How to Prioritize Product Backlog Items

How to Prioritize Product Backlog Items

In Product Management, the backlog is the compass that navigates vision to reality- one user story at a time.

As a product manager, determining what features to focus on next is one of the most challenging parts of the job. There’s always a never-ending backlog of ideas to improve the product. Still, there needs to be more resources and bandwidth to complete them.

We’ve spoken to dozens of fellow PMs who have struggled with this balancing act. We recently found that some PMs felt like “spinning plates,” just trying to keep all the moving parts in motion without letting anything fall through the cracks. 

Sounds familiar to you?

In this post, We’ll share a few steps and techniques to prioritize Product Backlog items.

By providing some tried-and-true techniques, fellow PMs may get some relief from the daily challenge of deciding where even to start. Let’s dive into methods to bring sanity to backlog prioritization.

What is Product Backlog Prioritization?

Product backlog prioritization may be a new concept if you’re just getting started with Agile product management. Essentially, it’s ordering the items in your product backlog based on essential business objectives and constraints.

Some key points about Backlog prioritization:

  • The backlog lists a product’s known requirements, features, and enhancements – from minor bugs to major strategic initiatives. It can range from dozens to hundreds of items.
  • New work is continually added as customer and market needs evolve. So, prioritization helps determine the sequence of work that will be pulled into upcoming sprints or releases.
  • Factors considered typically include revenue potential, risk reduction, technical dependencies, and alignment with product goals/vision. User experience and value are high priorities.
  • It’s a collaborative effort involving input from all stakeholders – product, engineering, marketing, sales, etc. Compromise and trade-offs are standard.
  • Priorities may shift frequently based on new information or business environment changes. Flexibility is key.
  • Transparent, data-driven priorities help teams focus efforts and give leadership confidence work aligns with objectives.

That covers the basics of what backlog prioritization aims to achieve. The following section will explore the specific steps to prioritize product backlog items.

Steps to Prioritize Product Backlog Items

We have composed seven simple steps to prioritize and optimize your backlog efficiently.

Step 1: Categorization of Backlog Items

Organizing and prioritizing your product backlog is critical to staying on track with development. Here are some tips for grouping and categorizing your backlog items in a logical, user-friendly way.

Group Similar Tasks or Features Together

Keeping related work bundled together makes it easier for product managers to plan sprints and minimize context-switching between different types of tasks. A good first pass is to group items by category:

Enhancements: These are improvements or additions to existing features. Organize enhancements by the feature or section they affect to keep naturally connected work co-located.

For example, all enhancements to the user profile page could be bundled as “Profile Page Enhancements.” This may include adding profile photo uploads, customization options, or social link integrations.

Bug Fixes: Corralled bug fixes simplify verifying fixes for QAs and prevent scattering fixes across multiple sprints. Group bugs by component, such as “Authentication Bugs” or “Dashboard Bugs”.

New Features: Significant new capabilities or workflows were added to the product. Break these out by feature name, keeping Epics distinct from specific Stories and Tasks. Some examples may be ” Messaging Features” or “Admin Dashboard Upgrade”.

Technical Debt: Maintenance work includes outdated or inefficient code, tech upgrades, or migrations. Grouped separately so developers can focus on refactoring instead of mixing with new functionality. Categories could encompass “Legacy Code Rewrites” or “Infrastructure Updates”.

Organizing in this way promotes flow when pulling items into sprints. It reduces cognitive overhead for the team as related items are right next to each other, making finding relevant items intuitive for anyone glancing at the backlog. Be sure to review and refine categories periodically to keep the organization helpful. Quick and logical grouping of backlog items can help projects stay well-managed and on track.

Organizing a product backlog can seem daunting, but Chisel’s feature treeview makes it more accessible through a simple yet powerful system. Allowing items to be broken into epics and stories that roll up into a clear structure aids categorization in a visual, intuitive way. Teams can logically group related items under common objectives or by release window to bring order to what may initially feel like chaos. The freeform nature also facilitates ongoing changes as needs evolve. 

