Prioritization:Why Teams Should Try Forced Ranking

Published December 27, 2022

A team making decisions in a meeting together.

Does your team want to decide what to work on next but has too many potential projects?

Well, you are not alone. The process of deciding what should be done next can be a roadblock that slows down many teams.

In a perfect world, you could just forward every project or product idea to the responsible people to work on. However, in the real world you will never have enough resources to work on everything.

Whether your organization sets the roadmap based on features, customer pain points, or market opportunities - you need to find the items that have the highest business value to your organization.

Each potential work item can be a huge opportunity to deliver a meaningful outcome and achieve a business goal. Likewise, if you favor the wrong project, you might leave important opportunities on the table and end up doing meaningless busywork. And, as if it wasn't difficult enough to define priorities, you also need to fight for their acceptance among your team and stakeholders.

Can a team steer how often it delivers meaningful outcomes?

Imagine having a knob to steer the rate at which you produce meaningful outcomes. Prioritization is that knob. Good prioritization makes you and your team do meaningful things and boosts you towards your business goals. Poor prioritization keeps you busy with irrelevant things and can throw your organization further behind fast-moving competition or cost you a market-leading position.

Many times in the past, we have been shown how powerful prioritization can be. In 2004, people at the company Pandora found themselves in an unfortunate situation. Their company was financially too limited to develop a comprehensive product at the same speed as their competitors. They operated in a highly competitive market with many big players who had seemingly endless resources. The only way for Pandora to stay competitive was to focus on the most important things and to avoid working on irrelevant things at all costs. And so they did. People at Pandora started to force rank product ideas and turned Pandora from a disadvantaged company into an inspiring success story.

Let's take a closer look at what forced ranking is, and how it solves two major challenges of setting priorities.

What is forced ranking?

Forced ranking is a method of prioritizing a list of options (ideas, tasks, projects, problem statements, etc.) based on their importance or value. It involves ranking options in order of priority, with the most important or valuable option ranked at the top and the least important or valuable option ranked at the bottom.

This is the foundation to select a task or project to allocate resources to. You pick the highest-ranked tasks or projects first, and then work your way down the list as your resources permit.

The main difference between forced ranking and other methods is that in a forced ranking no choice option has the same importance as another option.

For this reason, there is usually only one criterion used to rank the options, as this is the easiest way to avoid two or more options having the same rank. (It is not strictly necessary though, it also works with multiple criteria.) For instance, the one criterion could be a question such as: “Which project will generate the most additional revenue?”.

Forced ranking works fast and effectively when you need to make a decision due to a deadline, when making a decision under pressure, or when you have multiple choice options that seem to have equal importance. You can perform it without having to collect more knowledge about your options, and yet it will always give you actionable results.

Defending priorities is a challenge, but it pays off

All project ideas in an organization originate from several sources inside and outside of the organization (customers, development team, sales team, etc.). All of these origins represent people with different interests and opinions. These people might intentionally or unintentionally wield influence on what the organization perceives as the most important thing to do. As a person in charge, you will spend some effort to justify prioritization decisions and fight for their acceptance among people. People have different perceptions about what is important because most of the time they only have a piece of the overall information and not the full picture.

If your main job is defining priorities, then your side job is to make sure that they are accepted and respected.

While this itself is an additional challenge, there is also a huge upside to that: Several studies indicate that higher support and acceptance for decisions results in higher motivation in teams and better overall results.

Get buy-in from people

How can you ensure that priorities are accepted among team members and stakeholders?

Using a forced ranking approach, you can have everyone who is involved create their own force-ranked list of priorities. Then you can compare those lists and discuss the differences. (E.g.: Item A is the most important for Bob but the least important according to Anne.)

Having multiple separate ranked lists is good for individual discussions among people, but makes it difficult to take action as a whole group. To get a list of items that you can take action on, you can take all individual lists and combine them into one list. The combined list will show you the overall rank of each item, democratically reflecting all opinions.

To combine all individual lists into one, you assign points to each item according to its rank in each list. Then you sum up all points per item across all individual lists (“total points” of the item). You get the overall ranking by ordering all items according to their total points.

Create motivation by shaping one common view in your team

Based on the combined list and your organization's current strategic goal, you can then initiate discussions within your team. For example:

“If this list was the order of our activities - is there anything we would change?” “If this list was the order of our activities - would this be the best way to achieve our goal?” “If this list was the order of our activities - are we working on the things our customers need the most?”

If the individual priorities of people are very different, it indicates that there is an information gap either about the items or about your organization’s goal. For instance, someone might know more about the severity of a customer pain point or about the potential positive impact of a proposed feature. To make sure this knowledge is shared across your team, you need to raise discussion questions such as stated above. Thereby, you will be able to find information gaps and help to shape a common view on what the most important things are for your organization. Every time you close an information gap you will create “Aha!”-moments for members of your team, which will have a positive impact on your team's engagement.

Shaping and maintaining a common view through setting priorities together will not only help you to provide better results but also motivate your team and boost it’s overall productivity.

Final words

Prioritization is an instrument that helps you steer how often you deliver meaningful results.

If your team needs to prioritize some upcoming work, whether it is ideas, projects, or customer pain points, and you are overwhelmed because you cannot figure out a good way to prioritize, then give forced ranking a try.

Using this method, you actively involve people into the decision-making process and turn the “challenge of multiple opinions” into a big opportunity.

You will close knowledge gaps, shape a common view of the bigger picture, and help your organization to achieve more.

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