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It All Has to Be Done

6 July 2017

Shane Billings

We’ve all heard it after asking for prioritization of work items as defined in a product backlog: “It all has to be done.”

This implication that everything has the same priority can be a response from a hopeful manager as they try to motivate the team into superhuman action. Usually the statement has its roots in the ever-present and extreme pressure of business.

The person who makes this statement often doesn’t consider how offensive it can be. It assumes that if the team were just to work harder, they could do it all. “Oh! Well, I was going to give you only some of these things, but since it all has to be done, I guess I’ll do it all. Thanks for the clarification. Can someone call my family and tell them I won’t be home this month?”

To be fair, a prioritization of work is an admission that lower-priority items may not get done. That is a very uncomfortable place to be, and we can have sympathy for a manager put in a difficult situation. But we have to take into account the reality of the situation.

Inherently, everyone knows that there is no such thing as unlimited resources. Conversely, desires and wants are not limited within the imagination. Indeed, the study of economics is devoted to the idea of limited resources applied to unlimited desire.

With that knowledge, most people act appropriately in our personal lives. We prioritize all kinds of things. Which clothes do you wash first? Underwear, because it’s the dirtiest. (Don’t lie. You know it’s true.) Which kid do we send to college, given a limited budget? Our favorite one, duh. How do you prioritize between the doctor and the dentist, given limited time? Neither, because binge-watching The Bachelor is better for your mental health. Which presidential candidate should get your vote? Doesn’t matter; you chose wrong.

The point is that all of us have to choose one thing at the expense of another. That is just life.

But in business, we have to have it all. Putting aside the psyche of the person who thinks they can have it all, let’s examine what ends up happening and why prioritization is vital.

A team that works on it all doesn’t finish anything on schedule. Simply put, they spread their time across everything. The lack of focus, in the vast majority of situations, leads to not completing a single item. Finishing some of everything is much less valuable than finishing everything of some.

Prioritization is a symptom of thinking within the realm of reality. It focuses on what is real, not what is possible based on imaginary criteria. It leads to healthy teams and less confusion. It allows for better predictions of completion. Without it, incremental delivery is not possible. Teams can get into a sustainable rhythm. It solves world hunger. (Are you paying attention? Just checking.) If you had to choose between two things, which one would you choose at the expense of another?

The truth is that the decision will be made one way or another. The choice can be made by you, or it can be made for you.

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

Article Rating

Current rating: 4.5 (4 ratings)


Tim Baffa, CSM, 7/7/2017 8:34:17 AM
Getting others to prioritize can be quite difficult. One tactic I've used in the past is to ask them, of all the features they want the team to get done, which one will cause the biggest headache if it fails in production (higher priority), and which one are they fine with if it has issues in production (lower priority)?
Anonymous, 7/9/2017 11:59:12 PM
Very nice write up. I believe having a sprint goal and working in sprints also helps with prioritization. The stakeholder can have unlimited wants however, what can be delivered within a sprint also matter. Scrum is like building a house, you can't build a house without a foundation no matter what your dream home is.

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