Feature Treeview To Organize and Prioritize Your Product Backlog
Feature treeview to organize and prioritize your product backlog

Tags help track additional properties like targeted users or aspects addressed. With work grouped sensibly, the backlog is better navigated and comprehended by all stakeholders, strengthening alignment as priorities are discussed and set collaboratively through a shared understanding of what needs delivering and when.

Step 2: Initial Backlog Review

So, our initials are done; it is time to move to the review part.

Planning Your First Sprint

Now that your product backlog is organized into logical categories, it’s time to pull together the initial sprint. This first pass sets the cadence and establishes processes to balance priorities with reasonable goals easily.

Identify and Arrange Top Items Representing the Next Sprint

Review categories and identify the most impactful or time-sensitive work to focus on first. Drag the chosen Epics, Stories, and Tasks from each category into the sprint backlog column.

An excellent initial mix would pull 1-2 high-priority Enhancements, 1-2 essential Bug Fixes, and 1 Foundation New Feature Epic to lay infrastructure. Avoid being too ambitious initially – finishing strong is better than starting behind.

Include Only Tasks Below Second-Level Priority on the Backlog

Leave lower-priority items in the backlog to revisit once the sprint is complete. This helps to avoid overcommitting to work that could get pushed out. As a product manager, include only those items in the most essential ranked categories.

Some signals that an item is ready for inclusion:

  • It directly solves a vital customer problem or delivers clear value.
  • Dependencies are well defined, and the task is reasonably sized for a sprint (1-2 weeks max estimated time).
  • Stakeholders have reviewed and accepted the definition of done.

With the top candidates chosen, the team has a roadmap to address key focus areas. The process will be refined in future sprints, but establishing this initial structure helps kickstart reliable delivery. Staying realistic at the start helps establish momentum as the backlog matures.

How to Execute It Well?

Where can you do this seamlessly?

We have got just the tool for you. 

Getting started with agile can feel cumbersome at first without a proven framework to lean on. Chisel’s Kanban View allows work to be organized visually into columns representing its current status – whether pending further discussion, actively in progress or awaiting verification. 

Agile Development With Kanban View
Agile development with kanban view

This sweepingly clear presentation of all tasks illuminates what can reasonably be achieved within a fixed timeframe. From there, selecting top-priority items for the inaugural sprint feels less arbitrary and more grounded. With work already prioritized and streamlined due to the board’s constraints, planning flows more smoothly, and team capacity can be confidently utilized from the outset. The compelling structure set the stage for subsequent iterations to continually refine and improve.

Step 3: Bucketing System for Organization

Now that the initial sprint planning is complete, it’s essential to implement a standardized approach to categorizing backlog items in the long term. A “bucketing” system provides a logical grouping and prioritization framework.

Implement a Method to Categorize and Group Backlog Items Effectively

Discuss as a team and decide on a high-level bucketing taxonomy for your product and workflow. Some common examples may include the same as discussed above:

  • Features: For new features, Epics broken into Stories
  • Enhancements: Improvements or additions to existing features
  • Bugs: Issues needing fixes
  • Technical Debt: Work to optimize code quality
  • Chores: Administrative tasks like documentation

More granular labels can separate work, like “Authentication” under Features or “Dashboard” under Enhancements. Everything gets funneled into these top buckets for at-a-glance understanding.

How to Execute It Well?

Adding priority levels within each bucket provides a simple structure to sequence work:

  • P1 = Urgent issues that block workflow
  • P2 = High-value features for the next release
  • P3 = Medium importance items
  • P4 = Lower priority nice-to-haves

This approach gives transparency into relative urgency and business value. It also allows reordering items more fluidly between sprints as priorities evolve.

Implementing and socializing a standardized taxonomy sets clear expectations for backlog management. Revisiting periodically ensures it stays aligned with your needs as the product and processes mature. A well-organized backlog lays the foundation for efficient delivery.

Step 4: Long-term Idea Repository

With the initial sprint planning and the bucketing system in place, it’s wise to establish a supplementary destination for recording ideas and concepts extending beyond the near-term roadmap.

Establish a Separate Repository for Less Urgent but Valuable Concepts

Create a public “Idea Box” in your product management software distinct from the prioritized backlog. This gives a dedicated platform for capturing suggestions and visions that won’t make the cut for upcoming releases but still merit tracking.

