Prioritize, as a team


Looking at a laundry list of all the work on your team's plate can feel overwhelming. Run this play to agree on priorities and define where it's okay to delay or drop tasks.

AND I NEED THIS... WHY?

Without a North Star to guide you as you make decisions about what to work on, you'll just end up thrashing about. 

Use this play to get your team focused on the right things, in the right order and to empower your team to say no to low priority requests that could potentially derail your project. 

WHO SHOULD BE INVOLVED?

Get your whole project team involved, including your executive sponsor or other high-level decision makers. 

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How to prioritize your team's tasks.
People

3 - 12

Prep

15 min

Time

60 min

Difficulty

Easy

Running the play

Some things simply won't get done. And that's ok, as long as you agree to tackle the mission-critical stuff first and work outward from there.

MATERIALS
  • Index cards
  • Sticky notes or dots
  • Timer
  • Whiteboard
  • Markers
  • Rubber chicken

 

PREP

Make sure everyone has read the project poster or one-pager for your project, as well as your OKRs (or whatever goal setting framework you use), prior to the meeting so everyone understands the success criteria for the project. 

STEP 1

Brain-dump your project tasks (15 min)

As a group, brainstorm all the tasks you need to complete in order to deliver on your project's goals. Write each task on its own index card. Be as specific as possible and ruthless about including only items that are part of this project, and this project alone – don't list "business as usual" or background tasks.  

Be careful not to get too far into the nitty-gritty details, though. You don't want hundreds of cards to prioritize. Unless you're launching the next Mars rover, you should be able to boil it down to 50 tasks or less. 

Tip

Make sure to include non-technical and business-as-usual tasks like training and stakeholder communications.

STEP 2

Categorize your tasks (10 min)

Group your tasks by type to form 2-5 categories of work. Some ideas for ways to group your work:

  • By milestone
  • By team responsible
  • By bug fix, existing feature, or new feature
  • By maintenance, incubation, or execution

On the back of each index card, note whether and how the task relates to other ones. Dependency relationships are especially important to call out – e.g., "depends on", "is depended on by".  

STEP 3

Ready... Set... Prioritize! (15 min)

Break into small groups and assign each group one category to sort and rank, arranging their cards on the table or wall. This initial ranking should take no more than a few minutes, so work quickly! 

Pause and swap categories. Review how the other team has prioritized the tasks, then adjust cards as you see fit. (Don't worry about keeping a record of the original order.)

Tip

Pay attention to the dependencies. Don't rank a task low-priority if there are ten other tasks that depend on it!

STEP 4

Draw the "OK to drop" line (10 min)

Start by defining your considerations when determining whether a task should be above or below the "okay to drop" line.

Using these criteria, go category by category and decide where that line falls. Which tasks could drop or fail without sending the entire project into failure? Continue until you've gone through all categories.

Tip

Document your above/below-line criteria so you can reference them to evaluate incoming requests throughout the project.

STEP 5

Review and reflect (10 min)

Review all your categories and prioritized tasks. Ask the group to share via thumb-vote how they feel about the team's ability to deliver on time. Thumbs-up = confident; thumbs-down = we're doomed.

If the group is overwhelmingly thumbs-down, spend your last few minutes brainstorming all the risks to your team's success. Considering following up with a premortem to take a deeper dive into why the team feels they are setup to fail. 

Nailed it?

Be sure to run a full Health Monitor session or checkpoint with your team to see if you're improving.

Find your Health Monitor

Variations

DISTRIBUTED TEAMS

Use a Trello or Jira board so remote team members can actively participate in prioritization.

Follow-ups

  • Run a the Premortem play to brainstorm potential risks and create mitigation plans.
  • If you haven't already set goals for your project, use the output of this play to help you set quarterly objectives and key results (OKRs) – a goal-setting framework used at Atlassian, Google, and other companies across a variety of industries. 
  • Run the Roles & Responsibilities play to nail down areas of ownership for the project.

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