5 Tips for Setting Priorities in an Agile Development Environment


Nearly all development teams face a singular challenge – too much work that they would like to tackle and not enough hours in the day to do everything.  There must be a way to make sure that the team is choosing the right work, and meeting as many obligations as possible.  If you look at the organization of agile teams, the Product Owner is tasked with this daunting job.   The following tips can help make sure the team stays on track and that priorities are set correctly:

1.  Establish a product council.  A product council is  a group of interested and knowledgeable parties that can help establish priorities for a set of requirements. The product council should have at least one representative per stakeholder group (i.e. management, marketing, test, documentation, project managers, end users, etc.).  When an member of a stakeholder group cannot give input, ask someone to represent that standpoint in discussions.

2.  Discuss conflicts.  When conflicting priorities arise within a sprint, these should be brought up to the team during a daily  scrum so they can be resolved.  When conflicts arise between stakeholder groups, be transparent, bring them together, work through the difficulties (and if absolutely necessary find a tie-breaker with positional authority).

3.  Double check the backlog.  Near the end of each planning session for each sprint, review the next few backlog items and ask the team if any of these should be moved ahead of committed items.

4.  Plan for flexibility.  Make sure to pull in high priority items from the top of the backlog for about 80% of the work in a typical sprint.  Leave a little bit of flexibility to work on fun projects or long-term internal projects, but keep focused on meeting the requirements of the highest priority items.  This helps in two ways.  First, the team has flex room if emergencies arise, and secondly, teams tend to be more motivated when they have more freedom to choose what they are working on.

5.  Double check with stakeholders.  Before each planning session, check in with the key customers/stakeholders for the highest priority backlog items.  Make sure deadlines are the same, requirements have not changed, and the priority of the tasks is still high.

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