Some candidates for the idea board include:

  • Enhancements or features with no timeline attached yet due to complexity or dependencies
  • Audience requests that lack definition or need vetting
  • Big picture visions for advanced user workflows or architectural changes

Periodically invite stakeholders to contribute ideas by voting or commenting. This fosters collaboration and keeps stakeholders engaged as their proposals are acknowledged, even if not immediately actionable.

Ideas on the board should receive high-level refinement with time voting concept help with documentation.

Maintaining this long-term idea flow ensures valuable concepts don’t fall through the cracks. It also demonstrates receptiveness, which strengthens stakeholder advocacy. Combined with a tiered workflow, these practices cultivate a comprehensive approach to shaping product direction.

How to Execute It Well?

Coming up with innovative concepts is crucial for any product’s long-term success, but capturing every musing meaningfully can be tricky. Chisel’s Idea Box provides a simple solution through a freely accessible digital repository where even those not embedded in daily development can contribute inspirations whenever they occur. Brief entries and prioritization voting give a high-level glimpse to spark discussion without commitments. 

Capture Your Team's Ideas With Idea Box
Capture your Teams ideas with idea box

As a centralized place to record murky possibilities without premature vetting, it fosters an inclusive atmosphere where creativity can flow freely. The collected trove of visions serves as a treasure trove for exploring strategic opportunities farther down the line, continuously fueling high-level planning discussions, and helping ensure all insights have a chance to shape tomorrow.

Step 5: Quantifiable Scoring System

As the product evolves, an objective way to rank items becomes essential for focusing development efforts. Implementing a scoring rubric brings transparency and consistency to prioritization decisions over some time.

Determine criteria that reflect your organization’s priorities. 

Categories could encompass

  • Business Impact: Revenue, market share, customer retention, etc.
  • Stakeholder Value: Importance to target users and advocates
  • Feasibility: Technology, resources, and timescale considerations
  • Risks: Bugs, dependencies, unknown factors

Assign points scaled from 1-5 for each category. Higher scores signal higher priority.

For example, a minor enhancement may score 3 for impact but 5 for feasibility since it’s low-hanging fruit. Due to complexity, a new prominent feature earns 4/5 for impact but 3/4 for feasibility.

To establish scoring objectively, product managers present estimates at refinement meetings. Discussion prompts consensus before scores are finalized.

Reassess periodically – sometimes, the intended value doesn’t match reality as the product and markets evolve. The scoring system evolves, too.

Transparent prioritization boosts stakeholder alignment on what drives the most benefit, so resources are invested optimally to advance product strategy and success outcomes. Regular scoring maintains focus.

How to Execute It Well?

Bringing disparate viewpoints into agreement is no small task. But you can always use Chisel’s numerical scoring system and alignment matrix to smooth the process tremendously. Allowing each contribution to be rated consistently while capturing nuanced remarks brings structure and transparency to what can otherwise dissolve into heated debates. The resulting consensus report reveals where viewpoints align, and compromise is vital, surfacing discussion points efficiently. 

See a summary of your entire teams feedback via alignment matrix
See a summary of your entire teams feedback via alignment matrix

Rather than arbitrary edicts that breed unrest, priorities emerge from a synthesis of all perspectives—a surefire way to obtain buy-in and sustain focused effort. Chisel’s features together can quantifiably demonstrate each stakeholder’s perspective for easy comparison, fostering rational collaboration that strengthens the end product.

Step 6: Resource Allocation Points System

Now that a rubric is in place to score priorities, associating estimates of required time completes the allocation planning framework. Consistently gauging effort promotes accountability and realistic pacing.

Establish Criteria for Estimating Time, Effort, and Resources Required

Building on scoring discussions, product managers share their understanding of the effort involved at each refinement session. Others provide input based on skills and historical data.

Estimates consider

  • Time to complete per team member’s average capacity
  • Additional research needs before starting
  • Integration and testing complexities
  • Likelihood of refactoring as new information emerges
  • Potential risks that could extend timelines

For more straightforward backlog navigation, estimates auto-populate the effort field rather than requiring manual data entry each time.

