Keys to prioritizing work


Prioritization is critical

It is imperative to every organization to be able to select the most important, most valuable work out of the vast variety of ideas, requests, and tasks; otherwise the organization will be uncontrollably spending precious time and effort on things that don’t matter to business success. In other words, we need a reliable prioritization mechanism.

Let’s talk about ways to prioritize work.

A simple approach to prioritization

The simplest way to approach prioritization is as follows.

Imagine you have a few work items, software features that your team has to deliver, for example. And let’s say that each feature takes roughly the same investment of time and effort; in other words: same size. So, which item would we call the highest priority? The one that provides the highest benefit. And while we may not be able to reliably know the benefit in financial terms, we can use some relative scoring to determine which item has the highest benefit.

Now, if the features have different size, we have to make a slight modification to our approach, which I’m sure you’ve already guessed: Divide the benefit by the size of the item. And size, which basically represents the invested effort in this case, can also be estimated using simple relative scores. And we got ourselves a simple formula:

Priority = Benefit / Size  

If you think about it for a second, this formula is reminiscent of the general formula for ROI (or return on investment). Only we are being very clear here that we often cannot assess the return on a feature in financial terms. But otherwise, our formula expresses the same idea.

Input data is everything

Here’s one important caution though: Your prioritization process is only as good as the input data it uses. See, if you are assessing benefit or size incorrectly, the priorities that you get will be also incorrect. And you will be making wrong decisions. And while size is generally somewhat easier to estimate, the benefit is always trickier, and it’s very easy to end up indulging confirmation bias rather than grounding your decisions in actual evidence. So, here are some things to consider. Unless the items are really small, do not rush into assessing the numerical value of the benefit. Try to understand the desired outcome first. Try describing it. Consider doing it with the customer persona in mind. Imagine for a second that you are the ultimate consumer of the feature. Close your eyes, pretend like the feature has already been delivered. And say what you see, what you experience... as a consumer. That will help you determine where is the benefit. In other words, try to empathize with the customer to understand what is beneficial to them. And once you did, you’re going to have a much better chance to score those features correctly.

But of course, there needs to be a real feedback cycle by which you will be constantly learning about the effectiveness of your prioritization decisions. Once those features have been delivered, the next task is to measure the actual benefit and compare to those assumptions that you had when you were prioritizing work.   

Taking action

So, what is your current prioritization process? Where do you think it may be lacking effectiveness? Based on what has been said, plan one simple action item to improve the way you prioritize work.




Learn More


Donald Reinertsen, The Principles of Product Development Flow: Second Generation Lean Product Development, Celeritas Publishing; 1st edition (January 1, 2009).


Alex Yakyma, Pursuing Enterprise Outcomes: Maximizing Business Value and Improving Strategy for Organizations and Teams (Aug, 2020).



Alex Yakyma

Alex Yakyma is the author of “Pursuing Enterprise Outcomes” and “The Rollout”. As a consultant, Alex is helping enterprises succeed with complex challenges. Throughout his career, he operated in multi-cultural, highly distributed environments. Alex has trained a large number of change agents and leaders whose key role is to help their organizations achieve higher effectiveness at pursuing business outcomes.

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