Better plan work and projects with the MoSCoW prioritisation method

22 December 2021 3 min. read
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The MoSCoW prioritisation technique is an increasingly popular method from the Agile toolbox for helping to understand and manage priorities, tasks and activities. Lawrie Kirk, program delivery specialist at Synergy Group, embraces the MoSCoW prioritisation technique to proactively plan and monitor his work (and life).

The MoSCoW abbreviation stands for: Must have; Should have; Could have; Won’t have this time. Lawrie says using MoSCoW to plan for the week ahead can help you appreciate how to manage priorities.

“This is an approach I have used for many years – decades in fact,” explains Lawrie. “It’s a familiar technique for those who are managing Agile projects as it provides a clear indication of what must be completed, as well as the expectations.”MoSCoW prioritisation technique“I started using this approach in the early 1980s when managing an earthmoving construction business. People relied on my ability to plan and have a solid and agreed pipeline of work ready to go. Must have activities are a fact of daily life in the construction industry.”

Applying the technique can help you visualise what your day and week will look like. “Using the MoSCoW approach, I list the tasks that have to be done, then allocate either an M, S, C or W to each. When allocating a letter, I also allocate a colour to each task: Red for Must, Green for Should, Amber for Could. For the Won’t have, think of a colour that you really don’t like; in my case I choose a mustard yellow! You can also select an icon that you associate with pleasure and allocate that to the tasks.”

“The design and delivery of programs and projects inevitably results in time and resource conflicts. MoSCoW has provided me with a process that is both practical and proven for managing multiple activities. It reinforces one of the principles we use in program management, to always align effort and resource allocation to deliver capabilities and benefits.”

The musts

Next, look at the Must haves and sort them based on what other people are waiting on, or if you’ll need to get information to another person to action quickly. “Must haves are also for what must be done today, and don’t forget to put in private commitments related to school pick-up, taking that walk or heading to the gym.”

This approach starts to establish a ranking system. “As a rule, don’t dedicate more than 60% of your time to Must haves in your daily to do list,” explains Lawrie. “For teams to maintain confidence in their ability to deliver, it’s not necessarily the number of tasks but the amount of effort, so have a look at your daily allocation of time, and make sure you have time for breaks.”

“Allocating more than 60% of your time to Must haves can mean you are setting yourself up for failure. And don’t allocate difficult Must have tasks one after another. You do need to give yourself a reward and ensure that your confidence is able to be maintained.”

The shoulds and coulds

Lawrie then allocates time for Should haves, Could haves and those inevitable unplanned activities that appear. “‘The actual percentage allocation will depend on the nature of these tasks and other environmental factors. Try to plan for only 4/5 of your day, leaving 1/5 for other unplanned activities. Remember, thinking time is still a valid activity and if some of the other tasks are completed earlier than expected, then have a review of the Won’t haves.”

Modify to suit

Lawrie wants to emphasise that what suits his style of operation may not be for everyone – yet he has proven this technique can be effective. “Colour shading makes it easy to see where the heavy traffic areas of the day and week are to be found,’ Lawrie explains. ‘I also keep this as a private diary – it’s important not to give an incorrect impression that a job was not important. Plus, you can add your private activities for greater balance.”

And it doesn’t have to be an onerous planning activity – keep it high level.

“MoSCoW simply works,” says Lawrie. “It helps me prioritise and establish some structure for each day. Working from home during Covid-19 has made the use of this approach more relevant, and I find that most of this high level planning can be done in a short period of time.”

“It has always provided me with increased confidence that I have a manageable, deliverable plan for the week. If you want to get some time back on your Sunday, try a daily dose of MoSCoW.”