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What is the MoSCoW prioritization method?

Last updated

17 April 2024

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Dovetail Editorial Team

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Mary Mikhail

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Several techniques are available to project managers to plan a team’s workload by ranking projects or tasks by significance. These prioritization techniques also help communicate to project teams and stakeholders where resources must be directed to accomplish goals. 

The MoSCoW method is one such popular prioritization technique. Learn what the MoSCoW method is and how to apply it. 

What is the MoSCoW prioritization method?

The MoSCoW method ranks the significance of a task by determining the requirements for a project's successful completion.

Some may be essential and must be included in the project’s deliverables. You may find other specifications are not required for a successful conclusion, but you might consider them to improve the result or business value.

This prioritization technique requires you to classify projects and tasks by their levels of necessity in reaching your goal.

Where does the term MoSCoW come from?

MoSCoW is an acronym that signifies the names of the categories in which the requirements are placed:

  • M = Must-haves

  • S = Should-haves

  • C = Could-haves

  • W = Will not have at this time or wish for

The Os were added to make the acronym easier to pronounce. Using these categories makes projects more manageable, helps with better resource control, and increases the chances of meeting deadlines.

Using MoSCoW prioritization categories

Requirements with the highest level of importance are must-haves. You'll place lesser-ranked requirements in the should-haves and could-haves categories. Anything in the will-not-have category defines the requirement as nice to have, but not a necessity, at least for now.

Must-haves

These tasks or elements are essential to the project or product; it cannot continue with them. Some factors to consider when determining whether an element is a must-have are:

  • Safety

  • Compliance

  • Deliverance of effective solutions

Because a project can't be accomplished without must-have initiatives, your team must be committed to completing these requirements.

Should-haves

These tasks or elements are important to completing the project or product, but they're not necessary. Although the product will still function without should-have requirements, you shouldn't disregard them or underestimate their importance because they can significantly increase the product's value.

Performance improvements and new functions are examples of should-have requirements.

Could-haves

These initiatives take a back seat to must-haves and should-haves. If left out, they will not significantly influence the completion of a product or project. A could-have element is desired but not necessary.

Will-not-haves (at this time)

The items in this category set realistic expectations for what the product will not include. A clear visual representation of these requirements communicates to the team and stakeholders items identified as out of scope.

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When do you use the MoSCoW method for prioritization?

The idea behind Agile project management is to decrease the risk of missed goals and deadlines. It uses resources and time more efficiently by breaking the project into smaller sections and prioritizing tasks, requirements, products, and stories.

To prioritize these, you can use the MoSCoW method within the scope of an Agile project.

What is an example of the MoSCoW technique?

Imagine you're building an e-commerce website that must launch by a specific date. You'll have to prioritize its features because you don't have unlimited time to work on the site.

The functionality you want to incorporate into the website could be:

  • Users can log onto the website

  • Users should have access to a "Forgot Password" solution

  • Users can change account details

  • Users can send an email to the system requesting a change to the account page

Here's how you might categorize these features based on how effective you want the website to be and the time constraints you face:

Must-haves:

  • Users can log onto the website

  • Users can change account details

Should-haves:

  • Users should have access to a "Forgot Password" solution

Could-haves:

  • Users can send an email to the system requesting a change to the account page

Will-not-haves

  • Users can click on a phone number on the webpage, and a call will automatically be made from their desk phone to that number

Benefits of using MoSCoW prioritization

MoSCoW prioritization offers several benefits in project management:

  • Clarity and focus: It helps teams identify and prioritize the most critical requirements, ensuring clarity on what needs to be delivered first.

  • Efficiency: By categorizing tasks into must-haves, should-haves, could-haves, and won't-haves, teams can allocate resources more efficiently and focus on delivering essential features first.

  • Stakeholder alignment: It facilitates stakeholder discussions by providing a common language to discuss and prioritize requirements, ensuring alignment on project goals and objectives.

  • Risk mitigation: MoSCoW prioritization helps mitigate project risks by addressing must-have requirements first, reducing the likelihood of critical features being overlooked or delayed.