Estimates tend to be less accurate, so revisiting assumptions aligns plans with reality. Retrospective reviews identify reliable metrics for refining future estimations.

With maturity, estimation abilities sharpen. Continual process improvements help account for factors like bottlenecks, dependencies, or team member availabilities better to forecast resource planning and throughput over the long run. Precise work estimates facilitate optimized scheduling through each development phase.

How to Execute It Well?

Chisel’s quantifiable scoring system aids the prudent allocation of resources through a strategically focused backlog. By assigning numerical priority ratings to each item and visualizing consensus through the alignment matrix, leadership can see where to apply human capital to the highest opportunity tasks. 

Numerical score as well as comments
Numerical score as well as comments

This level of insightful takeaway lets management support teams with the inputs most imperative to current efforts and evolving needs, minimizing wasted work in favor of steady progress on the most critical delivery goals.

Step 7: Regular Backlog Re-evaluation

As development progresses through sprints and new insights emerge, priorities will inevitably shift. To avoid lost progress, backlog items must evolve in lockstep with changing circumstances.

Ensure the Backlog Stays Aligned with Changing Project Priorities and Business Needs

Schedule monthly refinement sessions to revisit top-ranked items and reassess scoring based on the latest strategic and market developments. Allowing flexibility prevents focusing efforts wrongly as conditions evolve.

Reassignments may increase opportunities if timing opens a new window or slide others down if customer behavior signals different demands. Impact scores change alongside revised financial projections or competitive threats.

Re-estimates also occur, adjusting timelines realistically per achievements or delays to date. Elapsed effort since the last update prompts reconfirming assumptions remain valid.

Feedback continuously refines refinement. Over time, a set of items predictably moves and stays steady even under reprioritization, which helps determine natural breakpoints for less frequent re-evaluation.

With regular care and attention, the backlog is a living document, maintaining high relevance. Its integrity upholds a clear focus on objectives while adapting nimbly as situations develop.

How to Execute It Well?

Ongoing product improvement relies on regularly reexamining priorities against changing customer desires and business landscapes. Chisel’s feedback portal, survey tools, and ideation box foster continual dialog with users to refine understanding. Likewise, features like the feature treeview and Kanban board keep internal discussions efficient and grounded. 

Directly Hear Your Customers' Ideas With Feedback Portal
Directly hear your customers’ ideas with feedback portal

Their at-a-glance presentation of interdependencies and statuses invites periodic restructuring incorporating new perspectives. This spirit of reflection ensures the work in motion stays in lockstep with shifting realities, resulting in the most relevant roadmap to optimize end-user satisfaction.

Some Techniques for Prioritizing a Product Backlog

As product management evolves, examining different prioritization lenses can provide valuable perspectives. 

Here are a few popular techniques worth exploring

Kano Model

When planning new features for your product, knowing what will genuinely excite users versus what they expect you to have can be challenging. The Kano Model is a helpful tool created by Dr. Noriaki Kano that provides some valuable insights.

At its core, the Kano Model helps categorize features based on how much satisfaction they’ll provide customers and how much effort is required to make them happen. This allows for weighing the benefits users will get versus the work needed.

There are five levels in the model. Some features are pure “necessities” – if they’re not there, people will be disappointed but won’t stand out. Others are satisfied in a direct proportion to how much you improve them.

The Kano Model shines by identifying the “delighters” – those magical features that users may not even know they want but end up loving once implemented. The thrill they experience is disproportionate to the work involved.

Of course, the model also flags things customers won’t care about, plus any features likely to annoy more than please. Avoiding those is wise!

To use the Kano Model effectively, gather feedback directly from folks using your product now. They’ll help uncover which new ideas are expected basics versus the true excitement-generators.

With that qualitative user input, the model prioritizes the “delighters” that provide surprising satisfaction and minimal effort. It’s a helpful framework for deciding where to focus your energy to wow customers.

Opportunity Scoring

When developing new product features, knowing where to focus your efforts to please users can be challenging. Opportunity scoring is a practical approach that provides valuable insights into customers’ priorities.

