The MoSCoW method of prioritization

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Whether you are trying to decide which product feature to ship first, or what task to place at the top of your to-do list, it can sometimes be hard to decide on the right prioritization. That’s when a strategic approach can be helpful. The MoSCoW method is a simple, effective way to bring order to potential requirements by placing them into four distinct categories: must, should, could, won’t.

MoSCoW method of prioritization - must, should, could, won't

Bringing order to potential requirements

The MoSCoW method was developed by Dai Clegg, a specialist in data modelling who was working as a consultant at Oracle. The acronym is derived from the first letter of each of the four prioritization categories, with interstitial O’s added to make the word pronounceable. The goal was to create a more explicit semantic that was not as vague as the traditional “high, medium, low” method of prioritization. The four categories are as follow:

  • Must. These are the non-negotiable requirements, to tackle as soon as possible. For instance, this category could include crucial features for a minimum viable product, or preparation you must absolutely undertake before a client meeting. These requirements are considered critical for the project to be successful.
  • Should. This category includes important requirements that are not as critical, and that can potentially wait until another work session. Working on these would improve the project’s chances of success, but is not essential.
  • Could. This is where you can include all the “nice to have” potential requirements which are desirable but can be safely ignored in case of lack of time and resources.
  • Won’t. Anything in this category can be removed from your task list. These potential requirements are either not appropriate to tackle at this time, or not aligned at all with your overall goals.

While the MoSCoW method is incredibly simple to explain, it does come with a few limitations. But once you apply some caveats and combine it with other productivity methods, it does shine as a quick way to tackle a long task list.

How to use the MoSCoW method

While the MoSCoW method emerged within the context of project management, it can be used to bring order to any kind of list of requirements, whether it’s a list of potential product features, or a list of personal tasks. However, placing these requirements into one of the four categories is only the beginning of the prioritization process. Follow these steps to make the most of the MoSCoW method and avoid its common pitfalls.

  1. Place items in one of the four categories. When you are unsure, always place requirements in the lower category — for example, should rather than must. You will be able to upgrade or downgrade requirements in the future, so don’t worry if you are not certain about the placement of a few items.
  2. Block time in your calendar. Start with items in the must category, then go through items in the should category, but do not fill your whole calendar. Stop whenever your calendar starts getting busy. It’s important to keep some wiggle room in case some tasks take longer than expected.
  3. Regularly review the four categories. Priorities can change. During your weekly review, have a look at the four categories and consider whether the prioritization still makes sense. In doubt, it can be helpful to combine the MoSCoW method with the Eisenhower method, which includes a time component to decide what’s urgent and important, important but not urgent, urgent but not important, or neither urgent nor important. The Eisenhower method can also be used to decide what to work on between multiple requirements with the same category.

That’s it — the MoSCoW method is a straightforward technique to add to your productivity toolbox. You can use it on your own, or to bring order to your team’s goals. Just don’t be fooled by its apparent simplicity: it does require regular reviews and time boxing in order to work best.