  • Flexibility: It allows for flexibility in project planning and execution by accommodating changes in requirements throughout the project lifecycle while ensuring that essential features are prioritized.

  • Time and cost savings: By focusing on must-have requirements early in the project, teams can deliver value more quickly, potentially reducing project timelines and costs.

Overall, MoSCoW prioritization promotes a structured and systematic approach to project management, leading to more successful and efficient project outcomes.

Disadvantages of using MoSCoW prioritization

The major disadvantage of the MoSCoW method is that it isn’t an objective or consistent scoring system. For this methodology to be effective, other scoring systems, like the weighted scoring or the Kano model, should be used in conjunction with it.

Not combining another scoring system with the MoSCoW method can exclude the organization's leadership from the decision-making process. Decisions would then be in danger of being made based on the project manager's personal preferences rather than adhering to business goals and values.

This method does not involve supporting reasoning on how you prioritize requirements within the same category or why one requirement is a must-have or should-have. The parameters of each category can be blurred. There is also uncertainty about whether will-not-haves are being left out of the tasks required now or out of the entire project.

How can teams use MoSCoW to their advantage?

Resources, time, and skill sets are not unlimited in the business world. You must constantly strive to work around those constraints efficiently for a maximum return on investment (ROI). Using the MoSCoW method can help.

Use budgetary constraints to prioritize

Some projects have tight budgets. You can use the MoSCoW method by using the budget to determine which items must be and should be completed.

Use the team's skill sets to prioritize

Experience and expertise levels can help determine which tasks to prioritize. If a task requires skills that the team lacks, you must prioritize it accordingly.

Use the competing needs of the company to prioritize

While your team is working on a specific aspect of a project, the company's leaders may have added additional requirements for your team to complete within the same timeframe. You would then have to reshuffle the priorities to accommodate the additional requirements. The MoSCoW method can help you do this.

Best practices for using MoSCoW prioritization

Include all stakeholders in using the MoSCoW method, from the executive level down to the different teams involved in the successful completion of the project. Get them to also use objective scoring systems like:

  • Opportunity scoring: uses data from market research to determine what customers expect from your product or service. Prioritization is done according to their wants and needs.

  • Priority poker: based on priorities that will provide the highest yields in a specific target market. The marketing team, executive team, and customers should be involved for accurate ranking of priorities.

  • Cost of delay: based on determining how much money the company is losing by waiting to work on a particular task, product, or feature.

  • 100-point method: all stakeholders vote for what they think is the most important requirement. They each get 100 points to distribute among the requirements, ranking them from most important to least. If a stakeholder thinks four requirements are of equal value, they can allocate 25 points to each. If they feel strongly that one requirement overrides all others, they can put all 100 points on that requirement.

Incorporate the data you receive from these scoring systems when inserting the requirements in your MoSCoW categories. Share the results with stakeholders so that they can understand why you prioritized the criteria as you did. This exercise might even reveal a reason to expand a budget constraint or allocate more resources to a priority the stakeholders initially thought unimportant.

How the MoSCoW method differs from the 100-point method

While the 100-point method helps in general brainstorming sessions, the MoSCoW method focuses on working within budget and time constraints.

Once the teams and stakeholders reach an agreement (perhaps by using the 100-point method) on the importance level of each requirement, the product managers or owners will use the MoSCoW method to categorize requirements based on:

  • High customer value

  • An elevated benefit to the business

  • Simple implementation

  • High risk

  • Inflated costs, when not applied as soon as possible

  • Technical specifications that are interdependent 

This will help stakeholders and project teams visualize the intended direction.

MoSCoW prioritization in Agile project management

In an ideal world, your business would have unlimited time and a limitless source of funds to become the most efficient revenue generator it could be. But in the real world, you've got budget and time constraints.

When deciding on projects that will help increase revenue, decrease operational costs, boost productivity, or heighten customer satisfaction, you must choose the projects and project requirements that will most impact the goals you find important. The MoSCoW method can help you do just that.

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