MoSCoW Prioritization | A Quick and Easy Guide

Dai-Clegg
Dai Clegg

This article explains the MoSCow prioritization method, what it means, how it works, and when you can use it. 

Dai Clegg developed this method in 1994 for use in rapid application development (RAD). 

Typically, MoSCow is used with timeboxing, where a deadline is set so that the focus must be on the most important requirements. It’s popular as well in agile software project management approaches such as Scrum, rapid application development (RAD), and dynamic systems development methods (DSDMs).

Related: 56 Time Management Techniques

What Is MoSCow Prioritization?

Let’s start out by looking at what the MoSCoW method is and what it stands for. 

MoSCoW is one of the most popular prioritization methods. By using this method participants can better understand the importance of different features in a product release. The acronym MoSCoW stands for four different categories of initiatives: 

  1. Must-Haves 
  2. Should-Haves 
  3. Could-Haves 
  4. And Won’t-Have Now. 

Sometimes the W in MoSCoW is used to stand for wish instead of won’t-have now. 

Let’s break each of them down and see what each one means. 

Must have is the essential features that need to be included in the product. Failing to include one would result in a failed release.

Should have is important but not essential. They are items that are of great importance and add significant value but are not crucial.  

Next, in the could-have bucket, you have your nice to have initiatives. They don’t quite affect the core function and would have a very small impact if you leave them out.

And lastly, we have the won’t have.  These are definitely not a priority for the projected time frame and therefore will not be included in the specific release. 

The MoSCoW model sets your initiatives by order of priority and therefore you can apply it to any phase of the product life cycle. However, it’s most applicable to product launches and market launches, particularly early-stage products and minimum viable products. 

This is a good method to get the whole organization involved in the prioritization process. Wider involvement creates a broader set of perspectives by including different departments. Now let’s move on to how the MoSCoW method works. 

In order to run the MoSCoW method smoothly, your product team and partners need to decide on the objectives and factors that will be decisive to the criteria. This will be immediately followed by reaching a consensus on what initiatives or features you’d like to select. 

It’s also important to define how much effort to allocate between the must-haves should-haves and could-haves. This typically varies by team and project. But a rule of thumb suggests that you should dedicate about 20% of your total effort to could haves. Now your team is ready to sit down and discuss your initiatives. 

Must-Haves

Let’s look into them. We’ll start with the must-have initiatives. The category name doesn’t come as a surprise as it will be the lifeblood of your product or release. 

These are non-negotiable features. Without them, your release could be a guaranteed failure. You should reach an agreement on how much time and effort you spend on your must-haves. You should focus on them but you shouldn’t allocate more than 60% of the overall effort. When deciding on your must-haves, ask yourself and the team if this project will work without this feature. 

  • What happens if we release it without it? 
  • What’s the simplest way to accomplish this? 

Next, let’s move on to the should-have initiatives. 

Should-Haves

Being just under the must-haves in importance they are still highly important to the product but not crucial. The product will still manage to function without them. On the other hand, you wouldn’t want to leave them out as they generate a significant amount of value.

To put it into perspective, you should include them in your release but you could schedule them for a future release without having a negative effect on the current one.

Could-Haves

The could-have initiatives are the nice to have initiatives meaning that they are not necessary. They generate value to the user but they are not exactly a core component or function of your product. 

There would be no repercussions if you were to leave them out. 

Won’t-Have Right Now

Lastly, won’t have initiatives. These initiatives are still important to take into account. You should always identify them as it’ll help the team decide what will not be included in the work thereby allowing them to prioritize other initiatives. 

They prevent you from wasting the resources that your team needs for this release. The subgrouping of these is also beneficial. Perhaps there are won’t-have initiatives that you will not include within this scope but could be included in the future.  

Then others that simply won’t be included at all. If you want to take full advantage of the MoSCoW method you can use a prioritization tool.

Criticism Of The Moscow Prioritization Method

  • This method cannot be used to decide between requirements with the same priority.
  • An insufficient understanding of how to rank competing requirements: why a necessity rather than a recommendation should be considered.
  • There is an ambiguity over timing, especially for the Won’t have category: whether it is not in this release or not in the future.
  • There is a risk that politics will prioritize building new features over technical improvements.

The Moscow Prioritization Method Is Proven To Enhance Performance And Reduce Problems. If you want a complete list of planning, managing, and prioritizing methods, check out this quick guide of techniques.

Best wishes for your success!

Loyd