The basic idea is to ask people about features – how important they see each one and how satisfied they feel currently. Taking the gap between importance and satisfaction highlights opportunities for improvement.

Features scoring high on importance but low on satisfaction are straightforward ways to boost value. By developing in these areas, you can create products that better meet what customers genuinely care about.

Some claim opportunity scoring originated from a methodology called outcome-driven innovation. This focused on discovering the accurate results users want rather than presumed solutions.

Its proponents recommend weighting importance ratings double that of satisfaction. So, the biggest chances involve outcomes customers deem most significant where fulfillment currently falls short.

Beyond identifying development targets, opportunity scoring can also reveal features receiving resources out of proportion to what clients need. Resources could be better spent elsewhere.

Overall, making an effort to understand users’ priorities in this way helps optimize investment toward innovations that are sure to be appreciated. It’s a straightforward approach to learning what enhances experiences meaningfully.

Stack Ranking

When managing team performance, one method companies have used is stack ranking. Pioneered by Jack Welch at GE in the 1980s, it involves rating employees against each other on a curve.

The idea here is to differentiate top, middle, and bottom performers. Typically, it’s envisioned as a 90-5-5 system – 90% in the middle, 5% as high achievers, and 5% underperforming.

Some benefits exist. By rigorously assessing who excels, organizations can ensure ambitious rockstars are rewarded with promotions and opportunities. It also prompts underperformers to step up or risk consequences like demotions or layoffs.

Studies show celebrating top talent regularly boosts morale. Workers strive to join the top ranks, while average contributors stay motivated to improve.

Priority Poker

Planning poker or priority poker helps teams build shared understanding through simple gameplay when prioritizing work. Originating from engineers seeking cooperation, Agile squads now widely used it.

The process is fun and engaging. Users are each dealt cards representing estimate levels like story points. When a task is described, members privately select their card. If picks match, the job is sized. Mismatches spark discussion until agreement emerges.

Debating viewpoints enlightens everyone’s perspective. Uncovered insights lead to wiser estimations and priority decisions everyone buys into. Bias fades as various skills and blind spots come to light. Repeating this for all backlog items fosters collaboration while accurately scheduling work everyone feels good about. Plus, it strengthens relationships through friendly competition and team building. Planning poker proves a win-win by improving alignment through play.

MoSCoW Model

When tackling big projects, teams must agree on priorities. The MoSCoW method provides a simple framework to do just that.

Created in the software industry, it categorizes tasks as “Must have, “”Should have, “”Could have,” or “Won’t have” based on importance. Knowing what’s critical versus nice-to-have helps ensure resources are focused appropriately.

The process begins by outlining all proposed work. Key stakeholders then weigh in on each item’s value and feasibility. Discussion allows refining classifications as different perspectives emerge.

With consensus on labels, the schedule naturally falls into place. “Musts” lead the way, then “Shoulds,” and so on. Leeway exists to adjust, too, avoiding premature dismissal of solid “Could be” ideas.

While simplicity makes MoSCoW accessible, success relies on diligence. Gathering diverse input prevents blindspots. Objectively assessing impact keeps personal biases from skewing results.

When executed well, the approach builds alignment across busy organizations. It brings crystal clarity around delivering core benefits while maintaining flexibility – a true win-win for optimization.

Applying these techniques raises productive questions that strengthen priority rationales over time as practices evolve. Tools should flexibly support, not dictate, decisions.

Key Takeaways

While there is no one-size-fits-all approach, taking the time to prioritize a product backlog thoughtfully can help any team maximize value. Methods like planning poker, opportunity scoring, and MoSCoW analysis provide structures for engaging stakeholders, surfacing needs and opportunities, balancing priorities, and building alignment. Applying objective criteria while appreciating different viewpoints aids sound decision-making. 

Regularly reassessing the backlog allows adapting to new customer insights or shifts in strategy. With a commitment to clear prioritization as a continuous improvement process, product teams can best deliver experiences that meet evolving user needs. You can always use an All-in-one tool like Chisel to save that precious time and get a nice headstart on efficient prioritization.

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