The MoSCoW Method

Understanding Project Priorities

(Also Known As MoSCoW Prioritization and MoSCoW Analysis)

The MoSCoW Method - Understanding Project Priorities

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Prioritize your tasks into four categories using the MoSCoW method.

You probably use some form of prioritized To-Do List to manage your daily tasks. But what happens when you're heading up a project that has various stakeholders, each of whom has a different opinion about the importance of different requirements? How do you identify the priority of each task, and communicate that to team members, stakeholders and customers alike?

This is when it's useful to apply a prioritizing tool such as the MoSCoW method. This simple project-management approach helps you, your team, and your stakeholders agree which tasks are critical to a project's success. It also highlights those tasks that can be abandoned if deadlines or resources are threatened.

In this article, we'll examine how you can use the MoSCoW method to prioritize project tasks more efficiently, and ensure that everyone expects the same things.

What Is the MoSCoW Method?

The MoSCoW method was developed by Dai Clegg of Oracle® UK Consulting in the mid-1990s. It's a useful approach for sorting project tasks into critical and non-critical categories.

MoSCoW stands for:

  • Must – "Must" requirements are essential to the project's success, and are non-negotiable. If these tasks are missing or incomplete, the project is deemed a failure.
  • Should – "Should" items are critical, high-priority tasks that you should complete whenever possible. These are highly important, but can be delivered in a second phase of the project if absolutely necessary.
  • Could – "Could" jobs are highly desirable but you can leave them out if there are time or resource constraints.
  • Would (or "Won't") – These tasks are desirable (for example, "Would like to have…") but aren't included in this project. You can also use this category for the least critical activities.

The "o"s in MoSCoW are just there to make the acronym pronounceable.

Uses

People often use the MoSCoW method in Agile Project Management. However, you can apply it to any type of project.

MoSCoW helps you manage the scope of your project so that it isn't overwhelmingly large. It is particularly useful when you're working with multiple stakeholders, because it helps everyone agree on what's critical and what is not. The four clearly labelled categories allow people to understand a task's priority easily, which eliminates confusion, misunderstanding, conflict, and disappointment.

For example, some project management tools sort tasks into "high-," "medium-," and "low-" priority categories. But members of the team might have different opinions about what each of these groupings means. And all too often, tasks are labeled "high" priority because everything seems important. This can put a strain on time and resources, and ultimately lead to the project failing.

Using the MoSCoW Method

Follow the steps below to get the most from the MoSCoW method. (This describes using MoSCoW in a conventional "waterfall" project, however the approach is similar with agile projects.)

Step 1: Organize Your Project

It's important that you and your team fully understand your objectives before starting the project.

Write a business case to define your project's goals, its scope and timeline, and exactly what you will deliver. You can also draw up a project charter to plan how you'll approach it.

Next, conduct a stakeholder analysis to identify key people who are involved in the project and to understand how its success will benefit each of them.

Step 2: Write out Your Task List

Once you understand your project's objectives, carry out a Gap Analysis to identify what needs to happen for you to meet your goals.

Step 3: Prioritize Your Task List

Next, work with your stakeholders to prioritize these tasks into the four MoSCoW categories: Must, Should, Could, and Would (or Won't). These conversations can often be "difficult," so brush up on your conflict resolution, group decision making and negotiating skills beforehand!

Tip:

Rather than starting with all tasks in the Must category and then demoting some of them, it can be helpful to put every task in the Would category first, and then discuss why individual ones deserve to move up the list.

Step 4: Challenge the MoSCoW List

Once you've assigned tasks to the MoSCoW categories, critically challenge each classification.

Be particularly vigilant about which items make it to the Must list. Remember, it is reserved solely for tasks that would result in the project failing if they're not done.

Aim to keep the Must list below 60 percent of the team's available time and effort. The fewer items you have, the higher your chance of success.

Try to reach consensus with everyone in the group. If you can't, you then need to bring in a key decision-maker who has the final say.

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Step 5: Communicate Deliverables

Your last step is to share the prioritized list with team members, key stakeholders and customers.

It's important that you communicate the reasons for each categorization, particularly with Must items. Encourage people to discuss any concerns until people fully understand the reasoning.

Example

Zhen is a project manager for a large IT organization. She's working with a team of designers, marketers and developers to redesign a large corporate client's website.

At the initial meeting, each group has strong opinions about which tasks are most important to the project's success, and no one wants to give up their "high priority" objective.

For example, the marketing team is adamant that the new website should gather visitors' personal information, for use in future marketing campaigns.

Meanwhile, the designers are arguing that, while this is important, the site may be more successful if it had a professionally produced streaming video. They also want a feed streaming onto the website's home page from the client's social networking accounts.

The developers counter that the current prototype design won't translate well onto mobile devices, so the top priority is retrofitting the site so people can view it on these.

Zhen can see that, while each priority is important, they're not all critical to the project's success. She decides to use the MoSCoW method to help the group reach consensus on which task is truly "mission critical."

She starts with a key question: "If I came to you the night before rollout and the following task was not done, would you cancel the project?" This question helped everyone in the group drill down to the project's most important priority.

The group finally agreed on the following priorities:

  • Must – The retrofit website must be easily viewable on mobile devices.
  • Should – There should be a social networking stream included.
  • Could – There could be a streaming video on the site to help users.
  • Would – Personal information would be gathered for future marketing efforts, but not on this occasion.

The MoSCoW method helped everyone agree on what was truly important for the project's final success.

Key Points

The MoSCoW method is a simple and highly useful approach that enables you to prioritize project tasks as critical and non-critical. MoSCoW stands for:

  • Must – These are tasks that you must complete for the project to be considered a success.
  • Should – These are critical activities that are less urgent than Must tasks.
  • Could – These items can be taken off the list if time or resources are limited.
  • Would – These are tasks that would be nice to have, but can be done at a later date.

The benefit of the MoSCoW approach is that it makes it easy for team members and key stakeholders to understand how important a task is for a project's success.

Apply This to Your Life

Try using the MoSCoW method to prioritize your daily tasks. Look at what you completed at the end of the day. Did prioritizing enable you to get more done?

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Comment (1)
  • Over a month ago Michele wrote
    Hi everyone,

    The MoSCoW method is new to me and I can easily see its value.

    I have been involved in many projects and the prioritization method used is to categorize project activities on the basis of high, medium and low. The question I always had in my mind was, "what does High mean and how does it compare to Medium"? MoSCoW makes it clear what each category means and easier to determine project priorities.

    I am curious to learn from others who use the MoSCoW method. Does anyone have experience using this method?

    Michele