – which actually translates to multiple stakeholders. If this is the case the team must once again make decisions about prioritization and which stories will result in most business value. This happens when the organization fails to decide or is unwilling to make one of the individuals the single product owner in charge of prioritization. This was nicely put by Mike Cohn is a recent newsletter. Here he also states that “When a decision cannot be made it should be pushed up the organization, not down”.

How can these situations be solved? Do not try to hide the organizational dysfunction – make it visible. Let the teams explain that they really have no idea how to decide how much business value the stories in the backlog represents – and that isn’t their job either! Communication is key – the word must be spread upwards in the organization. Lack of prioritization creates huge amounts of waste and can cause team moral and motivation to plummet.

If this sounds familiar – make changes – today!