Time well spent makes job satisfaction soar. Getting results quickly is motivating and builds momentum. It’s also clearly great for the success of your business. So how do you ensure that your time isn’t just spent well, but is always focused on the most effective tasks in your backlog? You prioritise.
It can be extremely difficult to marry up prioritisation factors across different types of work such as operational tasks, reactive tasks or commercial tasks. Some tasks may achieve an increase in revenue, they will likely have a clear business case and clear cost vs. benefits outlined. However, it gets a bit more tricky when trying to compare those benefits against regulatory changes with fixed deadlines, that simply enable you to continue trading! There are a variety of different factors that can influence an initiative’s worth, which can be combined to create a prioritisation method that will suit the specifics of your backlog.
Some projects have clear financial benefits in that they increase the income gained from your product. Others increase profit by reducing costs, such as fixing errors or automating costly manual tasks enhancing the efficiency of running or maintaining the product. It is also important to consider costs associated with delivering and maintaining change whilst completing this element of analysis. This could include assets such as hardware, or ongoing maintenance costs such as a support team. These elements are those traditionally included in a business case.
Some risks could be financial, for example a car insurance broker may be financially liable for a claim that has been incorrectly transferred to the underwriter. If someone then crashes their car into a building the broker could be liable to cover thousands of pounds. This is a financial risk though and not a direct cost – it may not actually happen, but if it did, the cost could have a high impact on the company. If lots of customers are impacted by the same issue then the risk, and the potential impact, is even higher. Other risks include operational resilience vulnerabilities such as the potential cost of a security weakness resulting in a cyber-attack, or the possible loss of business should critical systems have extended downtime and be unavailable. Reducing these risks has a level of value that can be assessed with the use of a risk matrix that categorises the level of risk through plotting the impact or severity of the outcome against the probability or likelihood of the risk occurring.
This represents a risk to, or an opportunity to strengthen, relationships with partners (B2B). Completing requests given by business partners may make it more likely that they will continue to do business with you through having a mutually beneficial, profitable relationship.
This is about your brand, and how your customers see you. It’s about customer satisfaction and the likelihood that they become brand ambassadors. With the speed that information travels in our world of social media and electronic communications, news travels fast. If something goes wrong news travels even faster! Many products now have online reviews and these can have a huge impact on sales. Prioritising an issue or enhancement, based on its potential to improve your brand reputation and customer satisfaction, can greatly support business growth. Internal reputation is also important, internal customers need good products that add value in the same way as B2C relationships. If your team is a blocker or dependent to another team, this could also be a reason to get the job done quickly.
With the speed at which technology can change in today’s world, there is a constant race to get to the finish line first. Getting your product to market before a competitor could help you achieve that market share before they have even started coding. Time criticality could also relate to the need to solve problems quickly avoiding reputational damage, or it could be a result of a fixed deadline applied by a regulator or the need to align with a third-party change.
The benefits of changes that upgrade your coding language or hardware may be difficult to quantify. They may provide opportunities to access new functionality or make code more efficient to run, ultimately saving you money on computing costs, but these benefits are extremely tough to accurately quantify. By defining criteria that allow you to categorise the potential enablers that these changes allow you to access, you can compare changes to prioritise the most beneficial.
This category is often similar to opportunity enablement, there may not be a direct or immediate increase in profit, but the change may drive you towards your strategic aims, getting you closer to the target future state of your business.
Job size or effort represents the time it is expected to take to deliver the change. This can vary based on the size of the delivery team or teams. It is an important factor to include as the faster a change can go live, the faster you will be able to benefit from it. Accuracy of estimation can be tricky to achieve. Various methods ensure that estimates given at this stage don’t give the wrong impression of equating to a delivery date, such as t-shirt sizing or story points.
Quantifying the factors discussed can be derived from different methods:
- defining levels with a numerical calculation or range
- a descriptive categorisation that defines the level of the prioritisation factor and increases or decreases in impact for each level
- a comparative method can be used. To use the comparative method you need a list of all eligible changes, that you then rank in order of best to worst. Fibonacci sequence numbers can be applied to each change to assist with this process in a similar way to story-pointing used in agile delivery teams.
It is important to be careful when applying the scoring method selected as it can be easy to fall into the ‘whoever-shouts-the-loudest’ trap. If the person requesting the change scores their own prioritisation factors, it could be skewed in their favour, misunderstood, or just not consistently applied across the backlog. If the person selecting the change is quite a senior stakeholder, others may feel intimidated into conceding to their change. The framework designed can help to avoid qualitative or subjective opinions impacting the prioritisation process. You can also try to keep it fair by introducing a committee to score the changes, or an objective stakeholder who has the correct knowledge or the analytical skills to apply a fair outcome across all candidates.
The reliability of your scoring could impact the success of your prioritisation factors. This may be a change you’ve done numerous times before or it could be something completely new with multiple unknowns. Confidence levels could also be used as a prioritisation factor or you can focus on learning to improve your scoring capabilities over time. Feasibility is another element of how likely this change is to succeed – do you have the resources to make this plan work? Is it too much of a stretch with your current maturity in this area?
Once you have identified the prioritisation factors relevant to your backlog, and have quantified the levels of benefit or avoidance of loss, there are different ways to combine this information to give you a way to order your backlog.
Cost of Delay
In its most basic form, the cost of delay divided by the cost of not having the change completed, by the delivery estimate in the same unit of time:
Cost per week
= Cost of delay
Estimate in weeks
The equation helps to identify which delivery will help you achieve the best value the soonest. This is easy to understand when deciding which change to do first if two changes in the backlog have the same cost-benefit but one is estimated to take a week and the other a month - you do the quick one first! Or if you have two changes that will take a week to complete but one will give twice as much value as the other. It isn’t as easy to see if you have variable benefits and estimates, but using the cost of delay calculation you can do this more easily.
Weighted shortest job first (WSJF)
WSJF is a term often used within the scaled agile framework (SAFe). It utilises the cost of delay but incorporates two other prioritisation factors into the top of the equation. These are time criticality and risk reduction and/or opportunity enablement:
WSJF = User-business value + Time criticality + Risk reduction or opportunity enablement
The scoring for each of the elements on the top of the equation is done by using the Fibonacci scale to allocate a relative grading using the comparative method noted above.
Another well-known prioritisation framework is RICE.
RICE = Reach x Impact x Confidence / Effort
The equation shows the benefits divided by the cost. Reach is for example how many people the initiative will reach or the increased transactions that will result, it is a numerical figure that should be based on data as much as possible. The impact is more subjective and is estimated by the intuition of subject matter experts. The final benefit factor is the confidence level which can be given as a percentage. The benefit factors are then divided by the effort which represents the estimate or the costs of completing the change.
Any of the above factors could be incorporated into a method that suits your backlog whether it be a project-based team or product-based team, but try and keep it simple. If it doesn’t work out then remember it isn’t set in stone. Sometimes there are changes that need to pull that trump card and jump to the top of the queue. Maybe there is a live issue that has impacted the CEO’s mother and she wants it resolved immediately, or maybe something has caught the attention of the media and even though it has little financial value, it needs sorting.
The key lies in understanding the value of your change backlog and involving your stakeholders to ensure that your time is spent most effectively. Experiment with it to continuously improve your method, for example, if regulatory changes are not featured highly enough, give them a heavier weighting in your prioritisation method. Test it and learn from the outcomes. Ensuring you understand whether your change achieved the expected outcomes will help you learn to assess your prioritisation factors more accurately in the future and ensure you maximise value whilst minimising cost. Time well spent!
Programme and Project Management at Airwalk Reply Learn more